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

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Life Is Only A Badly-Written Preface To An Ordinary Novel–Only The Last Chapter Matters

Farley Burnham had reached his eighth decade, unthinkable a few years earlier when an affair had lifted him from the depression of old age and  into the irrational hopefulness that only a December-May relationship can give. “This is not my first love”, said Coleman Silk of Roth’s The Human Stain, “nor my best love.  But it certainly is my last love.  Doesn’t that count for something?”.  Of course it does, to which any older man who has had a sexual relationship with a much younger women can attest.  No matter how temporary, fleeting, or emotionally significant the relationship might be for the woman, it is the last gasp of male potency and a remembrance of youth for the man.

Image result for Images Roth Movie The Human Stain

The young women in these affairs have no idea of the existential proportions of their love.  They have their own sexual agenda, resolving or perpetuating myths and fantasies of their fathers, coming to grips with their own sexual insecurities, or simply rejoicing in the sexual prowess of an experienced, Viagra-powered man. These timeless relationships have always occurred and will continue to occur until recombinant DNA changes us all.  Until then women will marry their fathers, fall for bad boys, and succumb to the blandishments of Don Juans, Casanovas, and Lotharios; and men will always want to drink from the sexual Fountain of Youth.

And so it was that Brandon Appley was rescued from declining old age, hauled back to the living by Laura from Accounting; and for two years never regretted an instant of his amiable, uninteresting, and predictable life.  Young love was not only an anodyne to routine, an emotional uplift, and an early Christmas present, but a transformational affair.  Not only was life worth living from now on, but his unglamorous, unremarkable, and forgettable life was validated.

Nietzsche asserted that the only validation of life was the expression of individual will; but Appley had added a sidebar – sexual resurrection came a close second.

Image result for Images Nietzsche

D.H. Lawrence famously believed in sexual epiphany – coming together was not only an expression of mutual satisfaction, but one of spiritual promise.  His characters Gudrun, Birkin, Gerald, and Rupert (Women in Love) understood it, searched for it, were frustrated by it, found only weak imitations of it, but in their absolute desire validated Lawrence’s conviction about the existential centrality of sex.

Every other author’s tales of love and romance fall short of Lawrence’s philosophical depth and by comparison were little more than scripts for daytime television.  Love in their hands was a matter of conditioning, good or bad luck, encouragement, social norms, and breeding.  It always seemed to disassemble, unable to withstand even a light buffeting.  The men were wayward, irresponsible, and indifferent.  The women were ambitious, hungry, and duplicitous.  Edward Albee expressed it best in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? borrowing from Winston Churchill and his reflections on democracymarriage is the worst possible social institution except for all others.  It is the crucible of maturity, said Albee.  Without its confinement, rigors, and No Exit doors, we would all remain children.

Yet all of this wisdom and insight means little in the final accounting. Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich realized almost too late that his life had not only not only prepared him for death, but it kept him from making sense of it.  We all die alone, said Tolstoy.  The image of the dying man surrounded by his loving family is only as true as a Norman Rockwell magazine cover.  The reality is that our thoughts are far away from what we are losing and focused only on what is about to come.  The existential moment of a life about to be snuffed out has nothing to do with family, sexual epiphany, professional success, or social standing. As a dying man peers into the abyss, thoughts of one’s former lovers, lovers lost, love affairs missed, and sexual opportunities gone by the wayside are, to put it mildly, a waste of time. Life is not even a well-written preamble.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with being extinguished.

The devoutly religious may differ.  Their lives have been configured for this moment.  They have accumulated the credit necessary for entry to the next world and/or are convinced that they are going to a ‘far, far better place’ than the one they are leaving.  Yet they too do not dwell on the past.  Whatever credit has been built up or debt accumulated.  Whatever depressions or epiphanies have crowded their lives. Whatever attempts made to live a good, faithful life mean nothing.  The die has been cast. 

Image result for Images Tale of Two Cities

Jews have a saying, “Too soon old, too late schmart” and many an older man scrambles to figure out what’s what before it’s too late.  Tolstoy spent his entire life pondering the question of the meaning of life and at the end simply gave in.  If billions before him billions now had believed in God, then their might be something to it.  His alter ego, Konstantin Levin (Anna Karenina) came up with only a slightly more salient answer – doing good is the best that one can do in a meaningless existence. Yet neither Tolstoy in his memoirs nor the characters in his books are very convincing on this score.  Life indeed is nothing but a series of randomly connected events which determine out lot.  It is far less than a good preamble.  it is a game of billiards.

So what was Farley Burnham to do? The hyper-pleasure of his love affair would soon dissipate and disappear.  He would be left with memories that over time would become so twisted that they would no longer represent what actually happened and be only re-configurations of what he had always hoped mixed in with Hollywood romance.  His many years of a busy life were already getting jumbled.  He was no longer sure what happened when, how, and with whom.  This tangle was not a result of Alzheimer’s but the confounding nature of memory.  Somehow the human being knows that life is only a preamble to death, so establishing fact and sorting it from fiction makes no sense.

Should I consult a priest, he asked himself? But he had for so long been a non-believer that there was no coming back.  I admit my mortal sins and am heartily sorry for them already.  What would an official Confession accomplish? The Church’s magic can only be worked if one believes in the power of the magician; and Farley was far beyond that.  Might the taking of Holy Communion – the body and blood of Jesus Christ –be that supra-mystical event which regardless of belief or disbelief do wonders for his soul?

Image result for image pope giving holy communion

Should I take risks? Easy in the Age of COVID.  Be death-defying. Take off the bloody mask, go to raves.  Mountain climbers, racecar drivers, downhill skiers, and deep sea divers have all concluded that only by risking death is life validated.   Yet that option was for the young who had a lot of life to lose.

Yet it all comes down to this – any attempt to extract or give meaning to life is a waste of time.  If life is only a badly-written preface to a very ordinary story, then better to ignore it, flip through the chapters and read only the last one. 

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