Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Youth, the republic, last sentences, et cetera

Snowed in, then snowed in, now getting snowed in again. So what else has been happening...?

I just finished the Republic, a book I should have read several years ago. Since a text this heavy begs for a chaser, by the end of the week I will be cracking open another cultural milestone I've thus far managed to cheat myself out of reading -- Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which I anticipate will make a fine counterpoint to a tome espousing temperance, rationality, emotional restraint, and the abolition of poetry and art.
When picking up a new book and getting to the end of the first or second chapter, I can never help flipping right to the final page and reading the last sentence or two completely out of context. I don't think of it as "spoiling" anything -- if you're only reading a book for its plot, then it can't possibly be a very well-written book. It often helps me enjoy the story even more, since I go in with a vague idea of what the author is working toward and can better follow what he's trying to do.

A novel's last few sentences must be as damn near close to perfect as can be. Ideally, they should put the events of the story in context, contain the overarching idea of the work, and trigger a powerful emotional response in the reader (be it exhilaration, comfort, fear, catharsis, or whatever else). If we think of the story as a rifle bullet, the last sentences must be the hollow point designed to expand on impact and maximize the work's lasting effect.

A Sunday or two back I was sitting in my friend's apartment and browsing his bookshelf when I found his old paperback copy of On the Road. After scanning a few pages here and there, I compulsively flipped to the end to look at the (very long) final sentences:

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be dropping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

Ah, yes. Here we go again. Another strain of the Don't Get Old Blues.

It's such a powerful and prominent motif throughout Twentieth Century American literature -- the Eden of youth, the barren fields of age. In the major coming of age stories our Republic has produced in the last hundred years or so, crossing over is almost never a happy occasion or even a bittersweet mixed victory: it's a downright bummer. And it gets repeated over and over and over again throughout the 1900-2000 literary canon, from Hemingway to Salinger to Updike: "we were young, we were beautiful, we could do anything, and everything was great. Then we got old and found out that everything wasn't so great and we couldn't do anything, and we'll never be young again and nothing will ever be as great again." Bam. Welcome to the wide world of American letters.
If we wanted to drag national/cultural consciousness into the discussion (and that's a big "if"), we might conjecture that such intellectual currents are only to be expected of a nation whose own coming of age occurred at the close of the Nineteenth Century. America entered the 1900s like a college student waking up with a hangover after homecoming and finding himself a manager at Sears with a pregnant wife, a six-year-old son, a mortgage to pay off, and a lawn to mow.

When the settlers crashed into the Pacific and finished securing all the land between the oceans to the east and west and the neighbor nations to the north and south, that was it. When the booze goes dry, the party ends. When a nation has no more space to expand, it settles down. Why wouldn't the intellectuals and artists of a republic grown out of its idealistic revolutionary period and wild frontier days find themselves preoccupied with the stresses and ambivalences of the aging process?

This particularly American anxiety is expressed nowhere better than in The Great Gatsby, and nowhere better in The Great Gatsby than the last couple of paragraphs, which end with these two sentences:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And one fine morning---

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

It need not even be said that Fitzgerald was an influential writer, but it might surprise you that another famous author on whom he had a profound influence was Hunter S. Thompson. In the early days, Thompson most wanted to be a fiction writer; he likely saw his journalism work as something he could do to sharpen his skills while earning a few bucks and getting his name out there. The Rum Diary, his first novel, is a very interesting work for many reasons, particularly for its similarities to Fitzgerald's tone and themes (echoes of Hemingway can be heard as well, and that Thompson fancied Kerouac and the beats is practically a given), and for the fact that it was written by a version of Thompson existing before the LSD, before Gonzo, before he started getting himself confused with his Raoul Duke character.

Its (very Gatsbian) final sentence reads:

Sounds of a San Juan night, drifting across the city through layers of humid air; sounds of life and movement, people getting ready and people giving up, the sound of hope and the sound of hanging on, and behind them all, the quiet, deadly ticking of a thousand hungry clocks, the lonely sound of time passing in the long Caribbean night.

It has an added weight when you consider the last spoken exchange between protagonist Paul Kemp (Thompson) and friend Bob Sala, two paragraphs above:

"How old are you?" I said. "Thirty? Thirty-one?"

"Thirty," he said quickly. "I was just thirty last month."

"Hell," I replied. "Imagine how I feel -- I'm almost thirty-two."

He shook his head. "I never thought I'd live to see thirty. I don't know why, but for some reason I just didn't."

I smiled. "I don't know if I did or not -- I never gave it much thought."

"Well," he said. "I hope to god I never make forty -- I wouldn't know what to do with myself."

"You might," I said. "We're over the hump, Robert. The ride gets pretty ugly from here on in."

After having idolized Thompson throughout my college years, then growing up a bit and discovering the full shameful scope of the contrast between him as a young man and as an old man, I've lately found myself beginning to agree more with David Plotz's 1998 assessment of him:

Today, Thompson is part Beavis, part whore. He still behaves like an adolescent moron. He's a freakish Peter Pan--the juvenile delinquent who wouldn't grow up. He ignites kegs of dynamite in his Aspen, Colo., backyard. To ring in the new year in 1997, he reportedly blew up a Cadillac. He gropes female guests, watches porn, drinks monstrously, smokes more, and uses drugs. There's something unbearably sad about a 60-year-old man who still takes drugs.

I'm still close enough to twenty-one to roll my eyes a little at Plotz's squarish, puritan tone, but I concur that Thompson all but wasted his talent throughout the last three decades of his life (though there are still occasional flashes of brilliance, his writing throughout the post-Nixon decades tends to be disjointed, muddled, and forced), and the greatest and most tragic cause for this was his own inability to come to terms with the fact that it was no longer the 1960s and he was no longer in his twenties. Consider Thompson's suicide note -- his Final Sentences:

Football season is over. No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won't hurt.

This is all very, very morbid, and it doesn't appear as through we're approaching the point that is to be made, if any is to be made at all. Before the detour, we said that the last sentence of On the Road is typically American in its anxiety towards aging, that I would soon be reading On The Road to balance out the dry staidness of Plato, and that the Republic is the book I most recently finished.

When reading a new book, I like to stick colored markers onto pages that have interesting, important, puzzling, or eloquent passages. The first marked page in my copy of the Republic contains the following paragraph:

I will tell you, Socrates, he said, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says; and at our meetings the tale of my acquaintance commonly is: I cannot eat, I cannot drink; the pleasures of youth and love are fled away: there was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life. Some complain of the slights which are put upon them by relations, and they will tell you sadly of how many evils their old age is the cause. But to me, Socrates, these complainers seem to blame that which is not really in fault. For if old age were the cause, I too being old, and every other old man, would have felt as they do. But this is not my own experience, nor that of others whom I have known. How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, How does love suit with age, Sophocles -- are you still the man you were? Peace, he replied; most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master. His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time when he uttered them. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many. The truth is, Socrates, that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men's characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.

Well. In those terms, I suppose it's no wonder that so many of our most famed authors -- whom we celebrate for their dizzying, rapturous accounts of their seminal romances and twentysomething vision quests -- were generally very unhappy people who wrote books tinged with sadness and eventually drank themselves to death. Neither should it come as any shock that these should be the representative bards of a nation that prides itself on its passion, energy, and freewheeling WE DO WHAT WE WANT spirit while begging frequent reassurances that it isn't over the hill, like an insecure single woman in her late thirties discovering another patch of crow's feet.

For the record, the last few sentences in the Republic are:

Wherefore my counsel is that we hold fast ever to the heavenly way and follow after justice and virtue always, considering that the soul is immortal and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. Thus we shall live dear to one another and to the gods, both while remaining here and when, like conquerers in the games who go round and gather gifts, we receive our reward. And it shall be well both in this life and the pilgrimage of a thousand years which we have been describing.*

Tune in next week for a new comic strip! Blood will be spilled.

*This, of course, is Greek for "win the future."

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