Lugubrious. That's the word for how I'm feeling tonight. That and self-indulgent. So I thought I'd write a blog post. These midnight moods used to ambush me frequently when I was in my 20s, sometimes eliciting sentimental poetry. Now I'm older, not much wiser, more callused, but still susceptible once in a while to the misty melancholy of existential yearning. Diffuse nostalgia, regret, the old hackneyed lament for some undefined state that seems to have been lost but maybe never existed in the first place. A person close to me is gone and so here I am now sitting on my bed in Brooklyn ruminating and regretting but resigned because life is loss and I've known more than my share, so I can accept it without protest.
If you want to make a real contribution to the world and reduce the amount of suffering, there's an easy way: don't have children. To bring a child into the world is to bring suffering into the world, a long life of homelessness and rootlessness, of disappointment and disillusionment. The anguish of a world alone in the universe, inhabited by wolves and in the end death. It really isn't so hard to make an important contribution.
Sometimes (rarely) I read my old journal, the journal that kept me sane from 15 to 35, remembering wistfully the old moments of solitary writing. I poured my life, my thoughts, into my journal, writing for no one and everyone. It's hard to imagine now, that self-containment, the intense inwardness that found deep satisfaction in self-expression. Some of my old entries come to me as from a past life.
Don't worry, I'll feel better tomorrow. But for now, here are a few scattered slices of those past lives, vignettes that resonate with me tonight. Perhaps they'll resonate a little with you, too...
You probably think that music is for me only a very pretty garnish on life, a way to escape from boredom or occupy my mind with something else when I’m lonely. But you’re not quite right. In despairing moments like this one right now, when I’m thinking lovingly of the long knife in the kitchen drawer, music is literally my companion, someone who whispers to me as the tenderest of lovers. This is, indeed, the secret to my lifelong musical love-affair. It is as if a living being with violin strings for vocal cords is talking to me, comforting me and telling me I am not alone. –There is no hyperbole here, no poetic license. I am just reporting my experience, my experience of the Andante from Schubert’s Piano Trio in B-flat, D. 898. My girlfriend is talking to me softly through my headphones and I’m passively letting her caress away my sadness. Music is not only a stream of sounds for me; it is the speech of a person who communicates by externalizing emotions, directly expressing them, in Rousseauian fashion. Music is my ideal other, or the speech of my ideal other. When I’m lonely there is someone to sympathize with me, and when I’m happy I have someone to laugh with. That is the secret (or one of the secrets) of music’s power, of its uniqueness among art forms.
the Prelude to
a minor sadness
in my wraith-like, waif-like soul
that shudders on the major third
after minutes of minor sadness
and thinks of the virgin’s quiver in her
expectant naked lover’s silent arms,
the soundlessness of Venice at dawn,
the flap of the butterfly’s wing,
the dying gasp of Jesus,
the sweet surcease of strife
and we are at one
in the forlorn
alone in the night
on the rock beside the black glass lake rippled by loons
two hours ago,
disturbed by a splash and a splash, and a cricket over there,
and the purple-yellow moon-smudge double-image sinking
towards an unattainable convergence in the black of the curve of the hills, and the sandbar-island fading into the thick flat gray of the night
(tree-like shadows jutting up to an interruption of the sky),
the thickening gray of the night presided over by a few transient stars
and the shore’s dirt-sand coolly damp on the rough sensitive skin of the
of the foot,
lit up gloamingly by a lantern in the cottage,
as the dirty peeling paper of the birch trees behind me falls
into the green carpet of vines
beside the sturdy, stoic gray white trunk...
above the imagined lake shine stars unhindered by the moon;
the lantern has gone out,
all that remains is the still sand and the single splash and the descending black
and the blanket of nature’s nocturne...
(2 a.m.) Permit me my evil hour.— How is it that a 25-year-old can feel like a 75-year-old? Even as he also feels like a 25-year-old. Meandering through life...a Eugene O’Neill without the dramatic talent...
You think about this world and you have to laugh, because you have nothing to do with it. You had no part in creating the universe. What right—what right did the universe have to create me? To violate my individuality like that? To steal from me self-determination? It is beyond disrespectful, beyond presumptuous: it is immoral. To conjure me out of the darkness:—I did not give my permission! But it sits up there, out there, laughing at me, at what it did to me, laughing at the little trick it pulled. Nero’s sadism was child’s play, crude and embarrassing: Nero was no Universe. What fascinating sadism... To create a being and give it just enough insight so that it knows it is worth nothing, it will die and be forgotten, but not enough to understand why; and to make this being so that it is obsessed with an unattainable happiness, and an unattainable togetherness, with stifling distaste for the universal isolation in which it must live.
I could be angry. I could be full of anger, like I’ve been so many times. But it has been months, maybe years, since I’ve been angry. I don’t have the spirit for it anymore. Life has won.
I’m listening to the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. You should listen to it yourself; there will be no reason for you to read the rest of this entry. I’m sitting here in a kind of swoon of nostalgia for my fetal Platonic wisdom. The passivity that suffuses my mind and permeates the air around me, the languorous summer air, the troubled passivity born from incipient spiritlessness. When I turn off the lights and lie down in a restless repose amidst the silence I feel it. I was thinking that the worst thought is knowledge of contingency, and the best is that life’s windings are necessary. The second is a comfort and a lie, the first a sorrow and a truth. What happens is contingent, and when you look back on your life at the end you can see only a string of what-ifs and whys, more a vacuum than a plenum, more a question than an exclamation, not death but not life. And you could look back and regret without end, pile regrets in heaps and stack them into a mountain on the summit of which you perch yourself, but that would be as foolish as asking yourself what it all meant and inventing a significance to tie it all in a bundle. Both are tempting, both are futile. Silence is the answer. When words fail you have silence to fall back on. Renunciation. When your ambitions crumble, as mine are in the process of doing, and you can’t ground yourself in anything, and you feel like you’ve lived a dream, you can take comfort in abandonment and sleep and, as your consciousness is becoming fluid and more fluid, the knowledge that this is what life is—this is what life is—and nothing can be done about it, and you’ve understood it by not understanding it, and there’s nowhere else to go. In a way that’s comforting. Renounce it all, if only for a moment.
The second movement of the Pastoral symphony. The passage from measures 86 to 90. It makes me think of Matthew 26: 36-46 and 75—not of the words but of the situation. The mortality of beauty. The sorrow of love, and the long sighs; yet the serenity. But only if my headphones are of good quality: I’m pressing them hard against my ears, the volume on maximum; my teeth are clenched because I’ve never encountered anything quite so painful as this music. Repeating it ten times, twenty times. The violins descending in broken thirds, the violas sympathizing with them, and the flutes and oboes agreeing pithily, and then the gentle pluck of the bass after its silence, conscious that the resonance of its contribution consists in its laconic authority; but the oboes and flutes are swept up in the current and, satisfied no longer with passive assent, converse together lyrically, the violins too murmuring trills, sweet and light; the bassoons and clarinets are aroused to song, exhorting their companions with their poetry, and as the bass is carried away by this love for all that is, all is submerged in a purple cloud of harmony. A melody would disrupt the balance; harmony is everything, and there are no individuals.
I was doing research at the University of Chicago library and came across a short case-study from the 1930s of an 80-year-old man applying to something like a nursing home. Here’s an excerpt that moved me to tears (I had to suppress them in the reading room), and made me think of the sadness of life:
When asked about his relatives, he replied, “I have none. They are all gone long ago. I never married. I had a sweetheart but she passed away before the day set for our wedding. No one can take her place.”
“Well, will you not be lonely in this home?” he was asked.
“I don’t think so. I will enjoy thinking about her while alone in my room, and while I wander about among the beautiful flowers and shrubbery on these grounds. I shall be contented and when I pass on I am requesting my body to be cremated and ashes to be strewn over the hills and valleys where my beloved and I passed many happy hours together.”
The caseworker adds a comment: “Mr. Stanley can be found many hours of the day sitting in his easy chair looking out of the window—eastward—reminiscing.”