This afternoon, a gorgeous fall one, as I lay in the hammock–I was home alone, my wife’s having gone shopping with her sister–the dogs barked, which meant somebody had come onto the porch. I got up, walked around the corner of the house, saw a man I used to work with. In town on some matter, he told me, he thought he’d come by. He lives forty of fifty miles away, and I had not seen him in a few years. I told him, though it was not exactly true, that I was about to put on the coffee, would he like some. He said he would. After the coffee brewed, we each poured a cup and sat by the pool. The talk was the usual banalities, comfortable talk, exactly what talk should be on a bright afternoon by the pool between men who really don’t know each other all that well. He did tell me that Mr. Randolph Mouzon (not his real name) had died, apparently of old age. “He was the richest man in the county,” he told me. “He must have owned several thousands of acres of land. Money can’t buy everything in this world.” He gravely uttered this cliché, as if he were the first person to come to such a conclusion. Oh, it’s true: money can’t buy everything in the world, but nothing, whether it be money or sterling virtue or supernal knowledge can acquire everything in this world.
I had heard of Mr. Mouzon. On my way to and from college, years ago, I passed his big house in the country. Yes, Mr. Mouzon was rich, as rich as some kings I guess, as wealthy as Midas and Croesus and all the rest of the fabled rich we drag out to make comparison. He was a rich man for a very long time. And then he died.
So now he’s just another dead man, but, no, I didn’t express such sentiments to my guest. As is the wont of men, we quickly forgot Mr. Mouzon, his wealth and his death, and talked of other matters, gentle, placid talk, easy conversation, devoid of ambiguity or depth, of anything likely to spark argument, so scripted to be courteous and polite that it could be called a social rite, one filled with bromides and clichés. In other words, it was just the right kind of talk for my guest and me to have. It wasn’t the time to unriddle the mystery of existence, the anxiety eating at the human heart. My guest did not stay long. He drank his coffee, and not long afterwards he left. He and I are not good friends, so we talked just long enough, both of us having the good sense to end the session before either of us became uncomfortable. He and I played by the rules. It made the episode pleasant.
When he left, I got back into my hammock, content to lie alone in the afternoon, just look at a few thin cirrostratus clouds scratched, as if by a cat, in the blue sky. Noticing the sun lower in the sky, I thought that the days are much shorter now. Thinking about Mr. Mouzon’s death, the impotence of his wealth to keep him out of his grave, I remembered a poem from the Greek Anthology:
I am the tomb of Crethon; here you read
His name; himself is number’d with the dead;
Who once had wealth not less than Gyges’ gold;
Who once was rich in stable, stall, and fold;
Who once was blest above all living men–
With lands, how narrow now, how ample then!
Regardless of how “big” a man is in life, the size of his grave is the same as that of the “little” man. ( I fail to see, though, how this observation brings relief to the little man: a grave is a grave.) It’s true that the paths of glory (so says Thomas Gray in his famous poem about his stroll through country churchyard, it’s small cemetery) lead but to the grave, but, then, all paths lead to the grave. Emily Dickinson saw death as democratic, the beggar and the queen equal, and of course we know that poor Bartleby in Melville’s story about him now sleeps with kings and counsellors. I can’t see, however, how this fact—and it’s irrefutable—makes up for the wretchedness of Bartleby’s life.
For me, at least, the most profound and most poignant comment on this “theme” is Prince Harry’s address to the just-slain Hotspur, slain in battle by the Prince himself (Henry IV, Part 1):
Ill-weaved ambition, how much thou art shrunk!
When that this body contained a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
is room enough. . . .
Such epitaphs make for good poetry, and if we aren’t careful, we catch ourselves nodding sadly at such revelations, but, my goodness, what is revealed? that we all die? that in the end we all end up the same? food for worms? Well, if death is such, then life takes on paramount importance. If the rich man and the beggar end up the same, then it seems to me it’s better to be the rich man, the happy man rather than the sad man, the wise man rather than the fool. The tragedy of Hotspur is not that he has become carrion for blind creatures burrowing in the earth but rather that his jaundiced and absurd pride cost him his life, scores of years in the happy bright sun, the caresses of that beautiful and witty woman who loves him.
Only schoolboys find Hotspur admirable. We might all be the same in death, but we aren’t the same in life–and if we have no control of death: it will come–we do have a certain amount of control over our lives. How much and to what degree? Well, that’s why some of us study our Becker, none of us knowing whether we will find a definitive answer or not, probably suspecting we won’t, but Becker, odd to say about a man who warns us not to look too long at the sun, offers us hope. It’s reductive, I know, but Becker says that knowledge is not as curative as hope.
“Hope is an illusion,” I have heard bright men say, educated men, and it’s true: hope might be an illusion. These same men declare that all is illusion. The statement can’t bear the scan of logic, the statement itself being an illusion, but never mind. Shakespeare says that we are but the “stuff dreams are made of” and “our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Life as illusion, life as a dream—how is one to make sense of things?
Dr. Neil Elgee would say, however, as he has said to me on more than on occasion: “If we cannot live without illusions then it’s best we choose the most life-enhancing ones.”