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

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Existential Memories Of A Last Love–The Hardest To Come By, The Hardest To Lose

The Coleman Silk character in Phillip Roth’s book, The Human Stain, is criticized by his friend Nathan Zuckerman for having entered into a no-win disastrous affair with a much younger woman.  Silk, unfairly dismissed from the college at which he was Dean and discarded by his academic community, has begun a love affair with the school janitor, a woman of initial breeding and promise but whose life has been destroyed by an abusive stepfather, an indifferent mother, and a life without purpose or anchor. 

Neither she nor Coleman are looking for an affair – he is past seventy and she has had her fill of exploitative, unsatisfactory men – but still, chemistry and history often combine to produce affairs, and theirs was a strong sexual one.   For Coleman, she was the surprise gift under the Christmas tree, a delightful present he had never even thought possible. For Faunia he was a protective port in a storm – a man without sexual ambition but with decades of suppressed desire; a patient,considerate, sexually experienced, and in his old, outdated, but still male way, loving.

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For Coleman, she was the perfect anodyne to his misfortune and his misery – professionally disgraced, widowed,  potent but sexually diminished, angry, and even at his advanced age, ambitious.  They were a perfect couple except in the eyes of others.  His colleagues thought him a sexual, exploitative predator, feeding on the likes of a vulnerable janitor, an unreconstructed racist (he had been accused of racism after using a loaded but totally innocent reference), and simply an old supernumerary white, privileged male. Her few friends, former lovers, and especially her ex-husband thought of her as a whore or a killer (the innocent, ex-culpable deaths of her two children).

Yet the affair continued.  When pressed by his writer friend who saw the inevitable, necessarily terrible end to the affair and pleaded with him to end it, Coleman replied, “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?”

The book is about many things – the irrepressibility of male libido, the refusal to go softly into that good night, the need for validation, some excuse for living, and affection and intimacy with someone, anyone after a long and protracted period of aloneness. It is most of all about dying and the understandable but desperate ways we try to postpone it.  A late-life sexual affair with a much younger woman is not only a balm for bruised, abused, and neglected libido, but a validation of maleness and life itself. 

Coleman had had many affairs, some insignificant, some important and only one or two lasting; but his last love was consequential.  Sex with Faunia was not only life-affirming and death-defying, it was an affirmation of Coleman as a man.  His academic achievements, his public accolades, and his acclaim meant absolutely nothing in his final years. It was his maleness, his masculine sense of sexual identity, conquest, and release which counted.  In his last moments, he would not think of Thucydides, Aristotle, or the Classics which had occupied most of his life.  He would think of Steena, his first love, and Faunia his last.  He might be surrounded by loved ones and friends as he lay dying, but they would be clutter.  His final thoughts would be of his women – loved, lost, forgotten, or dismissed.

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Ivan Ilyich  the character in Tolstoy’s story ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’  assumed that life would transport  him to death – that there was some elision between life and eternity – but in the moments before dying he realized that nothing of life could prepare for an endless, dark, insensate eternity.  He had been sorely mistaken in his attempts to configure his life for ease and for a simple death.  He faced death with no friends or family, no secular support, and no lifeline to the past.  He was alone and would eternally be alone.  Everyone might hope for a more spiritual end, heavenly hosts and eternity, but the most to be hoped for was some glimmer of what mortality might have been and what death would be like. 

Older men are particularly vulnerable to young love.  After all, to paraphrase Tolstoy’s Konstantin Levin who mourned the fact that God created an intelligent, insightful, talented, and creative Man only to grant him a few decades of life to express his talents and then consign him for eternity to the cold hard steppes, men were created with a lifelong desire for women, but gave them only a few short years to fulfill that promise.

Marc Antony, member of the ruling triumvirate of Rome, naval hero, wealthy aristocrat of the Roman Empire fell completely for Cleopatra, a younger woman of beauty, charm, sexual allure, and power.  So much so that he let her lead him to defeat at Actium, a key battle which would determine the extent and strength of Roman rule in Egypt.  Cleopatra toyed with Antony, made fun of him with her minions, and was confident enough of her sexual allure – after all she had bedded Julius Caesar and had his children and had a dalliance with Pompey, another powerful member of the Roman ruling elite – that she had no fear of losing him.  Despite his military acumen, his civil savvy, and his universal respect as one of Rome’s greatest leaders, he threw caution, sagacity, and common sense to the wind when it came to Cleopatra.

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That’s what older men do, after all, give up worldly profit for the chance to regain their youth – or at least the most important semblance of it, sex – and Antony willingly, nose and eyes open, let Cleopatra take him in. Of course Coleman succumbs, as any older man in a relationship with a younger woman will attest.  An affirmation of potency and sexual allure, a pure and complete abandonment to sexual pleasure, not known since the days of youth.   The lucky older man who has it will never willingly give it up, and the many unlucky men who have only known one kind of abandonment – giving up sex with wives who are as old, dry, wrinkled, and tired as they are – can only dream about the sex that Coleman enjoyed.

Coleman Silk was no different from other men his age, realizing in the last decades of his life that his marriage had not been quite what he had expected, that his affairs had been too few and too unsatisfactory, and that any real sexual epiphany – that unique emotional bonding described by D.H. Lawrence – would never happen. Of course Lawrence was a romantic despite his Freudian claims. Men and women couple for all the wrong reasons at all the wrong times, claim love but limp, wounded, and hurt from each relationship.  An epiphanic moment of simultaneous orgasmic release might be possible, but if it is, it is only tempting and passing.

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While younger women are often the prey of wealthy, predatory men; older men satisfy younger women thanks to their patience and self-restraint. The December-May love affair will outlast any of the more traditional, age-bound ones.  It has too much father-daughter, hope-expectation, rejuvenation-redemption elements to be innocuous nor forgettable.  In fact, when the stage is set right, it rivals anything Lawrence could ever have invented.

Did Coleman Silk love Faunia Farley? She tells him not to and to be satisfied with what they have – a strong, mutually satisfying sexual relationship –but he cannot help himself.  He wants more because his entire sexual life has either been sporadic or predictable.  in Faunia he has found in a very unlikely place, the woman of his dreams – an independent, sexually free, and uncomplicatedly desirous woman.  Other women in his life have either been dependent on him or unwilling to fully accept and trust him.  They are either desperate for his emotional strength or afraid of it.

Faunia, he feels, is neither.  She takes him as-is, off the lot, with no questions asked.  Her complexity is appealing and sexually stimulating – a privileged, upper class birth and upbringing lost; a lower middle class penurious working class life instead – a Grace Kelly princess in overalls. 

Who cares what lies at the bottom of his attraction?  At his stage in life he is not one to ask questions, and he resents the intrusion of his friend, Nathan.  No one can assess or judge an intimate relationship, one which is never the same at any time; and this one, Coleman says, must be looked at now and only now.

Women may not have such dramatic existential moments and may be more teary and weepy over lost love than men are over opportunities missed; but the end result is the same. 

We all die alone wrote Tolstoy, and Ivan Ilyich learns this far too late and the hard way.  Coleman Silk is not so worried about that – he has long given up on his so-called friends – but only hopes for a few satisfying years with Faunia.  At least, he muses, he can think of her and most importantly, that he was never denied.

Image result for Images Ivan Ilyich

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