A composer I know was recently told by his doctors that he could expect to live for another ten years or so. He’s in his late seventies, so that wasn’t stop-press news, but even so, it concentrated his mind wonderfully. Now that he has a pretty good idea of how much time he has left, he’s deciding what pieces of music he wants to write before the clock runs out.
Such thoughts have a way of becoming alarmingly specific when you spend large chunks of your life composing symphonies or writing books. When my friend told me what his doctors had told him, I found myself wondering what I’d do if I were to learn (which I haven’t) that I, too, was likely to die in ten years. It took me about that long to write The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. Would I roll up my sleeves, spit on my hands, and start work at once on another book of similar proportions, or opt instead for a less elaborate project that I could wrap up in a year or two? Might I decide to embark on something completely different? Or choose to do nothing at all?
Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom, says the psalmist. I wonder how many of us do, or even try. I nearly died nine months ago, and you’d think that such an sobering experience would cause me to devote my remaining days to none but the most consequential of tasks–but you’d be wrong. A couple of Saturdays ago, for instance, I found myself with no shows to see and no appointments to keep. How did I spend my precious night off? Did I pile up fresh pages of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong? Did I closet myself with a hitherto-unread classic, or listen anew to Op. 111, or spend hour upon hour contemplating the Teachout Museum in breathless silence? No, indeed. I sent out for pizza, curled up on the couch, and watched a pair of perfectly silly movies.
This puts me in mind of the famous passage in which one of Tolstoy’s characters meditates upon a performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata:
In China music is under the control of the State, and that is the way it ought to be. Is it admissible that the first comer should hypnotize one or more persons, and then do with them as he likes? And especially that the hypnotizer should be the first immoral individual who happens to come along? It is a frightful power in the hands of any one, no matter whom. For instance, should they be allowed to play this “Kreutzer Sonata,” the first presto,–and there are many like it,–in parlors, among ladies wearing low necked dresses, or in concerts, then finish the piece, receive the applause, and then begin another piece? These things should be played under certain circumstances, only in cases where it is necessary to incite certain actions corresponding to the music. But to incite an energy of feeling which corresponds to neither the time nor the place, and is expended in nothing, cannot fail to act dangerously. On me in particular this piece acted in a frightful manner. One would have said that new sentiments, new virtualities, of which I was formerly ignorant, had developed in me. “Ah, yes, that’s it! Not at all as I lived and thought before! This is the right way to live!”
I’m not going to try to tell you that listening to Beethoven–or anything else–galvanizes me in so thoroughgoing a way. Nevertheless, I do spend more time than most people exposing myself to works of art whose effects on the nervous system can be very dire indeed. I’ve seen a dozen Shakespeare plays since getting out of the hospital last December, two of them twice. Would I have done that if I weren’t a drama critic? Probably not. Man cannot live by masterpieces alone, nor is he capable of spending all his days and nights screwed up to the highest possible pitch of moral and intellectual resolution. Every once in a while he has to send out for pizza and watch Two Weeks Notice instead.
I had a nightmare in Chicago last weekend, a few hours after seeing a performance of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, in which one of the characters tells an old friend that he’s dying. A couple of weeks before that, I’d seen Breaker Morant, a movie that ends with an explicitly gory firing-squad scene, and in between I had occasion to chat with a friend about Dialogues of the Carmelites, the Poulenc opera whose climax is a procession to the guillotine by a group of nuns who have been condemned to death by a revolutionary tribunal. All these experiences somehow became scrambled in my head, and I dreamed that I was watching a long line of nuns who were being led one by one into an adjacent room, where an unseen executioner shot them to death. At some point in the dream, I realized that I was standing in the same line, and that in a matter of minutes I, too, would be given a dose of what Philip Larkin called “the anesthetic from which none come round.” That’s when I woke up.
I wish I could tell you that I went straight home to New York and polished off a chapter of Hotter Than That, but I didn’t. I did, however, write the drama column that will appear in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal, then started work on my next Commentary essay. In between I saw a press preview of Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia, dined with two good friends, talked to my mother on the phone three times, and read two new biographies, one about Fritz Reiner and the other about Orson Welles. I’ve done better–and worse.
All of which, I suppose, is a roundabout way of saying that I’m only human. Who among us applies his heart unto wisdom twenty-four hours a day, or anything remotely approaching it? Not me. On the other hand, I’m not a saint, much less a genius, and I’m old enough to know exactly how unimportant I am in the grand scheme of things. If my plane to Minneapolis were to crash tomorrow morning, I doubt the world would weep bitter tears to learn that Hotter Than That had been left unfinished, or that someone else would be taking over as drama critic of The Wall Street Journal. (In fact, I know a number of people who might consider throwing a party.)
None of this, needless to say, makes it remotely acceptable for me to fritter away the unknown remnant of my life in useless pursuits. Nor do I plan to do so. I expect to finish Hotter Than That, to get started on another book as soon as that one is done, to keep on writing my Wall Street Journal reviews and Commentary essays for as long as the editors of those publications care to publish them, and to whittle steadily away at the embarrassingly long list of great books I’ve never read and great plays I’ve never seen. I also expect to spend more than a few too many nights sitting on the couch watching dumb movies–and, more than likely, feeling guilty about it the next day. That, too, is life.