November 01, 2015

Newly relevant

I was thinking about this chart in my car today, on the way back from the coffee shop.

Assuming for a moment that this is not just another journalistic reproduction of academic malpractice, my future from here appears to be one of long, slow, cognitive petrification.  As much as I'd like to imagine otherwise, my most flexible and creative thinking is probably, according to science, in the past.

This is a bit of an unpleasant shock.  Many of us toil away at various professional tasks in middle age with the idea that one day we'll retire and take up something entirely new (perhaps drawing, for me), or devote ourselves to an avocation long-deferred (writing?).  But what will we be when we reach that point?  Will our eyes be sharp enough to see?  Will we uncomfortable and urgent and open enough to honestly report?

Well, I thought to myself, even if this is true, I could go back through my younger thoughts.  When I worked at WordsWorth I amassed quite a lot of random ideas walking among the stacks on my break, or working on the register late at night.  I had taped up this bit of Eliot's Four Quartets on the side of the register booth:

What might have been and what has been 
Point to one end, which is always present. 
Footfalls echo in the memory 
Down the passage which we did not take 
Towards the door we never opened 
Into the rose-garden. My words echo 
Thus, in your mind.

I think it caught my eye because of the odd combination of its earnestness, its quasi-profundity, and the (usual for Eliot) immaculate prosody.  I admired its ambition but condemned its self-importance.  I got a tape of Eliot reading it, and admired his steadiness and clarity but condemned his preciously constructed accent.

So, I thought as the cappuccino sloshed in its paper cup, I could write an essay about Four Quartets.  Not an easy topic: it is a masterwork prepared during a horrific war, in which he meditates on the nature of time and memory, and on both Hindu and Christian conceptions of the meaning of life.  And, writing in a faithless time, he makes a poem in which high-flown religious and philosophical sentiments are continuously subverted by an emotional tone bordering on clinical depression:

The river is within us, the sea is all about us; 
The sea is the land's edge also, the granite, 
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses 
Its hints of earlier and other creation: 
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone; 
The pools where it offers to our curiosity 
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone. 
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine, 
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar 
And the gear of foreign dead men. 

No, it is too much, I thought.  Time is no healer, after all, the patient is no longer here.  I would be writing about someone else's worries in someone else's time, and also T.S. Eliot.

Rather than pursue this nonsense any further I settled in for a Sunday morning on the sofa, and fired up the BBC for some ambient sound.  Then, for reasons I cannot explain, I decided to listen to an episode of "Desert Island Discs", and of course plumped for the one with Stephen Fry.

Under the rules of the show guests are allowed to take the Bible along, as well as the complete works of Shakespeare.  But what other book would you take?  Fry mentioned how much he loved Eliot - "I particularly love his Four Quartets" - and said he would choose that book, above all others, to take with him.

Along with some paintbrushes.


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