Till the world ends and the eyes are out and the mouths broken
Look! It is there!
-- Archibald MacLeish*
On late summer afternoons the low sun forces its way through foliage to my window, printing a pattern of framed branches and stems, leaves and gems of light, on the opposite wall. Just a little breeze is all it takes, a tremor in the woods, to make these shadows boil. As they thrash and spiral, small but fervently projected suns flash and burst among them. Isolated from the sound of wind and bound within their box, the shadows seem more violent than the things that cast them.
This is what in the theatre we call subtext. Nothing going on, but colossal conflicts written on the stillness.
As you read subtext, you learn what it was like to be there. I’m here right now, doing nothing much, and yet my mere existence is an impossible precipitate of cosmic force, and I read that force in the turbulence of shadows. Some would say that I am watching as God sustains me, others that I am looking through cracks into the warfare of my soul. I am indifferent to the difference.
On the wall of our dining room hang two family portraits, painted photographs of a grandfather’s parents. Stiff in their chairs, they speak of tradition, and they compliment the colors of the room. We remember their names; our children perhaps shall not. We do not know the turbulence of their spirits, or the flavoring of their tea, or the sound of their voices on a winter morning, or their smell to a child sitting in their laps. We have nearly lost them. When the family forgets their names, they will have vanished, their flame snuffed. Then their immortality will have to be sustained elsewhere, in some other way.
It’s reasonable to hope, given the record of my forebears, that I’ll be here in a couple of decades, knowing who I am still. And yet I might, as my friend says, collide unfortunately with the bagel-truck this afternoon. I’ve reached the age when it’s folly not to be ready. The world is full of fools and I inherit folly, and no one of course is guaranteed another day. But now it comes across to me, there is no more time to mortgage. I cannot sign away this year, this month, this moment to The Idiot, in hope of future Authenticity. The Promise must be Now. Now must be the Promise.
Which is not to say There Shall (Or Not) Be Fun. There will be some fun, and some fear, some laughs and tears, but whatever is to come, it must be Real. No more flight from the moment toward a dicey future. No more career moves unless they pay off now. The present is what I know I have. It must make sense. I must make sense of it. Readiness is all.
Any fool who would undertake the task of my biography would die of boredom before he finished. I haven’t done much. It’s all in the subtext. The subject would require a different historiography.
My children will remember the sound of my voice, the shape of my shadow, the smell of me when they sat in my lap. In my vanity I’d also like to leave them something more articulate, and in truth my articulation is much of what I am. It’s my grain, my odor; it’s the size of me against the sun. This isn’t true of most people. It’s something really odd about me. Some don’t like it, and I can’t help that. But if you love me then you love this, whether you like it or not.
It’s a promise as old as literature. Ars longa vita brevis. I don’t ask as much as that. I don’t have to be on bookshelves two millennia from now. If these shadow-plays survive me, if some of my descendents, children of the genes or of the heart, can read my subtext, then they’ll know that there was someone here doing this. I hate being photographed, and yet I leave these polaroids behind. There he is. The crank. Old fart. Transparent. Inscrutable. Insatiable. Teachable. Lover. Critic. Disciple. Witness. Acolyte. Partner. Father. Brother. Child. It will have been, as the Jews have said for centuries, enough.
*”Not Marble, Nor the Gilded Monuments”