For decades social critics have grown hoarse decrying the indisputable fact that North American culture has declined into a cult of youth. Among other touchstones, they cite sitcoms that almost universally depict adults (especially males) as intellectually inferior to the wisecracking ten-year-old ironists who ultimately rule the ranch(-style) houses of Televisionland. No matter that in real life these child stars possess all of the autonomy of their collie colleague, Lassie, as whip-cracking stage mothers, robbing them of their childhoods, herd them into blinding klieg lights.
I can’t resist. Check out these before and after pix of Brittany:
And, of course, if you buy into perverse premise that aging is horrible, you’re pretty much doomed to a life of diminishing satisfaction as hairlines recede, varicose veins branch out, dogs die, and crowsfeet deepen into talons. What traditionally has offered recompense for this physical decay is an accumulation of remembered experiences that have formed patterns of meaning that ultimately lead to an august understanding that the life cycle is natural and that death is the mother of beauty. [cue: Ecclesiastes, the Byrds]
However, and here’s the rub, many 21st Century citizens mostly experience “life” through the looking glass of mass media. For example, I calculate that my stay-at-home maternal grandmother spent the last forty years of her life in 16-hour stints of non-stop TV. If that’s your lifestyle, the patterns you’re accumulating are illusions concocted to sell products and services, so ultimately, you’re experiencing a wildly disappropriate number of happy endings and a constant barrage of eye-pleasing artifacts and sculpted spokespeople who sell the concept that beauty is skin deep. In the above scenario, the TV saturated senior citizen glued to reruns of Murder She Wrote or, worse, Fox News is less likely than the sober-minded 30-something social worker in providing good advice.
On the other hand, some old soul who has experienced an intense, widely travelled existence, who has weathered childhood, young adulthood, parenthood, widowhood, disease, exaltation, depression, and compassion should be treasured, the way I treasure the planet’s greatest novelist of the last quarter of the previous century. I’m talking about my man, Gabo, i.e., Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And when that old soul transformed his experience into a novel, what we got (and get) is not a concoction, but a revelation, the embodiment of wisdom.
A late novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, offers a case in point. Ostensibly, the narrative explores an incurable romantic’s life. Quixotic Florentino Ariza has had a lifelong fixation on an instantaneous infatuation, which, as far as I can determine, has only resulted in one happy ending (see La Comedia Divina). Love in the Time of Cholera depicts long-lived lives in which wisdom alchemizes from the dross of life, particularly the life of Fermina Daza Urbino, who stands out as one of the greatest female characters of the last fifty years. Here she is via free indirect speech (in Edith Grossman’s translation) thinking of her dead husband:
For now she understood him better than when he was alive, she understood the yearning of his love, the urgent need he felt to find in her security that seemed the mainstay of his public life and that in reality he never possessed. One day, at the height of her desperation, she had shouted at him: “You don’t understand how unhappy I am.” Unperturbed, he took off his eyeglasses with a characteristic gesture, he flooded her with the transparent waters of his childlike eyes, and in a single phrase he burdened her with the weight of his unbearable wisdom: “Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.” With the first loneliness of her widowhood she had understood that the phrase did not conceal the miserable threat that she attributed to it at the time, but was the lodestone that had given them so many happy hours.
Here are Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza finally consummating their love in their seventies, a scene that no doubt would send most of my current students to the medicine cabinet for some Dramamine:
She took him to the bedroom and, with the lights on, began to undress without false modesty. Florentino Ariza was on the bed, lying on his back and trying to gain control, once again not knowing what to do with the skin of the tiger he had slain. She said, “Don’t look.” He asked why without taking his eyes off the ceiling.
“Because you won’t like it,” she said.
Then he looked at her and saw her naked to her waist, just as he had imagined her. Her shoulders were wrinkled, her breasts sagged, her ribs were covered by flabby skin as pale and cold as a frogs [. . .]
It was the first time she had made love in twenty years, and she had been held back by her curiosity how it would feel after so long a respite, but he had not given her time to find out if her body loved him too. It had been hurried and sad, and she thought: Now we’ve screwed everything up. But she was wrong: despite the disappointment that each of them felt, despite his regret for his clumsiness and her remorse for the madness of the anisette, they were not apart for a moment in the days that followed [. . .] They did not try to make love again to much later, when the inspiration came to them without looking for it. They were satisfied with the simple joy of being together.
Carpe diem indeed!