I’m working on an essay about tragedy and politics at the moment, and it has turned into a rather large project. That, and the prospect of various summer adventures, one of which will take me to New Mexico, leave me uncertain when I will post something new here. Meanwhile, here’s a piece I wrote just over a year ago whose fundamentals remain, though its occasion has passed.
I retired officially fourteen years ago and moved to Saint Louis, but since that time I’ve continued to work part time at Saint Louis University. I taught basic English classes for a while; then for the past eleven years I have offered a senior honors seminar called Great Books. Somewhere in there I also served as an assistant dean in SLU’s now defunct graduate college. This spring I’ve decided to retire completely, partly because my beloved is retiring and partly because it’s time.
I’ve loved Rilke’s poem, “Herbsttag,” for many years, love the opening especially in English, “It is time, Lord . . . ,” not so much about what it is time for the speaker to do as a proleptic evocation of what God might do, the near casual feeling of those first few words juxtaposed as they are to a set of cosmic expectations couched in rhetorically extravagant flourishes. Clearly this speaker’s autumn reflection means to image a metaphysical autumn, a time of last things, of passage from one life state to another. The poem is widely available. Here it is together with a number of translations.
I share the restlessness of the poem’s concluding lines. I am neither homeless nor friendless, except in the sense of being alone as we all are alone, but I am experiencing at least two contrary emotions as I think about the future. These inspire no new thoughts about death—it’s out there somewhere. Rather, what I am experiencing is a conflict between desiring to do old age as a contest between my body and the set of physical limitations that come with being almost eighty on the one hand, and on the other a contrary desire to take a nap.
Taking a nap has its advantages, I suppose, if one is willing to slide into decline and live with one’s memories. But I remain restless, walking up and down whatever streets I find to walk in, writing late at night, writing trivia, still seeking to overcome it, returning to old forms of thought I had abandoned for years, looking for my ancestors. I wrote a passable sonnet not long ago. I wrote a villanelle, not really good but a villanelle nonetheless. I’d like to write a good one. I may return to rhyme, not a bad spiritual exercise.
I’m describing a state of mind that many readers have found in Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” but that poem’s naïve evocation of the will bespeaks its late romantic origin and the youthful mind of its author. Tennyson was only 24 when he wrote “Ulysses,” a poem more likely to appeal to the youthful Bobby Kennedy (who loved it, as everyone knows, I think) than to someone at my time of life. Still, my restlessness is real, and my own. I need to learn to exploit it rather than merely living with it. I can hear the voice of some learned person reminding me of Ernest Becker, but Becker’s various immortality projects seem to me to belong to youthful thinking as well.
My beloved and I are gearing up for some travel, road trips around our own continent—though we haven’t ruled out travel abroad. I have a long list of projects to complete or cause to be completed at home, some of which must be finished before another winter. I have walks to take, some with camera in hand. I have friends to talk with and books to read, a villanelle to write and potentially a new project to explore closed forms of poetry I abandoned years ago after publishing a set of sonnets I came to dislike. There’s a certain comfort in playing with closed forms and an existential discomfort that goes with writing in open ones. So my closed form project may be a hdege against restlessness.
But I guess I’m trying to school myself to think of old age as an invitation not to design an immortality strategy (pace Becker) but still to live with as much gusto as I can muster for the remaining time I have. I’m aware of my huge good fortune in possessing good health, though I need to take off a few pounds (actually more than a few). So my prescription for myself is contingent upon continued good health and therefore is for myself alone; though you’re welcome to stop by, if you like. We can have a coffee at Mokabes or a beer at The Shaved Duck if it’s late enough in the day, and talk about whatever’s in the air.
I think I may be reconciled to living in the city I have in the here and now, not in another one to come (pace Plato and St. Paul). The academy was in some ways my city to come, to be sought or founded in the realm of discourse. But nobody can really live in such a place, and one thing I may have learned from this perception is that it is the very accidental character of real cities that makes them fit for human habitation, just as it is uncertainty that makes human life bearable and sometimes joyous; though I don’t carry the argument so far as Marilynn Robinson does, arguing from Johathan Edwards that the apparent arbitrariness of the world bespeaks a creator.
My life has also been fortunate in that I’ve never been denied culture, never lacked means or opportunity to refashion myself when I needed to do so. It’s sometimes comforting to think that given the world as it seems I’d live the same life, ask for the same jobs, over again—though I know I wouldn’t. I’ve refashioned myself sufficiently and often enough to be aware that self creation is surrounded by a thick matrix of contingency. A friend used to like to paraphrase Heraclitus ‘You can’t step in the same river even once.’ One isn’t guaranteed the world as it seems, not tomorrow, maybe not even yesterday.
So that one founds oneself in the realm of discourse as the world rushes by—and one is fortunate if the real city one lives in affords hidey holes, places to escape, and lots of unsupervised spaces for play. The real and contingent city is as febrile as a summer street dance, as brief on the wind as a smile and a shoeshine, thick with possibility and empty of information about itself as a week-old newspaper. One dwells in it upon sufferance—I’ll go that far with Robinson, since I know neither the beginning nor the end of the place that passes.
And I guess I’ll continue to write this blog and try to post more regularly than I have recently. There’s more to my restlessness than the common struggle with mortality. Though I’m not sure what the more is, I seem to need to continue thought projects I know I’ll never complete.