The Thinking 

The Alien

May 13, 2017


ALAN writes:

Do-Gooders who are out to make the world over like to advise older people not to live in the past.  That is hilarious.

Not to live in the past—as against what? The increasing ugliness of the culture outside? The supine willingness of grown men and women to go along with trendiness instead of stand firm by timeless moral and esthetic standards?

“Real life today?” And precisely what is “real life today?” It is a festival of inanities and imbecilities, each more preposterous than the next. Why would any self-respecting person wish to live among people who celebrate those things?

I’m confident that many of your older readers will agree with me if I say that memory offers at least some refuge from those indescribable horrors. Memory is the land where we exclude those things in a glorious act of discrimination. Memory is the land where we build our interior castle.  Memory is “the land where the good songs go” (Jerome Kern, 1917). It is the land where the good people go and where we keep them until we join them.

The past—the eternal past—may be the only place where decent people and a sensible tempo and texture of life can be found.

This moment has become “the past” by the time you finish reading this essay. In one of his books, Richard Weaver wrote that the past cannot be eluded or evaded.  It is always there, always here. The lesser part of it has location in space, as in the ruins of ancient Greece or modern Detroit. But another part of it provides the form, the foundation, the framework and the context for understanding and dealing with life. And unlike utopian do-gooders, the past does not force itself upon anyone; it is merely (!) there for those who choose to apprehend it and learn from it.

thinking person will endure only so much imbecility. A thinking person will endure only so much noise in the name of “music,” ugliness in the name of “art,” mendacity in the name of “the news,” depravity in the name of “entertainment,” and hatred of morality in the name of “freedom” before closing the door marked Tomorrow and opening the door marked Yesterday.

Late in her life, the American singer Jo Stafford received a letter from a retired Army general.  He was so disgusted by the state of the modern world, he told her, that he “wanted to retreat to a farm with his Jo Stafford records and just forget it.” [Gene Lees, Singers and the Song II, Oxford Univ. Press, 1999, p. 106]

I know exactly how he felt and why—because I feel the same way and for the same reasons.

Nearly ten years ago I stopped reading (what are still called) newspapers. I like to think of it as something I have in common with Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain, each of whom stopped reading newspapers out of revulsion. I do not claim there is never anything worth reading in newspapers. I claim only that most of what they print is misinformation, poison, or fluff.

Nor do I watch TV or keep up on what is “trending”. I have never “texted” or “tweeted” and have not the slightest impulse to do so. The “mass communications” industry seems to me mostly a nightmare from Hell.  I do not own any pocket toys or gadgets (except a 55-year-old transistor radio from Sears, which hasn’t worked in years).  Nor do I speak the strange language now preferred by 20, 30, and 40-year-old children in which it is imperative to use “like,” “awesome” and “icon” at least fifteen times in every conversation.

I have not “kept up with the times” because I judge the times not worth keeping up with.  I do not belong to the Fast Folk tribe, or the Cool People tribe, or the Z.S.G. tribe.  (Zombie Screen Gazers… see them walking around and bumping into people or getting run over by traffic as they gaze at their little glowing screens.)

All of which must surely prove that I am dead, or an alien.

There is no feeling lonelier than to wish to say things to certain people who are gone but are the only people who would understand them.

After the loss of her husband and then their daughter, novelist Joan Didion wrote:

 “Only the survivors of a death are truly left alone.  The connections that made up their life—both the deep connections and the apparently insignificant connections—have all vanished.  …..There is no one to hear the news, nowhere to go with the unmade plan, the uncompleted thought. There is no one to agree, disagree, talk back…..”

              [Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, Knopf, 2005, pp. 193-96 ]

By the time I read those words, I knew both that she was right and why.

At age 81, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

“The solitude in which we are left by the death of our friends is one of the great evils of protracted life.  When I look back to the days of my youth, it is like looking over a field of battle.  All, all dead! and ourselves left alone midst a new generation whom we know not, and who know not us…..”

              [Letter of Jan. 11, 1825, to Francis Adrian Van Der Kemp ]

In the 1959 motion picture “—30—“, there is a scene wherein a woman with 40 plus years’ experience in newspaper work learns without warning and while working at her desk that her grandson has been killed in an aviation accident. This terrible fact is conveyed to her by night editor Sam Gatlin. Jack Webb and veteran character actress Louise Lorimer play the scene perfectly.  She sits there for a moment in stunned silence, then says to him in measured words:

“I think this time it hurts too much, Sam. Here I am, a thousand years old, everybody I’ve ever really loved, nearly all the friends I started out with in this business…..gone. And here I am, big as life, still walking around.  Why, Sam?  Tell me one good reason why?”

I feel the same way and often ask myself that same question. Why do I continue to walk around when all the good people I knew so well somewhere along the way and who were so kind to me—family, friends, acquaintances, teachers; 97 people in all—are now…..gone?  I never get a sensible answer.  Nor do I expect one.

How can one absorb the loss of so many good people?  How to endure the monstrous emptiness that remains when they are gone?  How to endure the ugly, sickening nothingness that remains?

These were people who understood timeless virtues and endeavored to live by them, and usually did; people who made life splendid and serene;  people to whom I owed the greatest of debts and to whom I have turned countless times, years after they died, for reassurance, for moral courage, and for some reminder of decency in this outrageously indecent age.

The ballad We Mustn’t Say Goodbye” was introduced by entertainer Lanny Ross during the World War II years.  Jo Stafford’s 1958 recording is at once hauntingly beautiful and painful.  It combines a gorgeous melody and a lyric that may apply to different people in different circumstances, sung to perfection in heartbreaking tone by one of the best of the Big Band singers.  It can be heard as a reminder that life after age fifty is a series of episodes of saying goodbye to someone or another.  It was especially painful to me at the time my mother was dying, slowly, because I knew we were saying goodbye to each other even though neither she nor I ever acknowledged it.

“We Mustn’t Say Goodbye” is just one example of what composers of American popular song could create in pre-“rock” years.  Everything in it—lyric, melody, texture, arrangement, restraint—projects the sensibilities of grown-ups.  Compare it with the raucous noise that Americans today agree to call music.

Professor Weaver wrote:

 “…..the past has not dropped into nothingness.  It is absolutely impossible that the past, because of the fact that it has happened, should be nothing.   …..far more likely is it that the past exists like the enacted scenes of a great drama, permanently recorded in some great memory and pointing up the significance of all that occurs in the ‘present’…..”

              [Richard Weaver, Visions of Order, Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1964, p. 54 ]

And Jo Stafford sings:

“Oh, don’t you know
The memories we gathered
Can never, never die
We mustn’t say goodbye”

 But memories will never die only if they are preserved in thought, in words, in ritual, in our interior castle, and in what we should envision as scenes upon the tapestry of that “great drama.”

Like that retired general, I want nothing more now than to enjoy my Jo Stafford records and Fred Astaire movies for whatever little time may be left to me—and slam the door shut on the parade of imbecilities outside.

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