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Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Nature Of Regret–Examining A Good Life

“There is nothing I regret”, Edward Stanton admitted when he was forty.  After all he was happily married with two children, had had more adventures than most men, had been to the most remote, unexplored parts of Asia, had eaten well, slept well, and enjoyed the company of friends.  What more to life could there possibly be, he wondered? There was no reason why life, begun so opportunely and well, wouldn’t continue.  The venues might well change; romance might take on a different, older tone; and the perimeters of his adventures might well be drawn in somewhat, but the extremely good run – absent unforeseen circumstances – should continue well on to a much more mature age.

The issue that arose when Stanton was much older was not that the run had ended but that it would not continue.  He had no regrets about lost opportunity in the past, only in the future.   Old age is a matter of pleasant company, not adventure.

Regret, so ignorantly dismissed when he was a young man, had arrived with a vengeance although in unexpected form.

Yet, what was there to regret?

Konstantin Levin, a principal character in Anna Karenina wonders at God’s irony.  He created an intelligent, witty, insightful, and creative being, granted him a few short decades of life, and then consigned him for all eternity to the cold, hard ground of the steppes. No matter how full and productive one’s life might seem, such fulfillment framed by this divine indifference, was only ignorant satisfaction.  There could be nothing to regret in a life that was created without purpose.  Randomness does not permit long term investment.  One could only hope for the right angle of the ball when struck.  If it caromed differently, lipping the pocket and rolling away, so be it.

Image result for images anna karenina book cover

If there was no regret, then there could only be anger or resignation – Job’s anger at God’s arbitrariness, Abraham’s righteous resolve to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the surprising nihilism of Ecclesiastes; or the willful individualism of Nietzsche.

Edward Stanton had been confused by the unexpected turn life had taken and surprised at the total irrelevance of old age.  He was unhappy to find himself old since there was no anodyne for that dark existential reality; but he regretted nothing.  Railing against God or godlessness made no sense at all.

Image result for images job bible

Phillip Roth wrote in The Human Stain, a novel about a love affair between an older professional man and a much younger working class woman, “Granted, she's not my first love. Granted, she's not my great love. But she is sure as hell my last love. Doesn't that count for something?”.  Edward Stanton like the fictional Coleman Silk had had an affair with a younger women when he was well into his sixties, a Christmas present, an unexpected gift under the tree, a surprise, and a delight.  He couldn’t believe his good fortune just when he had given up all hope of resurrection.  The affair went on, and despite her hopes of marriage and children, and his hopes of extending the Christmas feast, both left disappointed. 

Image result for images book cover the human stain

The best thing about a May-December affair is that it is rejuvenating and a temporary suspension of dreary fact.  The worst thing about it is that when it ends, the sense of loss, age, and approaching death is more acute and painful than it ever was. Better to have never opened the gift.

Coleman Silk and his lover die in a car crash caused by her jealous husband, perhaps the best way of all, thought Roth, of ending any impossible affair.  Silk knew from the beginning that any relationship with the young woman would be dangerous. There were more issues than just age, class, education, and breeding.  She was orphaned, damaged and abused by her psychotic husband, unconscious or indifferent to the consequences of sleeping with an older man, disgraced and let go by the college where she worked, an impossible partner, and strange companion. 

His death meant no regrets, no mayhem, no second thoughts, guilt, or the distortions of memory which result from them.  Her sudden death was preferable to a long, extended, miserable one.

Perhaps Edith Piaf said it best in Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien – a song about a life examined, both philosophical and romantic:

No, absolutely nothing
No, I regret nothing
Not the good that has been given
Not the bad, it's all the same to me

No, absolutely nothing
No, I regret nothing
It is payed, done, forgotten
I don't care about the past

With my memories
I light the fire
My pains, my pleasures
I don't need them anymore
I'm done with the loves
and all their troubles
I'm done for ever
I start over with nothing

No, absolutely nothing
No, I regret nothing
Not the good that has been given
Not the bad, it's all the same to me
No, absolutely nothing
No, I regret nothing
Because my life, because my joys
today, they start with you

No, I regret nothing

Image result for images edith piaf

With promise, the past can be erased with no consequences, no regrets.  Whatever she has enjoyed and whatever pain she has suffered are no longer relevant.  They have been consigned to an unremembered place.  Only the future is real, with possibility and, most importantly, joyous.

One expects that when the singer’s new love fades, or simply ends, she will discovered that there is no such thing as ‘an unremembered place’ and she may reconsider ‘Je ne regrette rien’.  Unfortunate endings have their way of unearthing the past.

Edward Stanton was not so cynical, for the older he got the more persuaded he was by ‘God’s irony’ or Schopenhauer’s ‘Aesthetic Perception’.

Schopenhauer’s violent vision of the daily world sends him on a quest for tranquility, and he pursues this by retracing the path through which Will objectifies itself. He discovers more peaceful states of mind by directing his everyday, practically-oriented consciousness towards more extraordinary, universal and less-individuated states of mind, since he believes that the violence that a person experiences is proportional to the degree to which that person’s consciousness is individuated and objectifying. His view is that with less individuation and objectification, there is less conflict, less pain and more peace (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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Regret was individuation,  Regretting past events was to give them more meaning and substance than they deserved in a universe of random events.

Vladimir Nabokov was a self-described ‘memorist’.  He understood the importance of memory as the defining essence of human life, and developed techniques to fix events in his memory and devised ways to recall them from his mental archives and replay them like a movie.  The more he could remember, he said, the more complete he was as a human being. The present, Nabokov observed is nothing more than a millisecond of existence before becoming the past. The Higgs boson once produced has a lifetime of less than one sextillionth of a second; and this is slow compared to the passage of the present to the past.  The future is only possibility.  Only the past provides definition, integrity, and above all meaning.

Nabokov had no regrets about the past because it never ceased to exist.  He never allowed it to recede, to become distant, fragmentary, or illusionary.  How could he regret a period of time which was more real than the present? How could he, like Piaf, value the future over the past.

Image result for images nabokov

Unlike Edith Piaff and Schopenhauer, Edward Stanton had a place for pleasant memories.  They did not crowd out a more rational, ordered configuration of time.  They need not be buried and forgotten to make room for the new or to prevent the infection of the future by the past.  Since they were not accompanied by regret, his memories of comic book romance (tropical nights, moonlight, the scent of ylang-ylang and cloves, nakedness, and the sound of the ocean) could remain – never recollected as they happened, always changing, but always sweet.  Unlike Nabokov he could not retain them as permanently, could not live them as though they still existed; but he was happy enough with his regretless although imperfect memories, his unromantic view of the future as more of the past, and his ticking clock which suggested sense to it all.

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