Friday, December 7, 2007

Reflections on Turning Seventy

(Sky in Honfleur by Nicholas de Stael)

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita...

I was twenty when I first read the opening line of Dante’s Inferno in my undergraduate Italian literature class. It would be another fifteen years before I reached the age the poet claimed for himself at the beginning of the journey he describes in the Commedia. Now I am twice that age and the years have appeared to pass with inconceivable rapidity. One moment, it would seem, I was sitting in my Italian professor Jeff Carre’s basement office, in Brunswick, Maine, where three of us met twice a week to read Dante in the original, and the next I’m standing in front of my bookcase in Gloucester, Massachusetts with the same volume of Grandgent’s edition of Dante I used in 1959, seeking out those words, which led me into one of my own life’s great journeys.

How nice it would be to find myself transported back to Jeff’s comfortable book lined sanctuary in Sills Hall to read Dante once again under his guidance, particularly with what I now know about literature and about life itself. For Dante, was, after all, one, if not the first, of the great literary realists, and that poem, as allegorically as it can be read, is also the story of a real journey—Dante’s through the inferno, purgatory and paradise of his own existential and spiritual quest, and the reader’s by extension.

How nice it would also be to return to Florence, where I again read Dante, this time with the great Medieval and Renaissance scholar Eugenio Garin, whose lectures on the Divine Alighieri sent me in search of the poet’s movements in the streets and alleys of the ancient city I came to love above all the cities I had visited or would ever visit.

But I can’t turn back the clock on my life. I can’t recover the years I’ve lost. All I can do is return to Dante, as I’ve been doing for most of the intervening years—years during which my Italian has faltered, while my understanding of the poet’s meaning has deepened with the help of my teacher’s teacher Charles Singleton’s incomparable six-volume edition of the Commedia.

It is hard not to think of Dante and the extraordinary months during which I read him so many years ago, not to speak of the nearly three years in Florence during which I pursued his shadow through that enchanting city. They were years of youth, years of excess, years of blunders and mistakes—but they were also years during which the foundation for the person I was to become was laid. While my college classmates were serving in Korea or laboring away in law or business school, I was granted a moratorium. I was given the gift of enormous space in my life, space in which to study, to read, to write, and to explore a culture rich in artistic and literary achievement, and I lost no time in doing so. In fact, I threw myself into that experience with a greater passion than I have ever since felt. I suppose one could call it the passion of youth, or what the offer of Bowdoin College described as “generous enthusiasm.” As we age we learn, hopefully, to temper that enthusiasm but not to lose it, for if we were to let go of that thirst for life there would surely be no reason to go on living.

But I sit down now to write not so much about Dante or Florence, as I’ve surely done elsewhere and hope to do again, but to reflect on the stage of my own life’s journey I’ve recently arrived at. I turned seventy on November 15, 2007, a birthday I had the privilege of celebrating with some of the people who mean the most to me, my three children, my life partner, and her two children and granddaughter, in Santa Fe, a city that I've come to love almost as much as Florence. That our children suggested this special celebration and that we were all able to meet where some of us had gathered before was as much a treat for me as the actual weekend we spent together walking, talking, breaking bread, and reminiscing under a warming sun and in the clear, clean, dry mountain air of New Mexico.

I don’t feel physically much older at seventy than I did at fifty or sixty, though my memory is not what it used to be. My former wife liked to tell people that I could recall every meal I’d ever eaten. Today I’m lucky if I can remember what I had for breakfast; and the names of writers or the titles of their books that were at my finger tips ten or twenty years ago, are hard to retrieve, along with the titles of songs I once loved or the singers who made them famous. I suppose one has to accept these losses as part of aging. Fortunately, the Internet provides me with much of the information I’ve forgotten; and my spell check is handier than ever, though the right word or phrase I’m often searching for takes longer to arrive.

These are small consolations for aging. If what I read recently is true, that seventy is the new fifty, perhaps there’s still hope for some productive years. But what I can’t have again is what has seemed to me to be irretrievably lost in the world around me as I’ve aged. Things change and places are transformed under the pressures of time and human willfulness. Some of these changes—the rehabilitation of historic houses that had fallen into disrepair, or new technologies that make our lives easier—are to be welcomed. But the losses I feel both in the community where I’ve lived most of my life and in the larger culture itself are more problematic.

Reading Dante as an undergraduate and studying history, literature and classical languages and culture were part of an old fashioned humanistic education that has pretty much disappeared in today’s over-mediated society. Living in the crass, materialistic world that has replaced it, I often feel obsolete, my interests shared by few. To be sure, literature is still studied by a waning number of graduate students, but I found it ominous to read recently that most choose their specialization with an eye toward the current needs of academic departments rather than as a response to their own passions. And most graduate students I meet today are woefully under-read, if not also under-educated.

Of course, the decade of the 1950s, during which I went to high school and college, was no golden age of the intellect. Though more students majored in literature or the humanities than they do today, I still found myself surrounded in college by classmates, who, though bright and ambitious, appeared largely incurious about the world. They were, for the most part, politically conservative; some were openly anti-intellectual. They tended to major in economics or the hard sciences, while dismissing those of us who cared about painting or theater. Many of those classmates of mine, who became doctors, dentists, CEOs, and military officers, or who made fortunes in real estate, have now retired affluently in gated communities. They boast about their golf games, while donating annual sums to their alma mater that far exceed my meager income. They are, in a word, successful, at least as the culture defines success. They have money and expensive possessions, and many have known great power.

I, in turn, have lived simply in a city that still feels like a small town. I’ve written and taught; I’ve also spent thirty years as a social worker, helping the kinds of people—displaced workers, alienated teens—who often harassed us as undergraduates on the streets of Brunswick. I have no regrets about my life choices. I could have remained in the academic world; but I ultimately came to experience it as an unproductive place for a writer, especially one like myself, who felt the need to interact with a broader range of humanity than what exists on a college campus. And even in a surrounding community, as I learned in Maine, it’s hard to know people who have no connection to the college or university. So I returned from Italy to Gloucester, where, except for travel and vacations, I have spent the rest of my life.

It is a sobering experience to live in one’s home town. You observe the generations as they come and go. People who once seemed incredibly old to us as children have died and we are now their age. I have only recently become a grandparent, but some of my high school classmates already have great grandchildren. I’ve watched neighborhoods deteriorate or become gentrified; I’ve seen a once thriving fishing industry become endangered through restrictive federal regulations. The Italian I once heard on the waterfront or in Gloucester’s West End has been displaced by Spanish, though the Azorean Portuguese of my childhood continues in the voices of new immigrants from Brazil.

The changes I’ve experienced in Gloucester have mirrored those in the larger society. Living through them, watching them occur with often dramatic immediacy, rather than through the distorting prism of the media, has been important to me as a writer. I’ve watched human behavior enacted on the sidewalk and in the consulting room, and I’ve observed and participated in political dynamics that have taught me more about democracy in action than any course or textbook. I’ve also stood by, often impotently, to watch as those in power have sold our birthright to developers, who wished only to exploit Gloucester’s uniqueness and great natural beauty for their own purposes, not for the common good. In the end, I’ve tried to do what I could as a writer and citizen in concert with others to make our community aware of what it was losing of its heritage, of the mistaken direction our leaders were often taking us, sometimes with success, but more often with a deep sense of failure. Much of what I experience now is loss—loss of people and places that were special to me as a child, of fields and forests I played or walked in, of folkways and values that were an intimate part of a closely knit community that served as a larger family to those of us who grew up here. While I understand that I cannot have back what was lost, often through human ignorance or lack of imagination or vision, I can’t help but feel angry that it was taken away in the first place and that so few seemed to care about what we were losing.

It is equally no consolation to live in a nation governed by an unutterable mediocrity, surrounded by neo-conservative ideologues, who have brought this country closer to fascism than it has ever come. Neither do I have much faith in the Democrats, whom we helped regain control of Congress so that they would get us out of this absurd war in Iraq. Like her husband, Hillary Clinton is attempting to triangulate her way to the presidency, while the other candidates seem to be competing with each other to occupy an equally vacuous center. Meanwhile, the public sleeps the sleep of denial with the help of the narcotic of consumerism. I try not to be cynical in my old age; but I can’t help being skeptical.

Writing in the New York Times of November 11, 2007, Frank Rich argues that “to believe that this corruption will simply evaporate when the Bush presidency is done is to underestimate the permanent erosion inflicted over the past six years. What was once shocking and unacceptable in America has now been internalized as the new normal.” He concludes: “We are a people in clinical depression. Americans know that the ideals that once set our nation apart from the world have been vandalized, and no matter which party they belong to, they do not see a restoration anytime soon.” I can only agree. Were he here today, Dante, who lived through every political and social horror of his time, would doubtlessly concur.