Becoming Proust

Reflections on living three fifths a century

Photo by Ben White on UNSPLASH.

But old age, to begin with, has something in common with death. Some face it with indifference, not because they have more courage than others, but because they have less imagination.

Marcel Proust, Time Regained

I am slowly turning into Marcel Proust.

Okay, that may be hyperbole, but I am turning into a man who might finally retry reading Proust, specifically his magnum opus: In Search of Lost Time. I might understand it this time. I will turn 60 this month, but there are days when I feel positively ancient.

It is the memories; they define us. Without my memories, would I still be me? Would you be you? If you woke tomorrow and all the memories of what you had done, created, learned, loved were gone, would you still be you in any real sense? Is that why we fear dementia and Alzheimer’s?

My memories trail behind me languidly like a long train of wagons. The current stuff is in the section of wagons just behind me. What about the wagons that are far behind me? I can not see them until I coax and cajole my memory into showing me their contents. The further back you go, the more insubstantial the wagons become. At some point, the wagons and contents become only vaporous suggestions of form, a placeholder where once there was a shining (and more or less accurate) memory. Over here was some private grievance I vowed never to forget, and there the memories of a lover I swore I would remember forever. But I forgot. Eventually, I will forget everything. Ultimately all that will be left is some anxious shell wondering what happened to all the treasures it had once safeguarded.

So much of what I learned, read, or thought, people, each one sits in one or more of the wagons: a river of memories. Many of the wagons exist in a cloud of thick, sticky fog. So many memories, so few of them helpful for this time and place. What is a man to do? With his time? With his life energy? What should I do? These wagons define me. Or do they only hint at who I was? I fear that the bulk of them in no way serve me now.

A hotel in the 1980s. I had graduated with my degree in engineering and headed to Officer Training School in Texas. My recall of that time is so goddamn nostalgic that I practically see the disconnected snapshots in black and white. An alarm clock. The hotel phone with its instructions on how to ask for a wake-up call. The confusing one-way streets in St. Louis. The people I drove with to the city. Bob? Jean? I don’t know for sure anymore; I have not visited these memories in years. As it stands, they are degraded, distorted isolated snapshots. Still images that hover in my neurons with few connections to anything else, anything contemporary.

I know what it means to feel old.

I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

T. S. Eliot, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock

Prufrock always propels me into melancholy.

It’s a mixed bag of things to unpack when I look around at the world now.

So much of what I studied to be, planned to be, is no longer relevant.

Circuit boards, that I designed while an engineer? Gone. The MPR-105 Pulse Preprocessor Data Extractor boards, which was my contribution to a project that took five years to complete but was in the field less than two years before being replaced by the next thing.

Habits I once practiced. Healthy ones. Fasting. Push-ups. Yoga. All of them are gone now.

Aspirations and plans I had had for one hobby or another have disappeared.

What do any of them mean now? How do I use an endless chain of half-remembered events, people, places, ideas, quotes now? Is any of it relevant? Salvageable? Can they do anything besides render me a doddering old fool?

Frequently in movies or literature, I see an elderly character who is aging well. You quote four words in some famous quotation, and they can finish it and cite the source. That has not been my experience of aging.

I never met my much-promised forever partner nor procreated.

What does this mean now? With however much time left to me, what do I do?

Jesus, this sounds like a modern-day The Sorrows of Young Werther. A contemporary version of Alone Again, Naturally, a suicide note.

I am depressed.

The political climate since 9/11 has been a vapid wasteland of anxiety and bickering. Now, people see compromise as a moral failure, unthinkable. This is not my beautiful country. I don’t recognize what I once thought this country was. I’m estranged from too many people.

I’ve never cared to chase material wealth, possessions, or even consent to being particularly disciplined in all things financial. And it’s hurting me now.

What does a man, who has spent most of his life not caring about what others care about, care about now? I have cared about some things but none of them will pay my rent or my insurance premiums. Or will it? Maybe that’s the key? Somehow strong-arm the things I once cared about to deliver some level of livelihood.

Aging is hard. Health is everything. And I would bet if you are one of my younger friends or readers, you won’t hear that. I didn’t hear this pithy wisdom when it was aimed at me in my youth.

“As long as you have your health, you have everything.”

I used to think this was trite nonsense. Not anymore, I don’t.

So, you, my young friends, are playing the part I played then.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever, old man.”

You might not hear me now, but you will one day. Don’t let your health slip away.

So love intensely, keep your memories alive and visit them often. Walk. Drink water. Tell your loved ones you love them. One day they or you will be gone, and the time for sharing will have passed.

I have this guilt that I let something go. I lost something somewhere along the line. How did I let those conditions, those friendships, relationships, jobs, interests, habits slide away into oblivion? How did I “let” that time become this time. Proust is right. Where did that time go?

Once there was no internet, no daily mass shootings, terrorism, climate catastrophes, and smartphones.  

I’m Sisyphus but my punishment isn’t pushing a boulder up a hill; it’s dragging this thousand-mile-long train of little red wagons filled with memories and obscure minutiae that couldn’t possibly mean less to this day and age. All they do is define me.

My memories languish behind me. None of them are complete or particularly poignant. It’s all so much existential angst over the absurdity of everything.

We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.

Marcel Proust

I choose the meaning I want my life to have. And those choices define what I should do, what I should be before the time for being passes. I must learn to live as if my head were on fire. I’ve sensed my mortality, and the finitude of it shocks me. No matter what the number is (if it were knowable), this would sadden me. Even if someone were to invent a pill tomorrow, which meant I might live to be 120, so what?

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