Sunday, February 28, 2010

Being and Age

Many philosophers have written about time; few have written about age. Sein und Zeit, and not Sein und Lebensalter. Yet of course time, for human beings, is age.

Alain, who, if he wasn’t a major philosopher, was, at least, an elegant one – rather like Santayana in that sense - did write about age in Les Idées et les ages. He put the thought of age under the symbol of Proteus, with whom Alain, that lover of coasts, identified himself:

‘I have often read in Homer the story of Proteus, as ancient as mankind. And often I’ve repeated it to myself on the barren shore of the sea, led no doubt by that odor of seaweed, and by the rocks that one might say are nestled in the sand like seals. Holding to the story by the things themselves, as one always does, but also attentive, according to a secret rule, to change nothing in that strange episode, as if everything in it were true without fault.”

Now, of course, in holding to Proteus’ story, Alain is miming the gesture of Menelaus in the Odyssey, who held onto Proteus even as the old man of the sea went through every change that could repulse a person. Menelaous wanted the truth from Proteus – he wanted to know the stages of his journey home, his return, his nostos – which is his future – but he could not resist asking about the fates of his companions from the past.

This is a very seafaring sense of age. Alain imagines Proteus making this reply, which mirrors the truth of age – or rather, the truth about the truth revealed to one who ages:

« The truth, » he said, « is not : for everything changes without cease, and even this shore. This sand is made of these rocks, which flow like the water, only more slowly. False every thoght which does not model itself on the thing; but fall absolutely every thought, since what was is already no longer there. You cannot think the true age that you have; that thought, because it is true, is already false. And in the same way, every thought denies and refuses itself, in the image of this moving water which is my being, and which continually denies its own form. »

Thus sang the sea. And Proteus was truthful, in his true and constant shape which is always other, and in deceiving me didn’t deceive me at all, since this time, and by my express request, it is himself who he spoke. »

Running away and nostos – these are the moments that define the adventure of the Iliad and the Odyssey in the broad sense. A woman runs away from home. Her husband and his allies come to get her. They fight, and overthrow the city in which she is living with her fellow run away. And then Menalaus takes her home again.

Significantly, while it is quite clear that Helen runs away, it is much less clear that she returns. Here myth seems to crack under its own weight, and the stories multiply – only Helen’s image returns, being one of them, while her real self remains in Egypt, or on an island in the Black Sea.

While running away and return might well constitute one of the aspects of aging, it is governed, of course, by “home” – which is that impossible merger of geography and intimacy. As impossible as the cogito, as slippery in its production of doubles and monsters, as quicksilver in slipping out of our grasp. It is from home to home that age is reckoned in America – and thus, on the shadow side, running away is also defined. In its very core, running away cannot shake the intimacy from which it seeks to escape into its own privacy – which is the problem that it strains to overcome as, in the shape of the act, intimacy is annulled. Huck Finn lights out, continually, for the territories, because home presses in upon him. And every settler thinks, in a part of his or her mind, that the tie has now been cut, that any house that is built in this land will be laid on the foundations of the death of nostos. We aren't going back. But Alain’s Proteus is right – in the very performance of that act, which still jitters in the American blood, the act becomes untrue.

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