The older I get, the more I operate on a ‘need to know’ basis. It isn’t that my mental hard drive is filling up, but that I feel the need to trim my intellectual hedges more than usual. I no longer have the eclecticism of my youth and an interest in everything. I read the paper in half the time I used to; skip over articles on particle physics, string theory, and travel to Phuket; and focus only on what is relevant to figuring it all out, as the old Yiddish expressions goes, before I am ‘too soon old, too late schmart”.
I recently had an exchange with a professor in the Yale University Psychology Department who had written a op-ed piece in the New York Times on ‘meaning’. He had argued:
The tendency to see meaning in life events seems to reflect a more general aspect of human nature: our powerful drive to reason in psychological terms, to make sense of events and situations by appealing to goals, desires and intentions (Paul Bloom with Konika Banerjee)
I disagreed, saying that ‘the drive to reason in psychological terms’ was too mechanistic to describe the fundamental drive to understand life in more philosophical terms – how is it, as Levin in Anna Karenina reflects, that man is created with vision, intellect, intelligence, creativity, and insight; and after only a few decades is consigned to an eternity in the cold, hard, clay of the steppes?
In other words I had little patience with attempts to decipher meaning out of temporal human interactions. What difference did it make to me, I replied, whether or not Subject X understood why Subject Y did what he did; or why a collective of Y’s acted together; or why a consortium of X’s expressed repressed needs for legitimacy in Manifesto A.
I wanted to gain insight into the more fundamental issues of being; and only Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, and even the Theatre of the Absurd could begin to address them.
My ‘need to know’ scanner has been programmed to select only those bits of information which relate to the subject at hand. The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Prince Andrei’s epiphanies at Austerlitz and on his deathbed in Moscow, Pierre Bezukhov’s epiphanies in his shed in a French POW camp, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and his conviction that the only validation of the individual in a meaningless life is amoral, superhuman action; Hedda Gabler’s noble suicide, and Satan’s defiance of God in Paradise Lost are all I need to know.
Tolstoy himself grappled with meaning, faith, and death, in A Confession. For decades he tried to reconcile reason with belief and never could do so. He finally gave up. Weary and dispirited he pushed ‘Default’. If millions today and billions before him had believed, than that was good enough for him.
Science is in the process of creating an alternative reality. Soon there will be no difference between what is ‘real’ and what has been artificially created. Today’s gross, dirty reality will become tomorrow’s dream world. Who among us would refuse the chance to consort with Marie Antoinette in the gardens of Versailles? Or to make love to Christine de la Tour, First Lady to the Queen in the royal bedchambers of the King? Or to be served by the geishas of the Emperor? No one.
Yet even these possibilities, fascinating though they are, are not on my ‘need to know’ list. However integrated I am into the virtual circuits of cyber-reality, my death is assured and no different from before. The most ardent proponents of virtual reality have not answered the question: “What happens when we pull the plug?”, when the seamless interface between humanity and virtuality is finally severed.
In other words, it all comes down to facing one’s final, inevitable, and ineluctably personal extinction.
Ivan Ilyich said at Death’s approach, “What? That’s all? What joy, what joy! “ He understood that his years of anxiety and self-reproach were worth nothing. It is not death we fear, but the fear of death. Ivan wasn’t so concerned about the meaning of life and death, but the moment of finality.
I don’t really expect Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, or any other great thinker to resolve these metaphysical issues. Nor do I expect any foxhole epiphany. Count Andrei, dying on the battlefield of Austerlitz simply understood that all men are equal in the face of death. Francois Villon many years before wrote about being thrown into the graveyard ‘pêle-mêle’. Nothing new there. In his second epiphany, Andrei realized that love is the answer – love for Napoleon, love for Natasha, love for everyone – but even the most devout must wonder at this treacly conclusion. Pierre also dallies with universal love, but he cannot shake from his memory the vixen Ellen.
I often see myself as a caricature of those ‘of a certain age’ – inflexible, routine, dismissive if not critical of innovation and change – but know that while such circumspection is valid, it is a distortion. There is no way that anyone seeing the light flickering at the end of the tunnel can suddenly become exuberant, hopeful, and optimistic about the future. It is time to reflect – not on the past, but on the future. Ironically not a future with boundless promise, but one with limited possibilities.
I am happy that the H Street Corridor in Washington reflects the best of metrosexual America. I love the locavore, instinctive creativity of thirty-something cuisine. I love the cranes and jackhammers of 14th Street. I mourn the death of Oscar de la Renta. The new transgender, cross-dressing, gender-bending, queer America is fine by me.
However, no matter how much glitz, fashion, and pizazz any generation can generate, we all must become Ivan Ilyich. At some point I must pause the virtuality, the expediency, the deception, and the exuberance. The questions “Who am I, where did I come from, and where am I going?” can no longer be avoided,.
‘Need to know’ has many advantages. I once had a friend who said, “North of sixty, anything is permitted”, understanding that the older one gets, the fewer consequences there are for speaking one’s mind. North of seventy is another thing altogether, for few of those who see the light flickering at the end of the tunnel give a fig about propriety or social opprobrium, let alone the reactions to what they might have or may have said.. In fact, personal expression or avowal means nothing at all; and if anyone ‘of a certain age’ has any concern whatsoever about others’ opinions, they are doomed to an ignoramus’s death.
I am not indifferent to the news – Ebola, ISIS, North Korea, the Kardashians, the dollar – but skim over the details. Anyone with any sense could have predicted current events. Human nature, as aggressive, self-serving, self-protective, and acquisitive as it always has been, offers no surprises.
I am still – and expect that I will increasingly be – on a need to know basis. I am on a second read of War and Peace, a third reading of Paradise Lost, and have Dr. Faustus on my night table. I know….I KNOW…that no third-party reflections on mortality, immortality, and all in-between can possibly help me. After all, my hero Tolstoy did say, “We all die alone.”