“An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.”
William Butler Yeats
from “Sailing to Byzantium”
Going within – the passage into dark, deep waters in the eternal night of the cavern of subjectivity. Will one arrive at Byzantium or any shores at all? In the flashes of lightning the seas are rough, whitecapped, and in the gloom the sailor beholds monsters in the deep, some with shining eyes; they nearly surface menacingly and then dive down, down into the abysmal mysteries where all dreams and nightmares sleep.
Crises – will the wife leave or throw me out due to dissatisfaction? Will I maintain what post I have from month to month teaching philosophy to the resistant and sometimes thoroughly uninterested?
“What’s this got to do with computer technology?”
Or earning a living, if that’s defined in economic terms as Americans and nearly all the world, now is inclined to believe and believe fervently. Come on – get the show on the road; we know nothing of this “Byzantium” or an “interior life” or retreat. Nope. We are storming the gates of the future and seizing whatever is there to be taken for booty. By any means, let me tell you, and then we will be happy.
Happiness, damn it, and nothing less, happiness and ease and progress. What use is history, sir? What point is all this nonsensical talk of “limit” and theory and value – value? I’ll show you value: New car every year, fistfuls of cold Benjamins, big houses, vacations, and the corner office with the window. Or whatever. If I can touch it and spend it and use it, it is all the “value” I care to know anything about. And, of course, old man, leftover from some dead age, you have nothing to teach me about that.
We have the monuments of our own magnificence – the skyscrapers and jets, the all-knowing oracle of the internet: science and its children, physical technologies. Not that we know anything of science or the culture required to keep the enterprise alive; but we do know the value of antibiotics and facelifts and faster cars and air conditioning and the iPhone.
No, I’ve little to add to the lists of what you already think you know. No, I’ve less than nothing to tell you about making money or keeping it or attaining status of any sort, much less more than token and impermanent respect and its false substitutes. How else to explain these “tatters upon a stick”? It’s not as if I can afford a new suit and that’s not by accident. Yes, I shop at the thrift store. No, I never made enough at my art to pay the bills or fill the car with gasoline more than a few times. Yes, it’s depressing. No, I’m no one to envy.
If you’d only worked harder… or, my favorite, “Worked smarter.”
God knows, I’m not smart or else I’d fit right in. Even the cheapest village has a place for its idiot and I couldn’t even get that job and hold it long. Adios, hit the road, Jack and don’t come back no more, no more, no more.
So, here I am, as happens more and more often, in retreat, gone within on the high, mean seas, sailing for a myth near my heart which, too, is probably a myth. The world outside has gone mad, at last, or, as it would say back to me, I was always crazy to expect the world not to experiment with every form of drug, even fascism, even the destruction of civility and sociability and tolerance and, and, and…. Hell, we, as humans, have done this over and again for well over a hundred years – why not let America have its turn at the table of pure weirdness? Cash it all in and eat to our bellies are full-to-bursting with satisfied paranoid strangeness and hatred, violence and death?
After all, we owe it to ourselves. Mom and dad’s left us the credit card and gone on permanent vacation – let’s have a party and only invite “our kind,” hire security to beat the hell out of any gate crashers and televise it all, just for fun and ratings. Why not?
I got tired of saying, out loud, “How long, O Lord? How long?” Yeah, I still pray it, but deep inside while taking the night journey to Nowhere. Or “Not-here,” at any rate.
You go on your permanent vacation and leave me to mine. You’ll be more the missed. Genuinely. If we survive this savage and ugly period of history, perhaps I’ll come back out and sing my tuneless songs of philosophy and share other sorts of magical words and draw some pictures. And maybe you’ll be interested then. But not now. I know and it’s not your fault – the pink slip was handed to me a long time ago, in childhood, and I was too much of a dunce to read it rightly: the ticket to Byzantium, not the inaugural ball or even to any sort of position that would show… well, hell, not even something like my great-grandfather’s job as head of the custodial department at the local college.
He could at least raise a family off that and maintain property with some dignity.
Ages pass. I was not born for the past and, I fear, not for the present. My country is the one for old men who have passed, are passing, and are yet to be.
27 May 2016
Richard Van Ingram