Friday, June 06, 2014

How much longer for me?

In responding to, and reflecting on, an essay that I had required the class to read, one student agreed with the author that the classics in literature helped her know more about, and understand, herself.  "I learnt a lot about who I am from reading Dickens and others" she said.

Higher education no longer requires students to read the classics.  I recently read in an essay that at many universities, students majoring in English literature can graduate with the highest of honors without having read and analyzed even one of the many plays that Shakespeare penned.  We have courses on Lady Gaga and the history of rock and roll and quite a few other fluffy topics that students can take to fulfill the requirements on their way to earning that piece of paper.

To comment on the changing times, with the changes seemingly for the worse, is perhaps the surest sign of getting older.  The disappointment keeps growing and soon it is an angry, grumpy, old man blabbering something while swinging his walking stick in the air.  And, of course, with every passing day is the seemingly higher probability of death.
George Santayana claimed that one of the reasons older people tend to grumpiness is that they find it difficult to envision a world of any quality in which they will not play a part.
The essay by Joseph Epstein, whom I have quoted more than once in this blog--especially when commenting on the pathetic state of higher education--is also a wonderful reminder of how much the classics can help one understand about life and the self.  His essay, humorous throughout, is a commentary on a series of observations on life and death.  Observations by philosophical and literary giants, most of whom are not a part of the undergraduate canon anymore.

Epstein writes:
The Persian King Xerxes, Herodotus reports, witnessing his more than 2,000 troops massed for the battle to conquer Greece, wept at the thought that “all these multitudes here and yet in 100 years’ time not one of them will be alive.” Then as now the mortality rate remains at 100 percent, with no likelihood of dropping soon.
Could it be that such a passage will be lost on the youth today because they are far removed from death and suffering?  When it was rare for humans to live past 35, surely there was death all around, in contrast to now.  Unless one was systematically protected from witnessing the suffering that life was/is, as was the case with Siddhartha, there was no escaping being a daily witness to death.  Therefore, the learned and the wise thought and spoke and wrote a lot about death.  Epstein writes about Montaigne:
All learning, he believed, was to make us ready for the end, to prepare us for death. “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die” is the title of his essay, and major statement, on the subject. He hoped that when death finally did appear, “it will bear no new warning for me. As far as we possibly can we must have our boots on, ready to go.”
Learning is to prepare for death.  That preparation does not imply that I am ready to check out today; after all, my eating and lifestyle habits are clearly to postpone that expiration date.  Again, Epstein:
The truth is that I have been waiting to die for quite some while now. I do not wish to die, certainly not until, as Socrates says, “life has no more to offer.” I’ve not found that life has anywhere near run out of delight for me. I’ve never considered suicide, though I have, at different times, out of spiritual fatigue, thought I would welcome death. “All is finite,” wrote Santayana, “all is to end, all is bearable—that is my only comfort.”
Yet, though, contra Dylan Thomas, I hope to be allowed to go gently into that good night, I do not figure to welcome death when it arrives.
When that moment comes, I, too, hope to fade gently into that good night.  The "peaceful death" that we sometimes read in obituaries.  And a timely death, in contrast to the "untimely death" that we read about.  I will not struggle because I know I have had one lucky life.  Lucky in my own way, and thematically no different from Epstein's articulation:
I have had a good and lucky run, having been born to honorable and intelligent parents in the most interesting country in the world during a period of unrivaled prosperity and vast technological advance. I prefer to think I’ve got the best out of my ability, and have been properly appreciated for what I’ve managed to accomplish. One may regard one’s death as a tragic event, or view it as the ineluctable conclusion to the great good fortune of having been born to begin with. I’m going with the latter.
If only I knew how much longer for me so that I can decide on whether or not to indulge on chocolate tonight ;)


Ramesh said...

I was wondering how come a full week has gone by without your returning to this topic ........

You have courses on Lady Gaga ?????? What has the world come to ?

Sriram Khé said...

Not at my college. But, we do have quite a few fluffy courses, like the ones that I teach ;)
Ok, compared to many others, mine have a lot more substance. I wonder what profound lessons are conveyed via "Music Today" or "Rock Music: A Social History" ... I tell ya, not a pretty picture higher education is :(

BTW, why are you so, so, uncomfortable with intellectual and philosophical discussions about death? I can't always be blogging about sex and vibrators, you know!!! muahahaha ;)
(yes, I have blogged about vibrators, too, from before your commenting time maybe: click here)