A Vengeful Old Age

The big holdover of suspense that began at the end of yesterday’s workday and lasted until I got into the office this afternoon was whether I’d decided to go to a spectacular, right-up-my alley event, or whether I’d surrendered to the exhaustion brought on by a busy week and an overwhelming desire to dive under some very cozy covers and conk out to the comfort entailed in pajama-clad warmth.

Well, reader, there really was no suspense involved; we all knew I’d throw in the towel, given the fact that, with my early waking hours and my true love of sleep, I’d never make it out, on a week night, to something that would just be getting started a couple of hours after my dinnertime. It all sounds so sad– and probably continues to appear so when I admit that it’s now a Friday night, and I’m 100% keen on curling up in a big chair with a blanket knit by a friend, a nice cup of tea, and some Euripides. Yes, everyone, I’m old way before my time.

That non-realization (I’ve borne the heart of a 95-year-old somewhere inside me ever since I was, oh, five, in actual age) had me musing on Yeats’s “When You Are Old,” a little piece that appears a lot more innocent than it is, at least at a quick read. But that “one man [who] loved the pilgrim soul in you” is really just getting in a very smoothly delivered gloat of vengeance– a bit of smug victory we’d all like to believe we can claim over crushes who didn’t take us up on our offer to join in a duo of mutual admiration, a triumph that would confirm the other person really just never had anything else going in life, really had no individual core of meaning, and is now a completely empty, useless shell, since the only possible source of fulfillment has moved on to more appreciative hearts.

How self-affirming to believe that I’m so damn fascinating and unique among all other human beings that my run through someone’s life has left an indelible mark on that person’s brain, heart, and soul! But the desire to have proof that such a thing has happened isn’t really about winning or not winning over some particular person; it’s about wanting to see yourself as indisputably memorable and awesome– because, apparently, we can never be too sure that our own comfort in our own skin is ever good enough. To put it in more complicated terms, go check out Hegel’s Phenomenology, and the fight to the death in an attempt to win the Other’s recognition.

When I say Yeats’s poem is one produced by a boy who’s been told no, and who has moved for that reason from loving what he wants to wishing ill upon what he can’t have, I’m not condemning the poet himself; he’s just expressing what we’ve all probably thought at one point or another (only he’s actually telling his would-be lady– Maud Gonne– what he’s thinking). Maybe once the poet himself grew a little older, he mellowed out, grew to think less like a spoiled child, vis-à-vis a woman who, from the sound of it, had very much her own, full life.

But let’s admit it: at any age, wouldn’t we like to be the best thing that ever happened to someone? If we could know that had come to pass, just once– that our lives had had at least that bit of impact on the world– maybe our own slide into old age wouldn’t cause us to “Murmur, [even] a little sadly.”

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