I see now the problems I experience confronting old age. Of all things, the words of literary critics, and more generally, the function of literary criticism, clarify the struggle I face practically every morning in one manner or another, as I feel the culture slipping away from me like a dock finally unleashed from its always precarious moorings.
I have not taken well to the idea of blogging. Nothing makes a dinner party table conversation scintillate more than opinions, but since when did the cultural alchemy of relentless blogging render opinion fact? The demand for immediate attention generated by the social media, moreover, has not only inhibited our already strained capacity to delay gratification, it teaches that immediate action and spontaneity trump deliberation, discrimination, and prudence. Life has to be led quickly, impulsively, and hence thoughtlessly. One dare not lose time, nor one’s position in the sprint. He who hesitates is old.
One thing more: Not everything is about us. I understand: if I see it or hear it or sense it, then, at some level, I am implicated. Still, there ought to be a way that I can discipline my self to be, somehow, apart from that which I am sensing and perceiving. I am not the architecture in which I presently stand, nor the painting before me. I don’t like this part, but a whole lot of stuff goes on around me that is not about me.
Three literary critics, giants of their craft cited recently in The New York Times make all of these points in words that cause the rest of us to swoon. First, my personal struggle, my separation from that barely floating cultural dock, was described by the late Alfred Kazin as “ . . . a profound inner struggle between what has been and what must be, the values he is used to and those which presently exist (emphasis added) . . . This struggle with oneself as well as with the age . . . ” There it is, perfectly formed: I don’t struggle with my age; I struggle with the age!
Sixty years ago Lionel Trilling spelled out what today is as glorious but as challenging a perspective as one might safeguard: “ . . . literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity and difficulty.” Fullest account? Precise account? Account of the variousness of things? Of the complexity of things? Come on Professor Trilling, you can’t expect us to do all that. It would take us weeks, months. And do we have to check for spelling too?
But the most difficult lesson of all may come from Randall Jarrell: “[the critic] must regard that self as no more than the instrument through which the art is seen, so that the work of art will seem everything to him and his own self nothing.” As I say, this is the pivotal piece, as it demands a form of profound self-reflection itself replete with Kazin’s values and Trilling’s insights. Still, take the words art or work of art out of Jarrell’s citation and replace them with the words “child” or “student.” Imagine making families, schools, banks, all institutions about others than those in authority.
This amorous age, albeit fabulous in so many ways, is not one for long reflection, deep study, slow, unsteady progress. It is not one relishing tiny offices in library carrels, or endless hours in research laboratories, much less intellectual and spiritual study. It is not one for modesty and living in the shadows, not one for scorning publicity and notoriety. Anonymity is as unthinkable as a Web site called Faceless Book. In my day the little boy said I want what I want when I want it, and the culture seemed to reply, it may take a while. Today the culture, like a dutiful waitperson responds: Comin’ right up! Wait is the new four-letter word.
I see the problems I experience confronting old age. It is not exactly that I am as old as I feel. It is that the dock is too far out for me to swim to. Perhaps a rare current will miraculously heave it back toward me, but I doubt it. I will have to live, and die, with the words of the adorable actress Sandra Bullock: The way things are is the way the universe wants them to be.
I will have to live with the goods and the bads of modern technology, and in a culture that quite frankly is not about thoughtfulness in either of its forms: thinking deeply and acting kindly. Medical science gives us longer lives and everyone seems to be about saving time. But I am neither texter nor tweeter; I have no problem savoring messages in the form of long letters and rich novels. And finally, I don’t see that everything about our lives has to be constructed so that it can measured quantitatively. Torture me and I still won’t be able to tell you whether Mozart gets more points for The Magic Flute than Beethoven does for The Eroica. Simply put, both won their respective races to the top, which confirms my suspicion that metrics is another name for an antacid.
Thomas Cottle, 75, is Professor of Education at Boston University. His recent books include At Peril: Stories of Injustice; Hardest Times: The Trauma of Long-Term Unemployment; and When the Music Stopped: Discovering My Mother.