Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ages of Man

The Ages of Man. 13th c. illumination
There were many, many things to get done today, and I had another unexpected window of time on my own. But it was more than just a couple of hours: it stretched out luxuriously for 5 or 6 hours. And so existentialism set in, and now it is the end of the day, and everyone will be coming home soon and I have a clean downstairs office and a lot of inertia and tears to show for it.  Whenever I am not busy, I mourn my father.  I cannot help but visit the horror of his current state - Iris Murdoch's sense of horror gives it all shape here: that confrontation with the naked truth of loss and sickening vulnerability, of everything raw we've ever wanted from another human being, of the absolute inevitable inglorious end of all this. It makes me sad that my time alone always culminates in these kinds of thoughts: I'd wanted to work on my essay, read my Jerusalem book of late, clean everything all over the house. If I were more resourceful I'd find a way to turn all of these confusions, these things that are happening to so many people after all, and do something productive, something worthy of my father. Instead, I just stare into the incredible hollowness, or this hollow place (because there are such riches and colors elsewhere) that his demise emits.

And lately, things in my father's brain have made confronting all of this more and more intense. He calls every morning telling me to take him to North Carolina; he says lots and lots of things that aren't worth writing down because they're ridiculous and awful and the words will stay out here, while his thoughts will have fled long ago.  So I go to see him, I go to apologize to the nurses for all of the yelling that he's doing: he's refusing to sleep in his bed, he wants to dictate letters, he won't let them change him.  I try to talk to him, to reason with him a little bit, to cajole him, joke with him, distract him.  He says totally crazy stuff back. And then he says stuff that's not crazy at all: his gaze is familiar, the tone of his voice makes the deepest sense - there's a lucid flash that makes me believe completely for that moment that everything else is what's false and this is what's real. But then he says something to make me realize afresh anew that no, no he's gone and why can't I get that through my head? I know that I'm supposed to put all that somewhere, the things he says, the looks, the gestures; I know that I'm supposed to dismiss it and chalk it up and sequester it. But in these moments I just can not. And yet (I start to tell myself), everybody goes through this: everybody loses someone at one point or another.  Faster or slower. There is absolutely nothing unusual or terrifying about any of this.  Like with so many other things, I need find the larger narrative, join it, help it help me make sense of things.  Move away from the raw existential thrust of it (this is my father whom I knew, who is alone and angry and strange), to the expansive narrative frame for it (there is love and there is loss that everyone endures, and you are not alone and his anger is not real and actually it's not so strange).

The general tenor surrounding old age in the medieval period is that of the ridiculous: the doddering, the wandering, the negligible.  The medieval west was not a culture to respect its elders - there's no ancestor worship, no great amount of time or ritual spent making the old venerable.  There's an interesting history there, no doubt. For now, these 10 Ages of Man fascinate. Here they are again:

You read it starting at 7 p.m. - you are born and held by your mother warmly by the fire; you are young and vain; you measure things (a trade?); you are a young squire/knight falconing - ah, the time of love and war; at the noon position, you reign you are supreme you are self-possessed and full of possessions like a king; and then you bid farewell to yourself, walking away with a cane; you do in fact talk to small children (this roundel is so, so interesting - I can't see the writing enough to know, but will pursue the image to find out); and then you take to your bed and the physician reads your demise in the urine flask; a priest reads over your dead body, and (I think) empty sits the altar over which your mass was said.  The scroll held by the king in the top left reads "Iuventus" (youth), the one held by the bearded prophet to the right "Senectus" (old age).  The one to the bottom left reads something about infancy, I bet.  The whole thing is in the shape of a wheel, and conjures up Fortune's wheel which has you up on top of the world, and down below getting crunched - all within a lifetime, sometimes within a day. I don't have to be lost in some unfixed state: this enormous narrative keeps moving, it has the momentum of history - and, as I've found out in the process of writing this post and visiting others' writings in the quest for images and answers to medieval questions, the companionship of kindred spirits. I'm humbled and comforted to read about the complexity of memory and its call to further mysteries.  My dread can turn to fascination if I think of the others who have thought this through.


  1. I was deeply moved by this ... and I am so sorry for what you are going through with your dad.


  2. My dad's brain injury happened 7 years ago, and it has made me rethink everything - self, soul, reality. The intersections with medieval have been strange but many. Someday I hope to articulate the debt I am so glad to have to your writings (it started for me with _Medieval Identity Machines_) - for now, I am grateful for your presence "out here."