When I was in college, I once blurted out in a literature seminar class about a Shakespeare tragedy (Lear, I think): “But what does it mean for me?” The professor smiled gently, which meant it was all right for everyone else to laugh, and I never again asked that sort of question. At least not so nakedly, and certainly not aloud.
Of course, this took place long ago. Before the beginning of adult life, so to speak. These days, much nearer its ending, I seem to have begun again to make similar queries about my reading. Perhaps the self-centeredness of youth, so long suppressed in the interests of family well-being and societal give-and-take, arises again as obligations and companions become fewer and one finds oneself more and more alone with reading matter and thoughts. Now I find myself underlining. Occasionally, I even write nearly undecipherable comments in the margin; they are baldly about me in my declining years, irrespective of the thrust of the argument or narrative I am reading, which may be going somewhere else entirely.
One: In a book for the general reader called Stumbling on Happiness, the author — Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard — explains, amusingly, that few people realize psychologists all take a vow that at some point in their professional lives they will publish a book or chapter or article that contains the sentence: “The human being is the only animal that…” They can finish The Sentence any way they like but also understand that whatever else they may have accomplished professionally, they will be remembered (if at all) for that sentence. He then goes on:
I have never before written The Sentence, but I’d like to do so now, with you as my witness. The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future. Now let me say up front that I’ve had cats, I’ve had dogs, I’ve had gerbils, mice, goldfish, and crabs (no not that kind), and I do recognize that nonhuman animals often act as though they have the capacity to think about the future. But ….[u]ntil a chimp weeps at the thought of growing old alone, or smiles as it contemplates its summer vacation, or turns down a Fudgsicle because it already looks too fat in shorts, I will stand by my version of The Sentence. We think about the future in a way that no other animal can, does, or ever has, and this simple, ubiquitous, ordinary act, is a defining feature of our humanity.
My question in the margin disregarded the humor. I demanded of Gilbert: “And what of the human being who can identify no remaining future worth living for? Is weeping all there is?”
Two: When Breath Becomes Air is a touching fragment of a book by Paul Kalanithi, a highly promising young neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer just as he was finishing his training and died at the age of 37 while writing his story. (His wife completed it in an epilogue to the book.) He describes what confirmed him in his choice of neurosurgery as his specialty in the following passage:
While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact…. At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living. Would you trade your ability — or your mother’s — to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage? Your right hand’s function to stop seizures? … Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?
Without having to confront the trauma of brain surgery, Kalanithi’s question nevertheless resonates with me. As one begins to experience the admittedly much slower but inexorable decline in one’s capacities that accompanies (the trauma of?) aging, it’s difficult sometimes to avoid asking: “What does make life meaningful enough to make one want to get out of bed in the morning if one still can, or at least sit up, and get on with whatever life is left?
Three: Somewhat more positive are the views expressed by the late Henning Mankell in a compilation of essays, written while he was dying of cancer, called Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human Being. (Mankell is best known for his Inspector Wallander mysteries, which have been filmed both in Sweden and by Kenneth Branagh in England; both sets are available on Netflix.) I haven’t yet read Quicksand, but did read a review of it by Sheena Joughin in The Times Literary Supplement for March 4, 2016. Thinking of life as quicksand is unsettling, but as one grows older seems more and more apt. The following is from the review:
Quicksand is preoccupied with those who are in life yet set apart from it, as Mankell feels himself to be following his diagnosis. He visits a church in the town of Slap to gaze at an eighteenth-century family portrait with fifteen children in it.
“What is striking and remarkable about the picture, and perhaps also frightening, is that the artist…painted the children who were already dead.” This is a consolation to Mankell….
He admits that illness has made it hard to read new books, so he returns to those he already loves, most crucially Robinson Crusoe–a story he rewrote as a child and now so important to him because Robinson, despite his isolation, is never really alone: “The reader is always with him, invisible but by his side.”….Writing his way through cancer, Mankell knows he is in an ambiguous place — between life and death, like everyone always — yet still “the same person I had been before….It was possible to live in two worlds at the same time.” Quicksand gives us that rare opportunity too.
I find heartening these observations about the power of the pictures we paint and the literature we write to keep us, in a way, not alone while we live — and still alive afterward. Should we not make pictures or write on then, till the end, leaving some aspect of ourselves still here for those who come after?