getting olderthat's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Life looks very strange

No Gravatar

Recently, I found myself thinking of Caterina Valente, a singer who had some hits back in the ’50s. One of those hits was “Jalousie,” by the Danish composer Jacob Gade. This may not be the only tango written by a Dane, but it certainly is the most famous one. In fact, “Jalousie” is one of the most popular songs ever.

I mention this because a few days after Valente’s named popped into my head — for no discernible reason — I happened to hear an instrumental version of “Jalousie” on the radio.

Then, the next day, I heard on the radio tenor Jan Peerce’s 1945 recording of “The Bluebird of Happiness,” a song that both my mother and grandmother, for some reason, detested. And the day after that, I turned on the TV very briefly to check on the Mummers Parade and, lo and behold, just then mention was being made of “The Bluebird of Happiness.”

It was all probably the merest coincidence. Either that, or an unusually trivial example of what Jung called synchronicity — events not causally connected but having some connection in terms of meaning. Only I can’t think of what the meaning might be in this case.

I can say that, as I grow older, I find my memory casting up odds and ends from my childhood, and I must confess that long-ago time seems often more real to me than the intervening years. I remember my grown-up and professional years well enough, but they have lost something of their relevance, like a newspaper from last month.

I have been wondering why that might be, and what keep coming to mind are some lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
In childhood, as well as in our teens, we construct an imaginary future for ourselves. I know I did. I have even had the good fortune — I suppose it was good fortune — to have an ambition conceived when I was 15 become a reality. I thought then that writing for a newspaper about books would be a great way to make a living. And that is pretty much what I ended up doing. And, actually, it was a great way to make a living.

But maybe I should have done something else. I have no idea.

Anyway, the disparity between that imaginary construct that we build when we are young and the reality we experience later is necessarily considerable, since we can’t possibly know, when we are building our construct, anything of what is actually going to happen later on. Oh, we can dream of running away to sea, and we may, as soon as we are able, do just that. But we cannot possibly know what it is going to be like to do that … until we do it. And we are likely to discover that dreaming of the sea and being at sea are two very different things.

The disparity, though, seems more sharply defined when one can look back on both one’s childhood and youth and the years that followed. Life looks very strange when most of it lies behind you — as it also did when most it lay before you.

But the two strangenesses are not at all alike. The earlier strangeness was of possibility and opportunity, the later is a mix of some accomplishment (if one has been lucky) and disappointment.

But the strangest thing of all that I notice is that the earlier version of myself — the one that built the construct — seems more real to me than the one in between, the one that did the things that have come to define my life. I think that is so because — to use Eliot’s terms —the reality of the latter falls so far short of the idea of the former.

And what about now? There isn’t much left to come, of course, and the inevitable end draws ever nigh. Oddly, I may have less of a clear and distinct sense of myself now than at any time in my life. Even odder, I do not find this especially disconcerting, since it seems perfectly in harmony with how I have come to look upon life and the world: as things we do not come near to understanding, for all our philosophy and science. I have become enthralled over how unanswerable the fundamental questions of being are.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

Latest posts by Frank Wilson (Posts)

Print This Post Print This Post

One Response to “Life looks very strange”

  1. As always, a nourishing read, Frank. The unanswerability of life’s questions leads me often, at middle age, to consider giving up writing about them. This notion always drives me back to music. Although, notes and chords don’t clarify things verbally, they seem to be able to explain things words can’t and to result in unexplainable “a-ha” moments. Still, we come back to the words because just have to, I suppose.

Discussion Area - Leave a Comment