[ToC]

 

WHEN YOU REACH THE AGE OF NINETY

A Joachim Glage

 

 

When you reach the age of ninety and live in a place with soft walls and the table corners all smoothed over and little paper cups and the attendants all in white, you will find yourself developing powerful feelings of pity, not for creatures or for humankind, but for objects. It will begin with a pea: a fellow resident of the house where you live will have left it on her dinner plate, a sole morsel from the evening meal deposited there like something excised, and rudely, almost as though she'd singled it out. Straightaway you will feel a painful sense of sympathy for the shriveled little thing. How sad it looks! How cold and secluded! The only one refused! But what to do about it? Eat it yourself? Seems hardly right. When no one is looking you'll snatch it and hide it in your sock, and later you'll place it beneath your pillow. All through the night you will dream of peas: thousands of them together in a pot, jostling about in vinegar and pepper, and the aroma will seem to fill your nostrils. When you awake in the morning the pea from under your pillow will be gone. You'll search all through the bedsheets but to no avail. What have I done, you will exclaim, did I gobble it up in my sleep? The thought will haunt you. From then on the upheaval will all be underway: you'll come to be filled with a kind of moral dread at the passivity and the vulnerability of the things around you. When someone accidentally drops a cup you'll throw a fit; if it's a plate that shatters, you'll weep. If through your window you see a book or a blanket forgotten in the courtyard outside you'll bang on the glass until someone retrieves it. Some of the others will begin to take pleasure in torturing you: they'll need only toss some object indifferently onto the floor, or step on it with a chortle, and you will bite your lip until it bleeds. Every day it will get worse; no therapy or medication will disabuse you of your strange new notion. Eventually the whole inanimate world will seem to you so pitiful, and so grossly injured, that its collective agony—the deafening agony of things—will leave you all but insensible. You will become practically catatonic.
     You will be rescued from this condition only by another dream. In it, you'll sit at a desk in an old familiar room writing down your thoughts, when suddenly the words you've written will begin to writhe and curl on the page, like trampled worms. You will be struck then by the notion—for yes, we do still think in dreams, we can reason even in our sleep—that ideas, too, are alive, and suffer, and cry out to you, and that, although the world of things may be beyond your grasp, you can yet take care to protect the thoughts in your mind. You'll snap awake. You'll feel yourself bristling with new purpose. At some level you will know this purpose is a lie, a fiction, even a preposterous one, but it will not matter. The tenderness you feel will be genuine and warm. You'll remember something you read in a book when you were younger: If you hate your thoughts, how could you be happy? If you love them, how could you not be? You'll say this out loud and it will relax you. Perhaps happiness—you'll say this aloud too, you'll declaim it—is just being in love with my thoughts, and nothing more.

      
     

 

__

One of Borges's characters opines that happiness may be the only thing that holds no mystery, for it is its own justification. Against that idea, my own work for the past few years has explored what we might call the mystery of happiness—which is perhaps to say, the evil in it. One such evil is explored here: the rift that can insert itself between the happy consciousness and the material world, or what may best be expressed in the formula, happiness is being in love with your thoughts. Idealism, like stoicism, may in truth be nothing more than a strategy for happiness; Hegel's animals are the great idealists, they are the happy ones, for they know the nothingness of sensuous appearances, and they fall to without ceremony and merely gobble them up (I'm paraphrasing and quoting here; go and find this passage, if you like, in the early chapters of The Phenomenology of Spirit). Perhaps—and perhaps paradoxically—it is when we are most happy, when we are most adamantly in love with our own thoughts, that we most resemble the animal.