"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Where Are The Snows Of Yesteryear?

Prince, n'enquerez de sepmaine
Où elles sont, ne de cest an,
Qu'à ce refrain ne vous remaine:
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan!

I read Francois Villon in the Grove Street churchyard in New Haven.  A graveyard was the only place to read Villon as a young student. The past was irretrievably past, said Villon. Abelard, Blanche de Castille, Alcibiades, Echo, and Joan of Arc – despite their vitality, intellect, and nobility – were nothing more than dust and dirt beneath our feet.

Now, many decades later, I remember that Spring afternoon and my reflections on death, dying, fame and repute, and the cycles of history.  The graveyard was not filled with dead people, but great people who had once lived.

If the Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis was the poem of my expectant youth, then The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock is the poem of my older age:

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

We no longer have expectations but memories.  We care little about the roll of our cuffs and the part in our hair, nor are we concerned about stains and improprieties. We pick up the morning papers in our slippers and tattered fleece.

Richard Yates wrote one good book – Revolutionary Road – in which he, better than any other writer of his generation, captured the sense of failed expectations and the impossibility of recovering them.  Each one of his characters was born with promise, ability, and enthusiasm.  Frank and Alice are convinced that they are special, anointed, and destined for greatness - or at least in line for a special happiness that only the select few can enjoy. Soon they realize that they are not great at all, but as confined by convention, family, and society as anyone. 

Shep Campbell revolts against his privileged upbringing, his Fifth Avenue nannies, wealth, and position.  Only too late does he come to understand that his rebellious rejection of privilege has been his downfall.  No matter how he desired to be a common man – unwashed, unlettered, crude, and original – he would always be upper class.  By the time he realizes that he can only belong to his people and that it is impossible to be anything but a Rockefeller, Getty, Astor, or Carnegie, it is too late.  He ends up in a soulless suburb of New York – neither upper class nor working class, and lost.

All the characters in Revolutionary Road share a tragic sense of disappointment and loss. Other authors, most notably John Cheever, have written about the spiritless life of the suburbs, way stations to nowhere.  One of Cheever’s best short stories, The Swimmer, is about a suburban husband who swims his way across the county pool by pool. He cannot leave his colonial modern, nor his middle level management job in the city, nor his wife and children.  His only act of defiance – “I am a man!” - is to do the outrageous and the unthinkable.

Manhood is a theme of Revolutionary Road. Alice Wheeler psychically castrates her husband, Frank; and throughout the book he is obsessed with regaining masculine pride and authority. He was brought up to believe that manhood was his birthright; and yet, because of this confining fantasy, he cannot cope with, let alone understand women. Alice, his wife, wants him to be a man, convinces herself that he is, but quickly descends into the particular madness of the American Fifties – misunderstood, spayed, and imprisoned.

J.Alfred Prufrock does not lament the passing of his youth; nor is he filled with regrets over opportunities not taken. He is sorrowful because love will never come again. He has entered an indistinct age. He still wonders whether the should eat a peach and how he should part his hair; but he accepts the invisibility of old age.  “ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”, he says.

In other words, men are not frustrated at their lassitude at twenty – their indifference to opportunity and their ignorance of the brevity of life. They have come to accept that the past is past; but will never get over the fact that youth itself is irretrievably gone.  Why shouldn’t I still have passionate lovers? Command attention? Be of some notice and importance?

The Fourth Age is not unlike the suburban Connecticut of Revolutionary Road. It is the age when reality –after years of illusion and optimism– is finally accepted. No matter how one tries, no matter how many ‘productive and worthwhile’ activities undertaken, there will no longer be any love songs.

Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain addresses the dilemma of being old while still virile – refusing to accept the fact that the siren songs of youth are fading. “Granted, she's not my first love”, says Coleman Silk.  “Granted, she's not my great love. But she is sure as hell my last love. Doesn't that count for something?”

Othello understands that Desdemona is the love of his life, especially because she is so young and innocent. Antony goes off the rails for Cleopatra because he sees that the promises of youth are gone.  She is his last love.  Stories of lost youth and love are common; but Revolutionary Road is one of the few works that describe the loneliness and isolation of the end of one’s live. 

To be sure, Frank, Alice, and Shep are not old at all, barely thirty; but the extinction of youthful dreams consigns them to old age. There is plenty of room for courage and heroism, says Yates, but no amount of energy, passion, or conviction can stave off disappointment.  It is not so much fear of dying, he says, that gives us night sweats. Nor the loss of loved ones, family, and friends; but the final end of expectation.

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