Authors: Arnold Weinstein
Tags: #Social Sciences, #Essays, #Writing, #Nonfiction, #Education
“What is the creature that is on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, three legs at night?” Oedipus answers, “Man.” He wins the prize, becomes king, and marries the queen, all because he understood the riddle. It is a story we think we too understand. Four legs means crawling infant; two legs means erect and upright at one’s prime; three legs means leaning on a staff or crutch or family member in old age. Man would be the creature whose legs vary in number, whose very locomotion alters, whose hardwired metamorphoses are governed by planetary rules: a morning phase, an evening phase. Only Homo sapiens goes through these transformations. Other species grow up and grow old, but they leave no record of what they encountered.
Oedipus does not say “time”; he does not say “story.” Yet that is what the riddle actually signifies: the trip through time, the universal human voyage from morning to noon, from noon to night. Oedipus’s own dark fate lies coiled, concealed, in just those passages. So, too, does our own. The human story is rich in testimony about these two central transformations, growing up and growing old, that script so much: not just our lives but our notions about education, love, maturation, wisdom. Here is the trajectory from innocence to experience, the entry/exit scheme, that frames all life. My book takes its lessons from the Sphinx, to explore these fundamental and fateful passages. How much do we actually know about these crucial chapters of our existence? Is your own story a riddle?
Our past grows every moment we live—Proust beautifully said that we live on stilts, stilts that get longer each day of our life, stilts from which we must eventually fall—but it also grows further away, seems at once haunting and unreal. We ask: Was that I? Are those scrapbook images real? I know they are accurate, would pass muster in a courtroom, but are they real? Can I still feel the pulsing life in those frozen images? “Old men ought to be explorers, still and still moving,” wrote T. S. Eliot. As I move toward my end stage, what purchase can I possibly have on my beginning, my formation? Proust’s legendary account of a tired and depressed middle-aged man dipping a pastry, a madeleine, into a teacup and recovering—shimmering, alive, deep inside him but now rising anew, bathed in the air of long ago—his childhood: this beautiful version of retrieval has eluded me personally for some time now, and I fear it may be the same for many of my readers.
If recapturing childhood’s form is hard, the experience and story of aging—inevitably upon me, governing my field of vision—are no less resistant to analysis. Yes, I am out of childhood, but then I am in old age and hence blinded to its evolving and defining contours, even if it is the autumnal air I daily breathe. A wrinkle here, a lapse there, a failing system elsewhere: the somatic last chapter has markers. But the aging mind? The soul in its late phase? The ending that must come? The meaning of the circle that is about to close? Who can see his or her own fuller shape with any finality? How would one go about charting these terrains?
My book addresses a poverty so basic, so elemental, that we do not even realize it afflicts us: we do not possess our own lives. The signifying arc through time that each of us lives—how we became who we are, what we are about, where we are headed—that would illuminate our story is elusive indeed. Do our days and years possess a melody? Especially as we near the end, we yearn for a clearer, fuller, more dimensional record of who we are. Where to find it? The story of our lives should be our greatest possession, our central estate; yet we are all too often locked out of it. We know that time is among the grand culprits, steathily eroding event into memory and memory into ashes. But even if you recalled every single act of your life, could call them all up on some kind of screen, would you know how to put them together, what they add up to?
Hence, those are the large issues I am after. Not unlike Thoreau, who elected to live in a hut at Walden Pond in order to grab life by the throat, I seek to get at the pith of things, to take measures. Especially beginnings and endings. Growing up: What can you know about how you became you, about your formative encounters with family, others, and society, about the forces that nourished or stunted you, about the emerging shape of your life? Where would you go to learn this? And then the second half of the diptych: How can one size up the inexorable process of aging, approaching the end of the curve, with all its vexed questions: When does maturity become decline? When does decline become disaster? Does growing old signify gain or loss of worth? Wisdom or obsolescence? Clarity or murk? Again: Where do we find answers?
Neither mirrors nor diaries offer testimony about these intimate yet intractable matters, since they are unequipped to capture our becoming or our altering, our dance through time. It is strange, given the information glut of our day, how unprovided we are on this score. Consider, for a moment, Ali Baba. Visualize him at his cave, pronouncing his mantra, “Open Sesame,” and then entering those precincts to possess his hidden treasure. But what if the treasure is not coins of gold but the cave itself, the possession of one’s own voluminous life? Is that not our truest treasure? And is it not hidden? But it can be made visible. For here is the central truth of this book (and of my life):
we can find our form in books
. Yes, in books written by others, about others. Together we will visit—indeed, raid—the huge storehouse of life stories that go by the name of literature. I think we shall realize that
this is our mirror
It is odd that the testimony of literature is rarely invoked in these terms: as a tool of personal discovery, indeed as a purchase on our own evolving form. Too easily dismissed as something to read and process either in a mandatory way at school or as an escape before going to sleep, a living work of art actually possesses a bare-bones practicality, indeed a
, that we need to recover: it helps us toward a richer grasp of our own estate. What you find inside this mirror of life stories is an inexhaustible treasure house of “might-have-beens” and “might-bes,” a repertoire of scenarios showing how one moves through time, how one is made up of forces beyond one’s control and ken, how events form and deform us, how one becomes oneself, how that self responds to its pact with time and conducts its pas de deux with entropy and death. This is precious. A novel of two hundred pages may package a life of seventy years; yet a novel of two hundred pages requires a day or so to read, while a seventy-year life requires seventy years. Isn’t this one profound reason we read novels? Art makes life visible.
You might ask: How can a work of literature, especially one written centuries ago, possibly shed light on me: my experiences, my formation, my running story? It is a good question, and it has some good answers. Great art lives in a way that transcends its moment, reaching something more universal, gesturing toward life experiences that are at once time-bound and timeless. The proof behind this (ahistorical) assertion is embarrassingly simple: every time you read a book that speaks to you, that engages your mind and feelings, you are encountering the truth of art. This is an exchange of inestimable value: testimony of the past traveling across the bridge of time into you the reader, hence becoming, at some hard-to-define level, your own lived experience. We are a far cry from websites or databases. We are tapping into living scripts that are big with life, into a mother lode that will nourish and grow us.
When a friend of mine was once asked, “Do you know much about Shakespeare?” she answered, “Not as much as he knows about me.” Is it possible that the great writers know us better than we know ourselves? Or that their creations might serve as touch-stones for our own self-knowledge? Yes, it is possible. Books house home truths. Harold Bloom points out that we know far more about Hamlet than we do about most of our best friends, and the young prince’s assertion that theater holds up a mirror to nature also describes the mirror that it holds up to ourselves.
Yet there is also another answer to this question about art’s relevance to our self-knowledge, and here I’d want to emphasize the actual historicity of art. What frequently shocks me most in reading older works—the trajectory of Oedipus from infant to old man, the adventures of the
in seventeenth-century Spain or the plight of Shakespeare’s tragic figures, the protagonists of Balzac and Dickens and the Brontë sisters and Twain in the nineteenth century, the sacrificial victims of Kafka, the doomed ones of Faulkner—is their bite and pungency, their often disturbing relevance for our moment. Oversubscribed to notions of “progress,” we too often live with the fantasy that it was all so different then, as well as the conviction that
is unique, unforeseen, not prophesied.
But the great stories, the beggar boy and the arrogant king, the young man trying to succeed in Paris or London, the old man abandoned by his grown daughters, the white dropout kid saddled with a runaway slave, even the salesman turned into a bug or the idiot moaning for his long-gone sister: yes, such stories are drenched in specificity and local color and historical density, but they strike a chord in us in the twenty-first century as well, for we see how stubbornly their plots and crises live on in our own time, our own choices, our own dilemmas. The time travel afforded by art—a miraculously user-friendly form of voyaging in today’s tourist culture of busy airports and security checks and jet lag—accounts in part for the surprising immediacy of great books, but only in part. For it is also true that these existential depictions of growing up and growing old, whether 2,500 years ago or today, lay bare for us our own murky arrangements, those we’ve come through as well as those we’re headed toward, for it is certain that, absent terrible luck, each of us has grown up and will grow old.
We read books to widen and to deepen our own repertoire, because the performances of others (including fictive others) shed light on our own possibilities and limits. About those possibilities and limits—the self taking form, the figure achieving shape, the shape finally dissolving—we are otherwise, as I’ve said, strangely in the dark, since our education in school seems oddly outward-directed and generic in nature, anonymous even, unattuned to the ongoing private voyage we are making every minute. (The dazed look of students around the globe confirms this: whatever is happening in the classroom, whatever the subject, is distinctly
.) In the dark also because of natural incarceration, we are all landlocked creatures, stuck in particular minds and bodies, marooned in our specific time and place; and no matter how much information may come our way by dint of the electronic revolution that puts the world seemingly at our fingertips, only a click away, the austere fact of life is that we live and die within our own shell, doomed to our own perceptual equipment. Our eye can gauge much, but it cannot take the measure of “I.”
Literature is the great bridge that enables us to exit our precincts, that enables other places and other lives to come to us, asking us to “try it on,” “try it out.” Facts, statistics, theorems, and discursive argument address only our reasoning powers. Art operates differently; it is a beckoning mirror. It is, in the poet Baudelaire’s terms, an
invitation au voyage
. Put differently, literature grows us, and I am especially drawn to the unfurling organic processes in play here: not just the evolution of “characters” but our own move through time and—no less central—our move into the mirror, into the precious virtuality of art. Given my topic—growing up and growing old, how we enter and how we exit—nothing can possibly compete with literature as our source of illumination. Yes, the educators, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, doctors, and philosophers all have their special say about these two key facets of the life curve, but only the work of art treats us to that richer, pulsating, lived experience of what it might feel like to be there, to have been there, whether coming or going or both.
Art is our second life. Scholars frequently warn us not to identify with what we read but always to remember the constructedness and historicity of our materials, so as to acquire a critical stance. A book, we are admonished, is not a mirror but rather a record of the author’s time or place or agenda or even benightedness. On this head, our job is to analyze, even to deconstruct, them. Yet at some primitive and vital level, I think the professors have it dead wrong. The act of reading can and should be a more savage and cannibalistic affair than that. We consume books to absorb their nutrients, to turn words into tissue. Our basic encounter with art is outright elemental, akin to a blood transfusion.
Having taught literature for more than four decades, I know full well that books can also bore, even put readers to sleep. But ask yourself: Why do we read novels? What draws us to browse bookstores, to bring home a book, to open its cover and start in on a several-hundred-page trip? Humans read literature in order to live more, to live differently, to have a precious vicarious experience that is available in no other way. In the stories to come you may encounter a form of drastic dislocation, an opening of self like none other. Reading literature puts you there. No other travel plan comes even close.
To be there:
Kierkegaard wrote that written history’s greatest deception is its (unacknowledged) hindsight, its inevitable status as after the event, after the outcome; if you know the outcome, he said, you no longer understand the event, for you do not know how it feels to be on the front side of it, looking into the abyss, deciding what to do, making your leap or your fall. Literary depictions of growing up and growing old are rich in open-endedness, and thereby lies their authenticity. They possess no documentable truth, no bottom line, no scorekeeping, and hence offer us a taste of the possible. Not an “idea” but a