TENNYSON’S ULYSSES

I’m told that “May you live in interesting times!” was actually an old Chinese curse. I guess the Chinese are ill-disposed to excitement. “Soooo,’ I ask my Chinese friend, “what’s happenin’ that’s interesting?” “Nothing,” he answers. “Thank God,” he adds. I guess I’m not Chinese. I’m more like Tennyson’s Ulysses.

How dull it is pause, to make an end,

to rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

As tho’ to breathe were life!

But do we live in interesting times? Well, I’m certainly old enough to remember times that were more interesting. February 1968, for example. I wouldn’t know about the wine that year, but the Tet Offensive was kick-ass! Those were very interesting times. Now the only politics and world affairs that grab the headlines is the stand-up comedy inspired – or mostly performed – by the Donald. It’s almost as if we’re living in what was once predicted would be ‘the end of history’, by which was never meant the end of the world, just the end of anything interesting happening in it.

What are the great social movements that will define the current generation, the kids who are morphing into adults as we speak? The rise of jihadist Islam? Not likely. All these young would-be warriors have smart phones. Smart phones access everything. Soon enough they’ll be into internet porn like every other young man their age. Maybe it won’t be “Make love, not war!” But at least it’ll be “Make out, not war!”

Or how ‘bout the fight for LGBT rights? Sure, only a First World problem today. But once from his smart phone Ahmed realizes he could, after all, be the Fatima he always felt he was, it becomes an Every World problem. Though even at that it’s rapidly ceasing to be a problem. Did you know that the country leading the world in the number of sex change operations is actually Iran? Well now, whoduthunkit?!

Borders move this way and that. Passenger planes take down tall buildings. Tanks roll into Gaza or South Lebanon and then back out again. But none of this has the chutzpah of Entebbe or the drama of that scene on the roof of the American embassy in Saigon.

And the music died too. I suppose that with the fall of Saigon it was all inevitable. Lady Gaga is no Janice Joplin. Leonard Cohen is dead. Paul Simon got fat. Even Dylan is no longer Dylan, not really. And without the musical score to make it all mean something, it doesn’t. Occupy Wall Street just meant get a job there. The Idle No More bus is in the parking lot idling. And as it turns out, surprise surprise, Black Lives really don’t Matter.

But then to be fair, neither does anything else. And maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s that, though there’s always something that matters to each of us, there’s nothing that matters to all of us. That’s probably how it was back in the day as well, but that’s not how I remember it. The way I remember it is, we had a war to end, and we did. We had women’s rights and gay rights and the civil rights of blacks to enshrine , and we did. We had sexual taboos to bust, and we did. Obama’s campaign slogan was only Yes We Can. We didn’t need a slogan. We had bell bottoms. And that made us much more effective.

I’m two thirds of a century old. But how did Tennyson’s Ulysses put it? Ah yes,

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

I’m not sure what work of noble note remains to be done. It all seemed so important back then. And it was. And at least some of those things still are. But there’s something else. It’s not unfinished business, nor something new, nor something urgent, nor something blue. Two thirds of a century, and here, such as it is, is the wisdom I have to show for it: What’s yours to do is whatever could have as easily fallen on someone else’s watch but just happened to fall on yours.

I didn’t choose any of the topics I’ve written about in this blog. Nor, in all likelihood, what I’ll write about tomorrow. They’re all things that just happen to have fallen on my watch. If my colleagues weren’t such idiots, or my wife not a fledgling philosopher in need sometimes of a little lift under her wings, I’d be writing about either or both of the two things that have obsessed me, if not my whole life, then certainly my whole career. 1) I’m an atheist obsessed by theodicy, and 2) I’m a man who spent less than an hour in one, and yet is obsessed with understanding war.

Now then, if my colleagues would just stop being such idiots, and my wife would just hurry up and get her PhD, maybe I could get a few words in edgewise about these two things. But I’m not holding my breath.

 

 

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