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Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Predictable Life Of An Ordinary Man–Dogged, Respectable, And Without Epiphany

Herb Pollitt, well into late middle age and crumbling at the edges, leaking, and wondering where time went, tried in a hurry-up offense to sort out what’s what, the answer to life’s conundrum, what on earth he was doing here, what had he done, and where in bloody hell was he going. Or, as old Jews said, ‘Too soon old, too late schmart’.

Herb was a pessimist, figuring it was time to prepare for the Great Unknown, to get one’s spiritual ducks in line, to sort out one’s debts, deceptions, and wrong doings; to make amends and confession , and to look to the Infinite for tolerance if not forgiveness. Most of his friends had no such stinging self-recriminations.  Life was a hand of cards played as they lay.  They were lucky in that regard – they could rake in the chips – and never thought either about their good fortune or the misfortune of others.  Such was randomness.

‘A life worth living is a life worth reliving’, said Bendix La Follette shortly before collapsing onto his last manuscript about life, memory, and ‘temporal integrity’.  He had always championed the good life, the life well-led, the life of secular and seductive charms and pleasures, and one of no regrets; and was about to write his swan song, his final statement, when he toppled into the ink-stained, handwritten folio on which he considered his most important work.  Herb had read La Follette in college but dismissed him as an academic crank; but what young, virile, heady male would think differently.  Now that Herb was poking into his last decades, the old man made more sense, depressingly so because Herb had not lived life to the fullest, had more regrets than satisfactions, and was now simply pottering along to the end of the line.  La Dolce Vita had passed him by, he had been passed over too many times to recount, and his later years, far from illuminating, were simply a collection of odd ailments. 

Image result for images film la dolce vita

Vladimir Nabokov was a self-described memorist. The present is only milliseconds, he said, the future only a possibility, but the past a long, stretching, full and rich emotional and historical pastiche.  Those who choose to fix the past in memory and displace the venal concerns of the present and the idle gossip of the future, extend their lives. True enough, reflected Herb, but what was there in his dimly lit past that was even worth remembering? He had no idyllic summers at a dacha in the birch woods, no memories of St Tropez, Gstaad, or Paris salons. 

Image result for images nabokov

He had no particularly bad memories, only regrets; but they too were as common as lint – sexual opportunities missed, adventures deferred, lackadaisical academics, prayerlessness, indifference – and not to be dwelled upon. He had no great loves lost, no Arabian princesses in his past, no Himalayan peaks, no five-star restaurants.  Reliving a predictable, unremarkable, and totally forgettable life was hardly worth the effort. 

What about the literary bookends – writers like Dickens who have written about their birth and childhood and long trajectory through adulthood with little thought to purpose or meaning?  Surely there must be a lesson there, that no life is dismissible and forgettable.  Yet Pip was a young man of great expectations, delivered from obscurity to society, emotionally stunted but finally moral and patient.  His life was anything but ordinary, nor was that of David Copperfield or Charles Darnay.  Lives may be examined from beginning to end in fiction, but they are never ordinary lives.

Image result for images dickens great expectations

Richard Ford, novelist and author of The Sportswriter and a number of sequels, comes the closest to writing about lives without adventure and complication. Frank Bascombe, his main character, has deliberately chosen an ordinary life – not just familiar, but irremediably without interest.  If life is no more than predictable bumps in the road and minor short circuits, then an embrace is worth far more than a rejection.  The books are hard to read because of their monotony and Bascombe’s deliberate refusal to act or react.  His dogged acceptance of the hand he has been dealt is frustrating and inhibiting.  ‘Do something!’ we yell at the page.

But even with a writer as determinedly removed as Ford, there is inherent drama.  We hope for Bascombe’s reanimation after years of suppressed feelings about his son’s death; for some remittance and relief from his self-imposed emotional penumbra.  Ford asks us to be as dogged as Bascombe and see if he is resurrected.

Herb Pollitt’s life had no interior drama or dialogue; and his only solace was an ironic twist on Tolstoy’s sad conclusion after a life of searching for meaning.  If tens of millions of people before him had believed in God, and millions now subscribed to the same faith, then mightn't there be something to it?  If billions of people lived lives of cradle to grave unremarkable routine, then wasn’t there something to it? Was meaning only derived from epiphany?

Old age, however, loosens all adhesives and without the solace of those pedestrian distractions that kept him anchored and gave him some sense of meaning, he became morose.  He began factoring longevity into purchases – dental implants, new refrigerators, an upgraded, renovated house would outlast him by decades, so what was the point? Where was alleviation? Who was there to help?  If misery is self-inflicted, there is no alleviation or recourse.

Life is always lived on at least two planes, and Herb was fortunately able to slip between his.  His metaphysical doubts were not so strong and persistent that he couldn’t enjoy a round of golf. Yet that niggling, pestering, unpleasant thought of what would be his unremarked death after an unremarkable life never seemed to go away.

John Updike’s Rabbit At Rest, the final volume of a trilogy about Harry Angstrom, a simple man, is all about Herb Pollitt.  Angstrom has little education, less sophistication, and has ended up retired in Florida to a numbing existence of warm weather, golf, and incidental acquaintances.  He, like Pollitt had dreams and expectations as a young man, found them lacking and disappointing as sustenance or promise.  His life was not about regret but surviving.  He disliked his son, his wife, and his grandchildren – annoying people he was stuck with.   Their increasing demands on him -  neutering, emasculating, and infuriating – push him out of his misery and to suicide.   He does not need to find out what’s what, nor has he any sense of the need for the search.  He knows that through circumstance, ignorance, and a peculiar stubbornness, his life is not worth living.  He is heroic for having carried this understanding for so long, for refusing to capitulate his integrity, and for realizing that for a simple man, death was the only possible answer.  The expression of will, said Nietzsche, is the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world; and Rabbit Angstrom knew this implicitly.  His premature death was obvious.

Image result for images updike rabbit at rest

Herb Pollitt never gave any thought to suicide – he was too normal for that – and so lived out the rest of his life like the rest of us dutifully, resignedly, and predictably. 

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