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Sunday, April 8, 2018

THE ARC OF LIFE


Working through my accumulated papers, sorting, filing, reading essays I wrote so long ago I had forgotten them, I have been struck by the contrast between the natural arc of the life cycle, from youth through maturity to old age, and the timeless present of the Internet, in which there is neither memory nor wisdom, but merely novelty.  As I re-read essays forty years old, I am reminded of where I sat as I wrote them, how old my sons were then, whether I was in Northampton or Belmont, or Pelham.  The essays are for me not fevered responses to the news of the moment but strata in the riverbed of my mind, laid down and then preserved by the passage of time.

I am accustomed to ask, when I read a great philosophical text, Is this an early or a middle Platonic Dialogue;  are these the words of the young or the mature Marx;  was this written by Kant before or after he encountered Hume’s critique of causal inference?  When I pick up my viola to play my part of a Haydn quartet, my first thought is always, is this one of the opus 33’s or is this a late quartet?  I love them all, but there is a difference, especially of course in how demanding the viola part will be.  But none of this, it seems, pertains to the Internet, which paradoxically preserves everything forever in the cloud but cares only for the most recent post.

My experience these past few days calls to mind a lovely passage from the writings of Michael Oakeshott, in my view the finest English conservative thinker since Burke.  In the title essay of Oakeshott’s collection Rationalism in Politics, he says of the Rationalist, “With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail.”

These thoughts are prompted by the fact that I am eighty-four, not forty-eight or twenty-four, and quite irrespective of the world’s judgment, I feel a need to shape, preserve, and reflect upon the unfolding of my mind these past sixty-five years and more.

When I was in my early sixties, I spent a good deal of time transcribing, organizing, and thus preserving the letters written in the first decades of the twentieth century by my grandfather and grandmother.  There I found the evidences of my grandparents’ devotion to the cause of socialism and to one another, a devotion captured exquisitely in a line from one of my grandmother’s letters:  “I would have loved you even if you were no socialist,” she wrote to my grandfather.

Perhaps in half a century, when my two grandchildren are as old as I was then, they will find in my carefully assembled and organized papers some words to inspire them as I have been by the words of my grandparents.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

"The essays are for me not fevered responses to the news of the moment but strata in the riverbed of my mind, laid down and then preserved by the passage of time."

I view my productions differently. As I review my own forgotten works, the image that comes to mind is that of sediment making its way to surface of the Turkish toilet of thought, only to gurgle back into the sluice.

Jerry Fresia said...

The Oakeshott comment has parallels in painting. For example:

Wolf Kahn: The moment you know how to do certain things, you should by rights stop doing them. You would be ceasing to search and starting to perform.

Cèzanne: With each new painting, I'm never the same person, but I'm always Cèzanne.

Anonymous said...

I don’t know what to say. I am that anonymous Indian woman, who wrote a comment on one of your posts, almost a week ago. Thank you so much and sorry for the delayed response. I never even thought you would acknowledge my comment, let alone write such a warm and thoughtful response. Thrilled,feeling honoured, elated -- all these sound like understatements to describe my state of mind. My name is Sreekala. The subject of my dissertation: Political economy of digital news media in India. I am pursuing PhD from one of the central universities in India. I mentioned this because, in India, we mainly have two types of public universities – centrally funded (by Govt Of India) and state-funded (by different states). I wish I had a better bio to share. But that’s all I have.
Btw I took a print-out of your post. My daughter is eight years old. Maybe, many years later, I will show it to her and tell “look, a World Famous Philosopher once wrote a blog post in response to my comment.” And, I wish and hope, she inherits a better world than the one we currently live in. Once again, thank you so much, Prof. Wolff. All the very best. Look forward to seeing many more great videos and posts from you. Pls do count me in as one of your regular readers.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sreekala, perhaps if you wish, you might write something about your research and about the part of India in which you live. I, and I am sure all of the readers, would welcome that. Do give it some thought. I value our readership of this blog.

Anonymous said...

Yet another anonymous (occassional) comments but a regular reader: this post is by far the most touching of all your posts on this blog. Thanks.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I am deeply pleased that I have found a true reader.

s. wallerstein said...

Welcome Sreekala. As Professor says, I would be interested in reading about India.

When I read what I wrote while younger, I'm surprised at how smart and above all, how witty I used to be. I flatter myself by imagining that I've become wiser with age, but
it really may be that I've just become more cautious and especially, more frightened and pessimistic. I certainly have become more empathetic, which the only virtue that I'm fairly sure that I develop as I get old.