I was lying in bed last night and saw the light of the moon cover the room through the crack of an open window. All the features of the room lost color to silver. Lying silent, the peace of the earliest of morning, the latest of night, I was taken back to an earlier age. The thought of the next day was far from the moment, too far to shatter the now with uncertainty for tomorrow’s pace. Tomorrow lay at the furthest reach of the horizon, less than an idea. In the wash of the room I was 21. Free from all that had to be done.
On long journeys the road washes time away like the moon did. It warps impeding uncertainties that bang like a ritual neurosis. The road, like night are a dimension. Parameters of experience, they are removed from all reference to life. They are made quiet by the removal of reference altogether. On the road parallax distorts the significance of life beyond the road from a wide macroscopic world of possibility into a bubble and imagination is free; free ultimately from itself, leaving nothing for nothing.
In younger years responsibilities are like that parallax. They’re figured by no more than the shapes and forms that can be made out at the movement of what is at the front of our minds. Ambitions and concerns lie evenly at the height of imagination, our hopes, ourselves. As we get older we are distorted; the world and growing needs ask pragmatism of us. The dreamers of our youth become fools, romantic ideal becomes a blanched shadow. You can see it in the eyes of people who have ‘lived’. Age will make a cynic of the greatest dreamer and teach resentment to those who once had hopes higher than those that life would permit.
Writing this I feel such a conflict. When I was younger I had read in stories of old men’s patience for younger men’s passions. The contrast seemed prophetic. “I would never lose my passion”. But, “passion is something to be afforded”. I felt immense tangible fear for the distortions of age. The practical man says “ars longa vita brevis” or so the saying goes. “And when all you have are passions do you have anything at all?” The practical man continues. To have in this sense is to hold. But, holding is only to keep your head above water, that doesn’t seem like living. What is it to strive for something beyond our necessity? Is that also not passion?
What colors age is not loss of youth, nor passion. What makes age a patina is a loss of sight. When I was painting at school I used to get so involved in the corner of a painting I would loose sight of the picture; I’d paint to perfection one detail, destroying the whole of the picture. After seeing me do this many times my teacher told me to step back from the painting and turn it upside down. As soon as the canvas was flipped I saw something else; I saw the picture I was painting for what it was. In the moment that its perspective changed the picture stood at me for what it was supposed to be. It was as I had imagined it. It was no longer a minute discomfort, it became whole. In that whole I found the picture and my passion for it, I was able to paint.
I believe we develop cataracts when we don’t turn the picture upside down to look at our moments and see the life in them. In the growing scale that wanes our passions into an ebb living is forgotten. In forgetting life the passion that makes moments alive is lost and our eyes close. An intimacy with life is lost when it is only the impending ‘next moment’ and not the distortion of impoverished perspective that takes hold of us.
But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. When they come to the end of it, the poor wretches realize too late that for all this time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing. And the fact that they sometimes invoke death is no proof that their lives seem long. Their own folly afflicts them with restless emotions which hurl themselves upon the very things they fear: they often long for death because they fear it… they complain that the hours pass slowly until the time fixed for dinner arrives. For as soon as their preoccupations fail them, they are restless with nothing to do, not knowing how to dispose of their leisure or make the time pass. And so they are anxious for something else to do, and all the intervening time is wearisome: really, it is just as when a gladiatorial show has been announced, or they are looking forward to the appointed time of some other exhibition or amusement – they want to leap over the days in between. Any deferment of the longed-for event is tedious to them. Yet the time of the actual enjoyment is short and swift, and made much shorter through their own fault. For they dash from one pleasure to another and cannot stay steady in one desire. Their days are not long but odious: on the other hand, how short do the nights seem…They lose the day in waiting for the night, and the night in fearing the dawn.
– Seneca, On The Shortness of Life
And so much of this comes to perspective. Ironic that with perspective we might kindle passion for life; don’t the two seem diametrically at odds. But, a perspective implies a distance that gives a temper to life and allows passion to have a place in life’s moments, hours and days. That may be one of the virtues of age; recognition that time is on our side, that life take time and that passion can become a stronger reality once the impatience of our younger days withdraw.
My discomfort comes from a conflict between the tempest of immediacy, the patience for time and the knowledge that we are also responsible for our lives. Responsibility, understanding the value for the moments that we have, of knowing that in each open eyes, eyes not fixated but given room to take in the world will find their passion.
There is an evil in looking hard at youth with superiority. It is violent because becomes it fixes the gaze above another. It is an unkind gesture. There is no weakness in seeing, hearing and finding grace in the vivacity of youth. Weakness comes when we are the ones who lose. For only then is the game up for us; it is then that moments no longer retain their significance.
The loss is a modern loss. Modern, here in the broadest possible sense. We have become impatient for an immediate and explicit life. Our patience for time, for thought, for understanding; they have been lost. It is a loss that has grown as information has become more and more available and our appetite for broader subtleties has been filled by a schizophrenic kaleidoscope of meaningless fragments. Benjamin aptly describes this loss as a loss of experience.
Historically, the various modes of communication have competed with one another. The replacement of the older narration by information, of information by sensation, reflects the increasing atrophy of experience. In turn, there is a contrast between all these forms and the story, which is one of the oldest forms of communication. It is not the object of the story to convey a happening per se, which is the purpose of information; rather, it embeds it in the life of the storyteller in order to pass it on as experience to those listening. It thus bears the marks of the storyteller much as the earthen vessel bears the marks of the potter’s hand.
– Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
What Benjamin describes is a loss of intimacy. For the implicit, the story, the trace of information connects for Benjamin directly with the memory and the mind of the receiver. In this sense it leaves its scent within the person and not at a distance that is intellectual but, in a place where it is felt. the resonant and the evocative reach a deeper chord for creatures who need meaning to understand. The loss Benjamin describes is one of quality epitomized by the mechanical for the considered. We have accepted a frenzy of obvious gratuitous and tiring.
A city like London, where one can roam about for hours without reaching the beginning of an end, without seeing the slightest sign that open country is nearby, is really something very special. This colossal centralization, this agglomeration of three and a half million people on a single spot has multiplied the strength of these three and a half million inhabitants a hundredfold. . . . But the price that has been paid is not discovered until later. Only when one has tramped the pavements of the main streets for a few days does one notice that these Londoners have had to sacrifice what is best in human nature to create all the wonders of civilization with which their city teems, that a hundred creative faculties that lay dormant in them remained inactive and were suppressed. . . . There is something distasteful about the very bustle of the streets, something that is abhorrent to human nature itself. Hundreds of thousands of people of all classes and ranks of society jostle past one another; are they not all human beings with the same characteristics and potentialities, equally interested in the pursuit of happiness? . . .And yet they rush past one another as if they had nothing in common or were in no way associated with one another. Their only agreement is a tacit one: that everyone should keep to the right of the pavement, so as not to impede the stream of people moving in the opposite direction. No one even bothers to spare a glance for the others. The greater the number of people that are packed into a tiny space, the more repulsive and offensive becomes the brutal indifference, the unfeeling concentration of each person on his private affairs.
– Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England
Engels description may appear bucolic. It is in the same romantic vein as Benjamin. However, it resonates the point. That everyone one on those streets is a life and from the perspective of the city street those lives appear impoverished, for it is a race whose tacit agreement “to the right of the pavement” underpins a regimentation that is anything but free.
Proust read the sonnet in this light, and that is why he gave his later echo of the woman in mourning, which appeared to him one day in the. form of Albertine, the evocative caption “La Parisienne.” “When Albertine came into my room again, she wore a black satin dress. It made her pale, and she resembled the type of the fiery and yet pale Parisian woman, the woman who is not used to fresh air and has been affected by living among masses and possibly in an atmosphere of vice, the kind that can be recognized by a certain glance which seems unsteady if there is no rouge on her cheeks.” This is the look—even as late as Proust—of the object of a love which only a city dweller experiences, which Baudelaire captured for poetry, and of which one might not infrequently say that it was spared, rather than denied, fulfillment.
– Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
In this again intimacy and passion are lost to a neurosis, a loss of self for a narrow and worn patina. The soul is stymied from freedom and wracked with from the absence of touch by the grating anxieties of every moment. This is the romanticists city.
Sometimes I long to be 21 again. I long for the sheer novelty of the world. Sometimes I look back at the best moments of that time. The world was steeped in mystery and I was open eyed and idealistic. Idealism became fervor as I grew older and fervor an aggression toward a world that would not corroborate my ideals. I am older now. The bustle of cities, life has at times worn thin my very memories of youth. I fight with drudgery without acceptance but, I am destined to loose that fight. Not because I am weak but, because life does have ages and with those ages come the epochs of our lives. But, what I hope not to lose with the silver lining of the moon is the sentiment of my youth. It is in that there is a passion for the world and it is from that which bogs us down can be lifted. It is in this that intimacy exists for intimacy is a connection between two at a point in a journey that exists only in a moment.
In my mind’s eye the moon fills the evening sky with silver. It watches, not with lunacy, but with rational distance; it spares us the the glare of the sun and cools heads from all that is hard. The moon for us is an open door to younger year’s passion; an even temper of age. The distance from the resolution the day weighs on us is cool relief through an opaque window into ourselves. Its shadows complement the sun giving points of peace from which we can be free; is is respite. If I were to feel the calm of oblivion every night. But, better still to be passionately calm in the moments that pass, like the road, with us, through time.