I love this fine old fool of Rembrandt’s, and excuse the lousy reproduction, it’s a photo I took myself in the Rembrandt room at the Met, which is generally sadly underpopulated even on a busy Saturday afternoon. I like to believe that visitors entering the room are intimidated by the dark depths of the paintings and the people in them who appear to be thinking hard private thoughts–I like to believe visitors are quickly afraid of finding themselves lost and lonely in each of the portraits. I love this one. It’s just an old head in its last strength –not much longer will he even be able to hold up that much turban. The face still dreams: fantasies of power and splendor amid oily golden minarets, empires won and lost in rivers of blood, snaky women worth the drawing of swords between brothers. But I’m already there in my mind, and that’s good enough for now.
Here’s Bob Dylan proclaiming Blind Willie McTell on the recent Critics’ Choice Award ceremony. More grey to the hair, more granite to the voice. If you want to know what words look like, listen to the well, and the is in this performance. Bob Dylan is 70, Martin Scorsese, who was given one of those lifetime achievement awards, is 69, and between Blind Willie’s brimstone and Scorsese’s acceptance speech which seemed to be a breathless rest stop in his own galloping career, Leonardo DiCaprio looked callow and unfinished. Sometimes age is like that, and sometimes it is not. That’s our theme today.
Poor Dylan Thomas did not live long enough to outlive the passion of Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. The older I get, the more I find that this poem sings from a younger man’s passion and a younger man’s vision of age. I’m being polite: I think the older I get the less truth I find in that poem. Each verse surges with a grief, a regret, or the epiphany that flares so briefly for the blind and the dying. It takes a younger man’s energy to envision age as these intense and bright tragic extinctions. The poem is a beautiful thing–“…crying how bright/Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay“–and the poet’s voice is truthful to its own measure of life. And I agree that’s exactly all we need from poems, because we generally are not good enough at being true to our own measures of life on our own time–we shouldn’t ask a thing else from this beautiful thing, but it’s a shorter measure of life than I thought it was when I was 24.
When you get up close to age, there are energies and appetites that do not only serve memory and regret, and that are not just the frantic prolonging of youth, and are not merely evidence that any vitality past a certain age is a miracle. We generally don’t know how to get past these three portraits of Life Itself in the 70s, 80s, 90s. One, a person at these ages is only alive when they appear decades younger than their chronology and thus relieve younger people’s fears about the rate at which youth is lost. Two, they are only alive when they are artful and ardent and deeply moving in their recreations of the past or of the conditions of aging, and thus provide younger people with fine and moving memoirs. Three, they are only alive when they generate applause for elementary self-sufficiency and childlike pleasures and thus let younger people feel good about their own condescending benevolence before they shudder and get on with all the better pleasures of being younger.
I can’t say I exempt myself from these cliches, but I do hate them. I spend a lot of time with people in their 80s and 90s because for several years I’ve worked and volunteered in a nursing home. Our model of golden-aged life–lissome grey haired women in yoga classes, laughing grey haired couples in hot air balloons, or that retired neighbor who just ran his first marathon–these are of course not the people living in nursing homes. The men and women I work with in their 80s and 90s, those who do not suffer dementia, are all enduring different losses of mobility and self-sufficiency and comfort. And they are charged with hunger, anger, boredom, patience, might, passivity, curiosity, grief, confusion, weakness, hilarity, companionability, fearfulness, creativity–all in their own measure of life. More or less measure than mine? More or less than their own 10 or 40 years ago? Meaningless questions, unless you actually do believe that life is a quantity, and the numbering-down of our days means a diminishment of life and not of time.
I’d never share Do Not Go Gentle with the people I work with at the nursing home–the poem would be an offense to their hungers and angers and gifts. I have played Not Dark Yet for them, and some began humming to the gentle music. When I asked if they found the song sad or pessimistic, someone called it “thoughtful.”
Bob Dylan has aged all his stages of life, his Ages of Man, right in front of us. I’m adding to all the other hyperbolicious fruits of this Garden, that finding another artist who has given us as full a measure of age as Bob Dylan has given and is giving us is a hard search with not much loot to show at the end. Some people may say Philip Roth. Wordsworth? I always come back to Rembrandt and his self-portrait here: it’s not what those eyes have seen but how they see, after all they’ve seen.
It’s all the movement in the songs of age that gets to me. This is really what destiny looks like for the troubadour of restlessness. It’s not the prolonging of youth and it’s something more than the good luck of health–it’s not victorious or enviable. It’s a mysterium of vitality that he works awfully hard to get across to us through the voice’s igneous changes.
The silent sun has got me on the run almost sums up this condition of life. A grinding and goading self-feeding furnace supplying energy that can’t be denied. The sun’s light hasn’t stopped working its way into his brain, and now he’s got no defenses against it–it just burns right through. And it keeps rising and setting, and he’s got to get up and face the days, on the run, directionless as ever. Just walking. Step outside to the busy street. Pacing round the room. My ship is in the harbor, and the sails are set. Walking through streets that are dead. Sleep is a temporary death–you’ve got to get up, there’s another sun. Sleeping in the parlor and reliving dreams is for corpses. And sitting still leads to brooding and apathy and the slow death of the spirit. You can hear what happens, the lethargy gathering in his bones, in sitting-still songs like Not Dark Yet, This Dream of You. And then Standin’ in the Doorway shows the push-pull of being in a doorway–pausing in between being in and going out. That one is a strange old partner to Shelter from the Storm, another doorway song based on the invitation to come inside, come inside, don’t stay out there, come inside. (And there’s not the same enchantment to Sometimes it’s just plain stupid to go out in any kind of wind, is there.)
The popularity of zombies and vampires makes a lot of sense in a time when the grotesque prolonging of youth is an inexhaustible dream fed by an inexhaustible industry. Zombies and vampires make a lot of sense in a time when I can have avatars and identities leading digital lives that may outlive my own body and blood. Zombies and vampires make sense when you’re duped into seeing age as a condition instead of the condition.
Of course I “NO!!” happily along with everyone else when Bob coyly wants to hear he’s not over the hill and past his prime. But it’s the line in The Levee’s Gonna Break that I cheer on with my heart: I can’t stop here, I ain’t ready to unload. You’re carrying a full load of life every day, and you keep showing us the full measure of this burden, with levity and sorrow, and, as always, we thank you.