Summing up a life

Before me is a copy of “Primed for Life: Writings on Midlife by 18 Men”, edited by Lorna Kalaw-Tirol and published by Anvil.  I think one has to be of a certain disposition to appreciate the courage that went into the writing of each one of these fascinating contributions.  At midlife, the best of one’s writing acquires the character either of theory or of confession.  In either case, one courts vulnerability.

More than a year ago, Lorna asked me to be one of the contributors to this midlife anthology, but I quickly declined the honor, pleading lack of time.  The real reason is that I was afraid.  I was turning 50, and feeling unsure of what to do or feel at that age.  Before this, I could not imagine myself being unsure about anything.  I had planned to embark on two things to mark that milestone.

First, I wanted to take a travel leave for a year,  to see our country up close, by myself and without a fixed itinerary.  My family said that I could not do it.   I would be looking for the creature comforts of home, and I would definitely not be left alone.  My bones would not be able to survive the bus rides, and I would be gripped by intense loneliness.  I copped out, and went to lecture in Mexico instead, accompanied by a solicitous daughter.

I wanted to travel because I wanted to have time to collect my thoughts, to sort them out, and, in effect, to sum up my life.  I was not certain how this was to be done.  And I must confess that just thinking about it intimidated me.  For the real journey, as I saw it,  was to be into the mind or into the self, or both.  I did not know where to begin; all I knew was how unreflective my life had been.

I do not think it is mortality that seizes you in midlife.  Nor is it anxiousness about your accomplishments.  What consumes you is, rather, the challenge of self-understanding – to know in your heart, independently of other people’s opinions, what is distinctive about you, what kind of person you have become, to reconcile with this person, and to figure out what needs to be done in the remaining years to make this idiosyncratic life hopefully a work of art.

It is not an easy task.  Every step of the way, your illusions comfort you.  The recognition that others have conferred on you deflect your attention.  You cannot begin to look at yourself honestly, without being tempted to seek refuge in the assurance that accumulated wealth, power, status and friends provide.  That is probably why most people could undertake this kind of self-examination only in the face of death, when there is hardly any time left.

A poem by Philip Larkin is used by the philosopher Richard Rorty to pin down what this quest is all about.  Observe the way the phrase “blind impress” is used in the poem.  Rorty weaves an entire essay around this metaphor in order to stress the contingent character of our selfhood.

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is as clear as a lading-list
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist
And what’s the profit?  Only that, in time
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home. But to confess,
On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once, And that man dying.

The marking of midlife is an occasion to sort out  life’s “lading-list” in the hope of identifying and “tracing home” that “blind impress all our behavings bear”.    Because there is ample time left after midlife, the effort need not be attended by a tragic fear of loss, or trivialized by a sense of futility or resignation.  And what’s the profit?  Why should anyone desire self-consciousness?  There is a variety of reasons. I am sure each of the 18 men who shared their most private thoughts and fears in “Primed for Life” had his own reason for baring an aspect of his soul in this manner.

Whether we are aware of it or not, there is always, says Rorty, a wish to free ourselves from the self-image supplied to us by the authority figures of our lives – our parents, our teachers, our moral elders, our significant others.  We yearn to see ourselves naked, without the mediation of those who have known us and shaped our lives.

Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”, Rorty says, is a paradigm for this kind of private emancipation.   Revisiting the scenes of his childhood, Proust encounters his authority figures in a new light. He contextualizes them, and sees them no longer as moral superiors but as “fellow-sufferers”.  In this manner, he begins to understand his own life, the origins of his feelings, beliefs, tastes, ideas and fears.

Such a summing-up, Rorty reminds us, is nothing less than an effort at re-description of a life.  In this sense, the quest  must begin with the search for a new vocabulary – new words and new metaphors  by which we could re-imagine our lives.  That is why I read.  I read as someone furiously searching for ever new maps by which to find new routes to old destinations.  And I am now aware that there are no definitive final maps, just as there are no final vocabularies.


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