Some privilege, some burden and being tested by travail, some good fortune, and a full measure of gratitude for it all: a decent recipe for a salutary life. These Dusty Worthies have borne me across the gannet road, the slate sea, the whale’s wine-crested course. It dumbfounds me still. I have often been the proverbial half way round the world with self-appointed work, and in a nominal and transient way it is on the strength of my being troubled aloud and possessed of a sorrow scarcely my own that I’ve been summoned to the far shore. The invitations to bring that satchel of mystery I seem to have been entrusted with are genuine and generous, and I will not grow accustomed to them down the length of my allotment.
I am in Vienna as I write this. If that has a swishy sound to it, well, it’s a swishy place. I’m not in one of those cafés, though. I’m backstage. Griefwalker is playing, a late matinée screening. The audience seems to have carefully selected itself. As is true most other places, they seem leery and wary and drawn in by outrageous fortune as much as by choice. I introduced the film to little response. No one seems clear on the etiquette of the thing. The translator was relieved of her duties, the audience sure enough about their English or mine to go it alone. There’s no translating the strange and the sorrowful sometimes, no matter how familiar it seems. For all I know, and for all that my schedule reveals about my working future, after ten years of wandering this may well be the last time I go out into the world with the film, or with Die Wise either. I’m melancholic. Something of my days seems to be ending. So it isn’t a bad city to be in.
It is the oddest life, or almost the oddest, to presume or count on or imagine something like a reception of any kind – or that people would appear at all – for a night of grief and mystery, say, where the instinct for applause is confounded, where feeling good takes second seat to feeling more. Calling out the mighty strikes me as an act so personal as to be intimate, and so it is a wonder to the Anglo-Saxon precinct of my soul that anyone welcomes a stranger into their midst who is counting the rosary of cultural neglect and trespass and truancy. They do, though.
When the questions are asked afterwards, three quarters of them begin with “How do you …?” Tonight will be no exception. What is striking in this is how much ache there is for certainty, for a direction unerring and constant, how desirous people seem to be to be given the map and told how to proceed. In a consumer culture, failing to tell people how to live can get you run out of town. It’s dereliction of duty. Somewhere in the questions maybe there’s dereliction of another kind, a secreted and sordid kind, something like a turning away from the work of being human in a time of trouble. There is a lot of chagrin and resentment over the fraying and the fading away of cultural wisdom. The flotsam that is left over – personal truth, as it is called – turns out to be drastically short, disastrously short, on wisdom.
There is authority galore, of course, and all manner of cheerleaders and purveyors of catalogues for elluding personal failure and vague fears about the future, shouting, “I’m not your guru. Now, follow me.” That authority gets its hearing, to be sure. But there’s anger about being left behind too, of being left on one’s own, no owner’s manual for the psyche, nothing that seems to have stood the test of time. The passage of time itself hasn’t stood the test of time. It’s going too fast now, the rate of change so relentless that anything bearing the marks of age is kicked to the curb as an obstacle to survival. “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie”: one of Dylan’s recent pronouncements, with a lot of takers.
There’s shelter, properly so in times as strange as these. But there is no safety. How could there be? Run down Armageddon’s roll call, just the top five items that will, if the experts are even close to being right, make mournful ash of your corner of the world soon enough, and any kind of sanity is clear on the matter: the important safety announcement is that there isn’t any. We are awash in opinions and in pro/con arguments that are miserly exercises in democracy. We are adrift in a sea of ‘more’. The whole works can drive you underground if you’re prone to opening a newspaper.
And then, with all of the red letter, front page worry, there’s something like this, a little slight that seems nothing by itself: I’ve been kindly put up in a fine hotel, the Hotel France, two blocks away from Freud’s old digs. You go down for breakfast, and you’re in Old World finesse. The waiters are dressed very properly, down to shined shoes and crisp aprons. They have that slight bow of the head, that generous gesture of the hand that guides you to your seat, that soft voice of particular regard that tells you they’ve trained for this, for you. Many of them are old men, service of this kind seeming to be no longer in keeping with young peoples’ design. They take the job seriously, and clearly have pride in it. But the whole thing is given over to self-service. Hotel guests dressed in varieties of shorts and brand name t-shirts and running shoes graze the buffet, taking more than they eat, bent over their devices, ignoring their table mates and the old men caring for their comforts, leaving the waiters to do nothing much more than pick up after them. It seemed in its ordinary way to be more than just another old institution razed and ghosted by the efficiency wonks. It seemed like institutionalized disgrace. I’ve no idea if anyone involved is in any way sorrowed over this garish eclipse of the grace of old, whatever of it that is left. Its a small thing in a blizzard of Big Problems, it is true. But it struck me.
Last night in Berlin a young woman at the event took my hand and said this: “I’ve been reading your things for years now. I’ve never written to you, but I can tell you care about what is happening to my generation. It seems like you’ve made us a promise not to forget us. I want you to know how rare that is. How precious.” And then she wept. That struck me, too.
So for reasons like these, and for people like these, I went to the garret one more time over this past winter, and tried myself, and found out if I had anything left to say, anything to send out to my corner of the world. When I came back to my life a couple of months later, I had under my arm something like a respectful address to my fellow citizens, a plea for something like sanity in the craze, a case made for the office of elderhood, a gauntlet thrown to the aging and the old. I don’t know that it will sound respectful to many of my generation, but I believe it is. It seems to me that, under the bravado and the virtual blizzard of fret and information that pretends to be a community, a lot of young people are scared, and forlorn, and wondering what happened, and what is to become of them, and whether they’re in it alone. If I’m right about that, then this is reason enough to have taken up the pen and invited the opprobrium of my generational peers.
In a week or two there’ll be a book to add to the fray, one with my name on it. It’s called Come Of Age. I meant the title to be something like a plea, something like an exhortation. That’s clear. But I also meant it as mark of honour and a sign that there is a kind of heart deepened by diminishment and the coming on of time, something like the human version of old wine entrusted only to the old, that can only come to us through them. And that there must be such a thing, and that it must appear. And that it is so very needed by the young just now. Maybe it will appear.
Maybe there’ll be something in the book you can use.
Come of Age by Stephen Jenkinson | Official Book Trailer
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