By JAMES GALLANT.
Awaking in the early morning these days, I often find myself just lying there ruminating dreamily on experiences great or small that have worked (or might yet work) determinative influence in my life.
In this foggy mental state, I may brood on the general conditions of life in the place I was born and raised that affected me, which will then remind me, for no clear reason, of the recent increase in our water bill that suggests that a pipe may be is leaking somewhere in the house. That, in turn, might prompt the memory of an embarrassing mistake I made in 1985—followed by thought of my suspiciously sensitive tooth, or the unforeseen consequences of my change of vocation in 1972.
The theme that pervades and unifies these frowsy musings is my incapacity. It is as if some conjunction of the planets has had it in for me, so that I have been, or am presently, powerless to act with effect. This, it occurs to me, is fair enough an expression of the psychosomatic state in which these thoughts arise. On the other hand, when wide-awake I’m generally a cheerful, healthy, forward-looking productive sort of octogenarian.
Carl Jung saw dream life as often providing compensatory balance for waking life. That might account also for my dusky early morning ruminations. My wakeful persona be damned—the Unconscious is reminding me of my approaching demise. Montaigne said the best way to prepare for death is to think about it constantly. If one doesn’t do that, maybe the psyche does it for one? (That anyone at any age does not think constantly about dying has become for me a profound mystery of organic life.) In any case, it’s not too surprising that it would be in states in which the will slumbers that one would be visited by thoughts of one’s vulnerability and ineptitude.
My early morning victimhood can be depressing enough to spirit me off the mattress into the light of day where determinative influences recede from consciousness. By the time I’ve had my coffee, with the morning paper spread out before me, and the sun streaming through the window at my side, I can only wonder that the mattress-mind had seemed so compelling an hour before. One’s obliviousness of mortality revives as one recovers one’s orientation to the future.
I rise from the breakfast table and rejoin the human race proceeding futureward like streams of ants, as if we know what we are doing.
The dramatic monologue of the octogenarian
—Morning, old boy! Nice soft bed, eh?
—[yawn] Time to rise and shine.
—No reason for a has-been to hurry.
—Speak for yourself.
—Do you remember that time when you…
—No, I don’t.
—Oh, but you do!
—The past is a moldy old chest of trash. I’ll not open it.
—It’s self-opening, Bub, and I am The Trashman, bo-bop-de-do!
—Well said, ol’ doppelganger.
—Know thy self.
—I know you. You’d have water flowing backward under the bridge.
—[singing] I met my ego at the altar.
— Look, if I listened to you, the day would be over and done with before it’s started. No. I will rise now and have my coffee.
—Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day laced with caffeine.
—I will row, row, row my boat gently down the stream.
—That’s a leaky ol’ dinghy you got there, friend.
—I cast my lot with Thomas Carlyle: “Here hath been dawning another new day. Think, wilt Thou let it slip useless away?”
—Speaking of trash!
—At the age of eighty-three Carlyle was still polishing his Friedrich II of Prussia.
—And I suppose you find that admirable.
—I do, yes.
—Who was Friedrich II of Prussia?
— [laughter] “Near is thy forgetfulness of all things,” Marcus Aurelias said, “and near the forgetfulness of thee by all.”
—You’re full of quotations. Don’t you ever say anything original?
—It’s all been said before, my boy. Nothing new under the sun….By the way, Carlyle said after he finished the Friedrich he had no idea what next book he’d “apply to.”
—He also said he’d think of something.
—Did we really need another book from him? His collected works run to thirty-seven volumes.
—We never need a book from anyone. Carlyle needed one, as reason to get out of bed.
—You identify with that?
—Yet here you lie.
—You’re sitting on my chest.
—It’s comfy here, and the best position in which to understand life is flat on your back.
—“The truth may depend on a walk around the lake,” Wallace Stevens said. I must now resume verticality, dress, and comb my hair.
— You will make a fine appearance in the world [laughter].
—I will drink my coffee, and I will scan the headlines in the morning paper.
—Oh, that will be grand!
—I intend today to wash the dirty windows of my house.
—The sun and moon will rejoice.
—They will shine more brightly.
—Your thought a while back of purchasing a skull to contemplate was inspired.
—Yes, you inspired it.
—You never followed through.
—The idea of making my house some stranger’s tomb repelled me.
—It might have disturbed your all-too-human adherence to the ordinary.
—Yes, I might have come unglued.
—The National League standings would no longer be of interest.
—I wouldn’t want that to happen. [Blows nose.] I think that was the last Kleenex in the house.
—Where are the Kleenexes of yesteryear?
—Look, a desert hermit—if one’s still to be found— may not feel the importance of the next moment of experience, but everyone else does.
—Distracted by distraction from distraction.
—Call it what you will, it keeps the world wheel turning. Carlyle has an idea for a new book. Shakespeare urges his young friend to propagate. The fly aware of the swatter is acrobatically evasive. The plant defends itself against predators and harsh weather.
—The “illusion of immortality.”
—To live is to act, and when you act, you’re oblivious of mortality and the four million galaxies.
—Bamboozled, buffaloed, hoodwinked, hornswoggled.
—I will rise now.
—The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose.
—The morning paper will have arrived. The President will have committed some wonderful new boo-boo.
—You are not a serious person.
— Before I can wash the windows, I must whip up a fresh batch of cleaner.
—Won’t that be joyful!
—I will need ammonia, but I don’t think there’s any in the house. A trip to Target will be necessary.
—Don’t forget the Kleenexes!
—I’ll row, row, row my boat gently down the freeway.
—I will go with you and be your guide.
—I will have left you far behind.
—At night when you’re asleep, into your bed I’ll creep.
James Gallant, an independent scholar, is the Fortnightly Review’s “Verisimilitudes” columnist, and author of Verisimilitudes: Essays and Approximations, published recently in our Odd Volumes series. His La Leona and Other Guitar Stories, which won the Schaffner Press award for music-in-literature in 2019, is available currently, along with his earlier works of fiction, from booksellers online and off-.