—Falhámos a vida, menino!
Eça de Queirós, Os Maias
The traditional age to face failure! There were the narrowings—the side roads that led nowhere, or were blocked, or never tried—and then the unexpected widenings, the forking channels that you ended up taking both ways, then five ways, then down into capillaries until you find that you’re taking all paths at once, like Feynman’s electron, and no wonder you’re tired. There is something on the other side, of course, but all you know is the voltage gradient that it generates.
Dante, run to ruin at thirty-five, is plucked up and turned around. But not all the way. He sees the prideful weighed down by stones and knows he’ll see them again. All the sweetness in heaven can’t ease the salt burn of exile.
Du Fu at thirty-five fails his civil service examination for the last time—the prime minister is fearful of rivals and fails everyone that year. He has the consolation of a country garden, but he’s no fool and can see wars coming. He has children anyway.
The battle plan burnt up, the Sicilian defense overturned, the last survivors a rook, two bishops and a pawn on a hobbyhorse pretending to be a knight (very convicing; it knows some phrases in Norman French), thirty-five is brought round to admit that it has been fighting a war of choice. Vanitas! What is called failure is a ground state, a common cup. Vanitas vanitatum!
Youth held its potential very dear. But it had to run that potential through a cheap solid-state amp bought by youth’s parents as a gesture of hope, a month after youth got out of the mental hospital; while age receives from age’s spouse the gift of a grown-up tube amp with steady song.
Meanwhile R. enters the lyric tradition:
How I wonder
And this morning I went over to the Asian Art Museum and saw a lacquer calligraphy box inscribed with a poem:
Like the cloth printed
with ferns in far Shinobu
of the deep north
if not for you for whom would I
dye my heart with tangled love
One room over was an anonymous fifteenth-century death of the Buddha, a very serene Buddha, though everyone around him was torn apart by grief. There were gods and demons mixed in with the human mourners, and at bottom all the other creatures of the world: an elephant, a lion, horses and camels, snakes and small birds and mice, each grieving in its way. The effect was like that last conversation in Büchner’s Lenz where Lenz says that if he were God and could no longer bear the suffering, he would just save everyone—ich würde retten, retten. Across the hall were beautiful paintings by Maruyama Ōkyo and Itō Jakuchū, many of them done when old men.
It’s winter in the persimmon tree, and the mynah bird is cold.
The water on the surface of Basin by Izumi Masatoshi seems not to move. You have to bend very close to see the shaking reflections and hear the trickle.
What surprises me most in all this is the theatricality of renunciation. One can renounce, but it doesn’t switch off the gradient. Renunciation sits perfectly at ease next to the old craving for the Dantean journey, the opening crack. And this remains true even when there seems to be absolutely no surface in which a crack could open, not from morn to eve.