The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury. – Marcus Aurelius
Yesterday, for unknown reasons, I contemplated old-age; which with me amounts to a more cruel, more masochistic form of memento mori. I imagine myself old, white- or no-haired, suffering from diverse, diffuse pains about which I either groan and mumble, staring death in the face and possibly not resenting its slow approach. This already tells a big part of the tale: I, me, almost alone there, at the end. Someone else to hear my incoherent mumblings? Maybe, hopefully, there will be a partner to tend to my sufferings and be compassionate, make me feel less alone in my decrepitude. Eysh, what lovely imaginings, that long slow final stretch before blissful inexistence. Who could be there? A young nurse swooshing through on her heavy morning schedule of tending to a dozen octo-&nontogenarians?
But missing, thus far, are spectral images of unproduced offspring. I am presently very happy about my [our, of course] childlessness; it agrees with my paltry finances, my utter lack of accomplishments, as well as my inability to comport myself adult-like: serious, stern, purpose-driven. Not some modish, hipsterish, desperate clinging to youthfulness, I hope but rather basic incompetence. [Though, which is worse, is anyone‘s case to make.] And anyway, it might be the other way round, that having offspring is what renders you hopelessly adult.
However, as my mind zooms ahead across the decade, prematurely [for death surely wishes to pounce on any given day] the flipside of the childless medal hoves into view: old age solitude, a grey-beige room where only one‘s hawkings-up, phlegm-choked tissues and the occasional nurse-visit keep one company. Exaggeratedly grim but often real enough. Yesterday, in particular, I imagined my parents in a parallel present of zero procreation: home alone and downbeat, hoping for no phone calls, expecting nobody to ring now and then to ask about their well-being, not making preparations for the diverse holiday dinners. And then my mother‘s sisters, my aunts and their husbands, also alone, also dejected. What a wretched image! Immersed deep enough in such imaginings the prospect of children [while otherwise distasteful] suddenly takes on a redemptive glow: I will not be alone, someone will be present to weep/curse/pick at a hangnail at my grave.
I was of such a melancholy mood as to communicate to Nomhle these musings, intended as calm observations of fact rather than futureful thinking. To which, quite rightly and more mature than I can ever hope to become, she eventually replied that I would have to stay patient another 8 years, at least, for the two of us to fall in with the common human folly.
And anyway, the forlorn gaze of a mother pushing a pram through today‘s slush was quite enough of an antidote: oh life of mine, where are thou? pledged her eyes.
Yes, cautionary examples abound. For example the sudden dying off of visits by one‘s friends as soon as a given couple has plunked down a nuclear family of their own. Nuclear indeed! The very fission which detonates any social network with its weapon-grade babies, its plutonium playgroups, its super-critical kindergartens. No, not now, better to remain the childless fusion reactor for a while, pretending to save the world‘s social energy problems. [Which is an outrageous exaggeration for the super sedentary likes of Nomhle and this-here-typist.] Anyway, the radioactive look of new-spawned parents is usually enough to get me off any such notions. Also, recently, reading XZY‘s „Kindergarchy“, a sobering exploration of parenthood in the present day US of A, seamlessly transferable to contemporary Helvetia.
But then anyway today morning my thoughts, given more to the labyrinthine layout of sulci and gyri than logical progression, came whirring back along these lines: lineage, descent, progeny, what-to-think? And a HAT popped into my head, a habitual automatic thought: on this morning, 100 years ago [or 500 or 7 million, for that matter] what had my grandfather been doing? Grandfather? Grandmother? Roving across the plains of the Eastern Cape in hot pursuit of a sacrificial animal? Singular? GrandmotherS & GrandfatherS?
Even if we assume naively a generational cycle to be 30 years [very much biased towards our present needs for post-adolescent tomfoolery], we have to move back but a century and a score years to end up with a proper little pack of grandparents: 16 standing there in our shady personal genetic history. And how personal can it be, how individual when it are those same sweet sixteen, jumbled together a bit differently that passed their talents&defects down to my siblings, your siblings? And which one of them shall I take most to be my, hmmmm, retrospective role model when I don‘t even know their names, much less how they spent their days on the face of this planet? Nor should they in turn, given this long genealogical duree, be happy about how their blood was randomly mixed with the most faraway strangers. As little as 33 generations back, about one millenium, you get the entirety of the planet‘s population standing along history‘s edge in the soft glow of parenthood… of you! [yes, yes, population dynamics play out quite differently but there‘s a general, numerical lesson here]
The illusion of following a patrilineal or matrilineal line up and down the progression of generations is purely a matter of mental sanity, something to maintain the illusion of coherence, the phantsamagoria of a family tree where, as is plain to see, there is only an incredible, incomprehensible rhizome of genetic re-mixes. As little as 300 years back you end up with a thousand-head strong troop of ancestors, each of them having given you some minuscule fraction of their genetic make-up. And so it is that, each one of us, given a slightly more historical perspective, must be considered a Bastard Absolute, a blend of so much different genetic material that we resort to family names or to populations to atone for it. I am a Mabona, I am a Giger, I am a Swiss, all the lovely titles that anchor us in time, place and genealogy.
But then also looking from the nuclear nest outward, forward perhaps, the dream of inheritance become a vague sugar puff within a span of three generations; it is longevity only, surviving those other great-grandparents, that will give one old geezer the late glory of claiming exclusive great-grandparenthood of children whose names, in their profligate newly born numbers, escape us:
This is my daughter, you can tell by her head-strong ways, the long pointy nose, how she rubs her temple when thinking hard, a thousand tiny details, you know. And that there is my third grandson; I suppose he likes me, I mean, leaving through my old magazines, looks a bit like my late wife. That one way back over there, I think, hmmm, I think that‘s my, hold on, ah yes, my great-grand daughter, name of…. shooosh, I be darned, looks a lot like her aunt on her father‘s side, bloody Nigerian genes….
The nuclear family, what a convenient illusion to prop up space and time. Except that it‘s not: as a matter of fact, this is where 50-plus-percent of becoming yourself and growing up is usually done. This is our everyday reality: parents, kids, partners. The kids should have a better future [pretending for a moment that climate change as produced per jethopping weekend city trips won‘t wreak havoc on it] and our parents deserve a decent retirement plan. Castles of illusion all around, my dear friend. And anyway, it holds true yet, the dream of a legacy, a parcel of our individuality passed down the generations [e.g. phantasms of a phallomanic patriarchy], is a fantasy contradicted by the wild genetic and interpersonal blending across the human gene…pool? Nah, rhizome!
It sounds a bit negative, as if leaving reality behind is such a bad thing. The same way maybe that escapism is stigmatized because it is seen, primarily, as running from something rather than towards somewhere. But I conceive of the best of literature as actually providing an escape to the splendid isolation of imagination, where a white castle holds up the sky and a poor, tortured girl in a locked basement affords Omelas its untold splendor.
Concepts are not the only means to leave reality‘s rich grey behind us, vividly evoked imagery serves the same end. As does hyper-detailed lyricism, lush and winding. Reality is sensory and signifying surplus, true, but on the page, in concepts and imagery distilled into words, it finds its equal.
They dance, oh do they dance. And reality does not leave the room untill, exhausted at last, its realistic feet bleeding, pulled down by the gravity of physical laws, it leaves for imagination to run the show.
Poe’s great tales turn on guilt concealed or denied, then abruptly and shockingly exposed. He has always been reviled or celebrated for the absence of moral content in his work, despite the fact that these tales are all straightforward moral parables. – M. Robinson
I can‘t vouch for or counter-vouch this quote but I do remember someone taking cruel revenge by walling in some other person, in Venice?, alive. I think it was revenge…but for what? An unrepaid debt? The dim, moving images haunt me yet. Surely, no minor misdeed deserved such brutal, cruel vengeance. Yes, a transgression had happened in the past but in the present, so it seemed, it had accumulated a gruesome interest in brutality. And in the Fall of the House of Usher I too seem to recall some inordinate toll being taken on one of the characters due to une chose murky from the past being unearthed… I believe.
Surely by this narrative strategy Poe was able to rope in [and cudgel?] many a reader who, in her/his dark moments remembers some vile deed they themselves perpetrated in their salad-au-snail days and yet regret. Yet fearing it will come to bite our present glutei. Indeed, sans chain-yanking, the other day, yesterday it was, I saw ill-fated Oliver of my childhood. Our childhood. A good head taller than me, dressed in serious but dour business attire, ensconced in the cheerless masses of commuter traffic just like myself. It is him, this well-turned-out twenty-year old, we, our local childhood collective, used to treat with nothing but the utmost cruelty: forcing him into painful falls, feeding him noxious materials and belly-laughing at his physical defects. Utterly wicked we were. I still regret having been such a heartless child, if only just towards O. And seeing him in the bus, I could do nothing but lower my sights, ashamed of my former self. But, I think, he did not so much as recognize me. And so then Mr. Poe, dear, grizzly wordsmith of dread, is here in writing even now to remind us, remind me, that one dreary February evening I might regain my senses on the cold floor of a crypt just as O. F. is about to trowel that last blasted brick into place. Ahhhhh, what exquisite horror, what superlative revenge. So perhaps upon our next serendipitous encounter, it should be I who shuts the past‘s open ledger by bloody legerdemain.