Thursday, May 03, 2007


Unhappily Ever After

Eric Thompson writes:

I have every sympathy with Phil Flemming. Old Crocks are rotting hulks, or else converted by the lights of perverted science into ‘ships of Theseus’, replaced plank by plank (viz. hips, knees, valves, livers, kidneys, faces) until their continued identity is in jeopardy. As to whether we should all be scuttled at 55, I don’t think somehow it would get through the Senate.

The only contented Tithonos I can imagine would be the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who always had a morbid obsession with remaining alive:
“No quiero morirme, no; no quiero, ni quiero quererlo; quiero vivir siempre, siempre, siempre, y vivir yo este pobre yo que me soy y me siento ser ahora y aquí, y por esto me tortura el problema de la duración de mi alma, de la mía propia.”

I do not want to die – no, I neither want to die nor do I want to want to die; I want to live for ever and ever and ever. I want this ‘I’ to live - this poor ‘I’ that I am and that I feel myself to be here and now, and therefore the problem of the duration of my soul, of my own soul, tortures me. Del Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida [1913], Alianza: Madrid (1986): 58-9.
Unamuno went out like a light - felix opportunitate mortis in view of the impending Civil War - on New Year’s Eve, 1936.

Decrepit Methuselahs haven’t got much going for them but longevity does give the curmudgeon a certain depth and range that we younger malcontents can’t aspire to. When a 116 year-old Ukrainian bachelor declares that life really was better under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who am I to dissent?

In James Merrill’s ‘The Immortal Husband’ (1956) Tithonos, having cleared up the misunderstanding with Aurora regarding the terms of the contract, foresees that in less than a hundred years he’ll be “a horrible old man, drooling, deaf!”, having earlier assured his father that – “you’ll dry up and die, each year older and sicker, and your mind gone! And I’ll be as I am now, strong, young, a hundred years, a thousand, after you’re in your grave!...”

This raises a dilemma that is really the corollary of Tithonos – the Makropulos Case, from the play (Věc Makropulos, 1922) by Karel Čapek (1890-1938) and which is the subject of a famous essay by Bernard Williams (in Problems of the Self, 1973). Elina Makropulos was guinea pig for an elixir of life devised by her father, Court physician to a sixteenth century Emperor. After 345 years she’s had enough, paralysed by the unbearable tedium. In the powerful climax of the Janáček opera of the same name, she cries out:
Oh, life should not last so long!
If you only realised how easy life is for you!
You are so close to everything!
For you everything makes sense!
For you, everything has value!
Fools, for the trivial reason
That you are going to die soon.

But in me life has come to a halt,
And can go no further!
What hideous solitude!
It’s all in vain, Krista,
Whether you sing or keep silent –
No pleasure in being good,
No pleasure in being bad.
No pleasure on earth,
No pleasure in Heaven.
And one comes to learn
That the soul has died inside one. (Act III, 4)
Phil Flemming’s beau/bow reminded me of Juvenal:
Young men are not all the same,
One is handsome, one a beau,
One is stronger than another.
In old age it’s all the same –
Lips that quiver when they speak,
Hairless head and drivelling nose,
Toothless jaws that cannot chew,
They’re a burden to their wives,
To their children – and themselves ….

Plurima sunt iuvenum discrimina; pulchrior ille
Hoc atque ille alio, multum hic robustior illo:
Una senum facies. Cum voce trementia membra
Et iam leve caput madidique infantia nasi,
Frangendus misero gingiva panis inermi;
Usque adeo gravis uxori natisque sibique… Sat X, 196-201
And also of the gruesome story (apocryphal or not) of Balzac’s wife Eveline cavorting with the painter Gigoux as Balzac lay slowly and painfully dying in the room next door. The occasional groan from both rooms, I imagine.

On ‘the door is open’ solution, there is this chilling caveat from Borges, the closing lines of ‘El Centinela’ from ‘El Libro del Arena’ (1975):
“La puerta del suicida eatá siempre abierta, pero los teólogos afirman que en la sombra ulterior del otro reino estaré yo, eperándome.”

The door to suicide is open, but theologians assert that, in the far shadows of the other kingdom, there will be I, waiting for myself.

If you follow the link, you'll find that Eric's "116 year-old Ukrainian bachelor" has an aptronym, Hryhoriy Nestor. Nestor is the old, garrulous man in Homer's Iliad. Eric's "ship of Theseus" is an allusion to Plutarch, Life of Theseus 23.1 (tr. Bernadotte Perrin):
The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the the time of Demetrius Phalereus. They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became a standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel.
In Eric's following sentence, "scuttled" is the mot juste for a ship intentionally sunk, and "Senate" is (etymologically speaking) an assembly of old men. Finally, felix opportunitate mortis comes from Tacitus, Agricola 45:
Tu vero felix, Agricola, non vitae tantum claritate, sed etiam opportunitate mortis.

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