Six months after my eightieth birthday, the classic verses from the book of Psalms keep running through my head:
We bring our years to an end as
a tale that is told.
The days of our years are three
score years and ten
Or even by reason of strength
I should like to congratulate myself on the mental and emotional strength that has allowed me to reach eighty. But Florida, where I live, is full of octogenarians, so there is nothing unique about my longevity. Nor do I dwell on the imminence of my death, having long ago agreed with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that “death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”
But in my own idiosyncratic way I seem to be trying to sum up the years of my life. Five years ago, I set about preparing a commonplace book of quotations that have had some special significance to me and that I have copied out in the course of decades of reading. Commonplace books are a genre begun by Ben Jonson in the 17th century. My own innovation has been to add a comment to each of the quotations that has struck my fancy. I have also captioned each commonplace according to my idea of its subject, and arranged the whole alphabetically.
Thus, on my desk right now are a quotation from the fluent medical scientist Lewis Thomas (Self, inner); another by George Santayana, whose elegance I am very fond of, though I distrust his brand of Catholic agnosticism (Self, myth regarding); and two consecutive bites from Thomas Carlyle (Self, possession of and Self, shadow of). I cannot resist giving verbatim Carlyle’s last, fierce “Always there is a black spot in our sunshine; it is even, as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.”
As you can see, I am in the S’s of my index of captions.
I had hoped to use my commonplaces, and my comments on them, as a kind of springboard from which to dive into the pool of the “days of our years,” where I could swim to my end “as a tale that is told.” (I have been a regular swimmer for the last three decades.) I was beginning to despair when—out of nowhere, it seems—I became immersed in a series of poems I had begun to write twenty years earlier when I was posted in India as an American foreign-service information officer.
The series is called “Second Meetings,” and in it I pretend to get together again with persons (actual or fictional) whom I have encountered before. I engage them in conversations that end in statements sometimes of forgiveness or repentance and, occasionally, of love. Often—indeed, too often—I am addressing myself. To tell the truth, I am my own favorite subject, although another preferred subject is my uncertainty about God (by which I do not mean anything as philosophical as agnosticism).
I awoke this morning with a sense of relief. Overnight I had discovered the tale of my life. This sounds grandiose, but is meant quizzically. I do not pretend it was a world-shaking discovery; rather, I keep in mind the Yiddish saying about some one who declares he now knows the meaning of it all. “Look at Columbus—he’s discovered America!”
The source of my newfangled wisdom is a Midrash that I paraphrase in my “Second Meetings.” In it I re-encounter the ancient rabbi who quipped: “Soon there will be time enough to sleep, my daughter. Till then, I wake and do His work.”
How can I pretend that my self-study is as important as the study of God’s will that consumed this sage day and night until his dying day? Nor do I aspire to act out the truth of Plato’s harsh judgment that the unexamined life is not worth living: my “Second Meetings,” encounters with my own past, may well strike a reader as trivial. But the metaphor in Psalms resonates persistently in my thoughts: “We bring our lives to an end as a tale that is told.”
That is to say, every day of our lives we tell the tale of its ending—and that tale is both a fiction and a reality. After all these years, I must continue to tell this tale as truly as I can, as a kind of continuous happening, a continuous unrolling of my scroll to the very end.
A fine metaphor—and, as Aristotle put it in the Metaphysics, “The poet thinks in metaphor.” Yet I may be trying to fool myself. Katherine Anne Porter, speaking derisively of D.H. Lawrence, says bluntly of his confessional writings:
He did not know the truth about himself. For this is not surprising, for no one does know the truth about himself and anyone else, and all recorded acts and words are open testimony to our endless efforts to know each other, and our failure to do so.
And then there is Mark Twain, who in the foreword to his autobiography confesses that he began his memoirs determined to make them completely truthful, but in retrospect finds that hundreds of events have evaded recounting.
The sociologist Erving Goffman has written wittily about Self, presentation of. The waiter who takes your order disappears behind the swinging door to the kitchen where he presents himself to the cook one way; he reappears with your order, presenting himself quite differently. To extrapolate: all our lives we put on different faces to enact different roles.
So I know that my ambition to end the tale of my years is a fine, useful metaphor, but no more. It just cannot be done. I must keep in mind Carlyle’s admonition, his terrifying reminder that “Always there is a black spot in our sunshine; it is even, as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.” Must I live to the end in the shadow of my past selves?
To this day, one of the shadows of my past selves is the stoic irony of the book of Ecclesiastes. Once, as an adolescent bored with the weekly repetition of the prayers each Sabbath, I leafed through the back pages of my prayerbook and came with delight upon the worldly wisdom of Kohelet the Preacher. I have since learned that this wisdom—the wisdom of a hard-won realism—was directed at young (wealthy) neophytes in Hellenized Palestine, and was aimed at teaching them “the way of the world.” Centuries later, Ernest Hemingway would capture the melancholy pessimism of the Lost Generation after World War I by echoing Kohelet’s own cosmic metaphor in the title of his novel, The Sun Also Rises,
I am dogged by the Preacher’s summation: “The heart of man is crooked from his nativity/ And who can set it straight?” It is impossible to deny the truth of this view of human nature, especially as we sit shuddering in our parlors over the latest horror of our age, recapitulating mankind’s record of war, violence, genocide in the last century and last decade of our millennium. But Kohelet’s cool conclusion, “And who can set it straight?,” is appalling. I cannot bear it. Is there really no meaning to the desperate “days of our years”?
Apparently, the rabbis who fixed the sacred canon of the Holy Bible must also have sensed the intractable sadness in Ecclesiastes, with its fierce conclusion: “Remember then thy Creator in the days of thy youth/ before the evil days come.” The sages, no doubt themselves already past the days of their youth, understood very well what the world was like. But, because they believed in God, they appended a summation to the book, an ending that is consonant with the wisdom of King Solomon, the purported author of Ecclesiastes, and is at once hopeful and rueful:
The end of the matter, all having been heard, fear God and keep His commandment, for this is the whole man./ For God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing, whether it be good or evil.
Anticipating Nietzsche, the rabbis nevertheless were rational men, believing men, who refused to fall into madness or nihilism. Leaving the judgment to God, they said that these are the days of our years—beyond good and evil.