Saturday, February 16, 2013

'A Paltry Thing'

An aged man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick . . . (W.B. Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium")

 I have just emerged blinking into the sunlight from a weeklong bout with a bronchial flu that very nearly dispatched me. Not to put too fine a point on it, until about yesterday I scarcely cared whether I lived or not. Illness brings with it an odd state of grace, berefting one of every appetite, desire, pleasure, fear, delusion of immortality or urge to sin. I'm still feeling slightly transparent, as though the sun might shine right through me and cast a grinning, skeletal shadow. In the grip of a grippe, I feel invisible.

Me, indisposed

For all practical considerations, these (mercifully infrequent) bouts of indisposition leave me feeling as though I'm coming up fast on a century, and so able to speak with some authority on the subject of senescent decrepitude. Even minor illnesses, after a certain age, are simulacra of the debt we all owe to nature. Being sick as an alley cat is one sure way of achieving a sage-like detachment.

I was reminded, in this foggy delirium, of the introit to Plato's Republic, when the elderly Cephalus converses with his son's pal, Socrates, on all the virtues attending old age. When he meets with his aged friends, Cephalus reports, "most of them lament, longing for the pleasures of youth and reminiscing about sex, drinking bouts and feasts, and all that goes with things of that sort." Cephalus himself doesn't share this nostalgia, recounting the poet Sophocles' answer to the question how his sexual endurance had stood up to his advance in years. "Silence, man," Sophocles scolded. "Most joyfully did I escape it, as though I had run away from a sort of frenzied and savage master."

What some little boys want

The point of the story, as the entire Republic then proceeds to argue, is that virtue is engagement in the actions that define good human beings, and not merely foreswearing vice out of caution, a maidenly prudence, sanctimony, plain weariness, evangelical conviction, fear of divine reprisal or the benign exhaustion of the elderly. So if there ever were such things as saints, it's probably misleading to paint them as hoary with age; if the elderly are benign, they may be so equally by temperament and habit of life, or merely out of an incapacity to continue as the stinkers they may have been in their prime. Loss of appetite over time masquerades as virtue, just as our aversion to repeated hard experience passes for wisdom.

None of this is to imply that I've just survived some epic adventure in delirium and returned from the other side - it was just generally crappy, garden-variety stuff, the sort of intense unpleasantness that can turn anyone into an existentialist and make us wonder why on earth we're still alive, how much worse life is about to get in the next hour or so, and whether we have the fortitude to manage much more of it. Turns out that I did not. I attribute my survival only to that reliable old Newtonian hobby-horse, inertia, combined with a dollop of malingering obstinacy. I hope that is not all I ever acquire of wisdom, but it will have to do for now.

Been here before

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