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Essay on reaching fifty years of age

Intellectual Affairs

On or very near your 50th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service will deliver a letter from the American Association of Retired Persons, inviting you to consider membership. And there is no escaping this. “A letter always reaches its destination,” as Lacan says in a different context. Opening it is the closest thing we have to ceremonially marking the passage from young adulthood (very broadly conceived, in a society where “40 is the new 30”) to the higher mysteries of middle age.

As of this writing, my invitation has not arrived. That’s probably just as well: I’ll retire when they pry the pen from my cold, dead fingers. (By then, assuming another 20 or 30 years of life, nobody will be using pens anymore. It will be a teachable moment for younger staff at the coroner’s office.) But this column is scheduled to run on the dreaded birthday in question -- and anyway, I prefer to think of it, not in terms of the AARP letter, but as the moment of transition between the fourth and fifth of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man.

The playwright’s account of aging is nuanced, if too gender-specific. The fourth age in his schema is “the soldier,” who is “jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel / seeking the bubble reputation / even in the cannon’s mouth.” Here the military imagery counts for less, as such, than his broader point about adult life as the arena of careerism and its ill-tempered complement, egotism. By contrast, the man who has reached the next, less combative period is called “the justice.” Sober as a judge, “with eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,” the fifth-age individual is “full of wise saws, and modern instances / and so he plays his part.”

He has earned his authority. He knows what’s what. He’s at the top of his game. Shakespeare comments on his “fair round belly,” which sounds disobligingly personal, though having one counted as a signifier of success and health in an era when getting enough to eat was more of a problem.

The fifth age is the best time of life, then, Just like the AARP says. Or it might be, if not for a disagreeable awareness that everything is downhill after that. With his “spectacles on nose” and “shrunk shank” (i.e., boney legs), the sixth-age man’s voice begins “turning again toward childish treble, pipes / and whistles in his sound.” In other words, you turn into Grandpa Simpson, pretty much. And the seventh age is full-blown senility -- the period of “second childishness and mere oblivion, / sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Come to think of it, even the fifth age might not be so appealing. I suspect that being “full of wise saws and modern instances” might be the euphemistic way of saying you turn into a sententious and garrulous old fart. The letter from AARP might as well be addressed to Polonius. On the bright side, you still have most of your teeth.

Speculating about the possible autobiographical implications of the “seven ages” speech is almost certainly a bad idea. It will just provoke angry comments from people who think that the plays and sonnets were the work of the Earl of Oxford, or possibly Francis Bacon.

This passage, from As You Like It, seems to me an example of the kind of thinking that kicks in circa fifty, when you need to come up with some kind of periodization that will render the course of your life more intelligible. It seems as if your deliberate choices, over time, would be distinct from the element of blind chance, but that’s not how it works. [See correction at end of article.]

But while working that out, there’s also what might be called a cognitive-affective short circuit to deal with. I mean the strong feeling – which an awareness of the arithmetic does not change – that it quite impossible you will be turning 50. No such dissonance seems to accompany the earlier birthdays ending in zero. Reaching 20 or 30 may make you happy or anxious. Hitting 40 can push you to take stock of the people and circumstances around you, to determine whether you want the status quo to remain in effect for the next ten years. But approaching 50 is a completely different order of experience -- perplexing and almost impossible to describe to anyone who hasn’t gone through it.

I have come to think of it as a state of irrational and involuntary disbelief – in particular, an inability to come to terms with even the possibility that so much time has passed. You have been alive for half of a century. This is mathematically obvious but hard to comprehend. Something happens to the metrics in your head; your perspective on time becomes foreshortened. A decade, which once felt like an enormous unit of time, becomes a diminishing fraction of experienced duration.

The feeling is especially weird. The most even-tempered person I have ever met tells me that it left her depressed; the most work-driven, that he couldn’t wait to get the birthday over with, in hopes of not having to think about it any more.

“Reflections at Fifty” by James T. Farrell is an autobiographical piece the novelist wrote in 1954 and reprinted in a collection of his essays by the same title, published the same year. It’s not an especially memorable piece, and in fact I forgot just about everything in it since last reading the book nine years ago, during the centennial of Farrell’s birth. I only remembered the title a few nights ago, while drifting off to sleep, and thought it might be worth revisiting. Unlike most twilight ideas, this one still made sense in the morning.

In a couple of the essays, Farrell recalls spending years writing a novel and then trying to figure out what to call it. Then one day he picked up a volume of poetry by Yeats. This was a good move. Yeats and Shakespeare must be the two poets writing in English whose work is most often pilfered by other authors in search of titles. From his description of the novel – a semi-autobiographical account set in Chicago at the start of the century – it seems likely that Farrell would have preferred to call it “The Remembrance of Things Past.” Proust’s translator had long since claimed that bit of Shakespeare, of course. but a phrase in the closing of Yeats’s “The Lamentations of the Old Pensioner” proved suitable. The final two lines read:

I spit into the face of Time

That has transfigured me.

And so it came to pass that the novel Farrell published his novel The Face of Time in 1953. He quoted the passage from Yeats again in “Reflections at Fifty,” the following year. It definitely seemed as if the poem had inspired some kind of epiphany he hoped would keep him going. (Farrell lived and wrote for another quarter century.)

Just reading the two lines in Farrell’s essay did nothing for me; they blasted down no locked doors. You have to spend some time with the whole poem to get any sense of the power and meaning in Yeats’s crystalline and highly concentrated language. By contrast, Farrell’s autobiographical musings are as prosy as they can be. But while waiting for the calendar to turn, and the letter to reach its destination, I find his thoughts serviceable to the needs of the moment.  

“I, too, spit in the face of time,” he says, “even though I am aware that this is merely a symbolic expression of a mood: Time slowly transfigures me just as it transfigures all of us. There is no security in an insecure world. There is no final home on a planet where we are homeless children. In different ways, we find a sense of security, of permanence, or of home – for a while. To me, impermanence renders everything good or beautiful all the more rare. It stimulates my ambition and it strengthens the stoicism which is at the root of my outlook about experience. Those were some of my thoughts and feelings as I approached my fiftieth birthday.”

They point, I think, in the right direction.


NOTE: In the first published version of this column, I proposed that the speech was composed while Shakespeare was actually in the fifth age, since it appeared in The Tempest, often taken to be his last play. A reader points out that this was wrong, since the scene is from As You Like It, a middle-period play. But I am not about to let factual evidence ruin such an elegant theory. It is too early to plead senility, but clearly memory is the first thing to go.

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Review of Matthew L. Jockers, 'Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History'

“A poem,” wrote William Carlos Williams toward the end of World War II, “is a small (or large) machine of words.” I’ve long wondered if the good doctor -- Williams was a general practitioner in New Jersey who did much of his writing between appointments – might have come up with this definition out of weariness with the flesh and all its frailties. Traditional metaphors about “organic” literary form usually imply a healthy and developing organism, not one infirm and prone to messes. The poetic mechanism is, in Williams’s vision, “pruned to a perfect economy,” and there is “nothing sentimental about a machine.”

Built for efficiency, built to last. The image this evoked 70 years ago was probably that of an engine, clock, or typewriter. Today it’s more likely to be something with printed circuits. And a lot of poems in literary magazines now seem true to form in that respect: The reader has little idea how they work or what they do, but the circuitry looks intricate, and one assumes it is to some purpose.

I had much the same response to the literary scholarship Matthew L. Jockers describes and practices in Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (University of Illinois Press). Jockers is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. The literary material he handles is prose fiction -- mostly British, Irish, and American novels of the 18th and 19th centuries -- rather than poetry, although some critics apply the word “poem” to any literary artifact. In the approach Jockers calls “macroanalysis,” the anti-sentimental and technophile attitude toward literature defines how scholars understand the literary field, rather than how authors imagine it. The effect, in either case, is both tough-minded and enigmatic.

Following Franco Moretti’s program for extending literary history beyond the terrain defined by the relatively small number of works that remain in print over the decades and centuries, Macroanalysis describes “how a new method of studying large collections of digital material can help us to understand and contextualize the individual works within those collections.”

Instead of using computer-based tools to annotate or otherwise explore a single work or author, Jockers looks for verbal patterns across very large reservoirs of text, including novels that have long since been forgotten. The author notes that only “2.3 percent of the books published in the U.S. between 1927 and 1946 are still in print” (even that figure sounds high, and may be inflated by the recent efforts of shady print-on-demand “publishers” playing fast and loose with copyright) while the most expansive list of canonical 19th-century British novels would represent well under 1 percent of those published.

Collections such as the Internet Archive and HathiTrust Digital Library available for analysis. Add to this the capacity to analyze the metadata about when and where the books were published, as well as available information on the authors, and you have a new, turbocharged sort of philology – one covering wider swaths of literature than even the most diligent and asocial researcher could ever read.

Or would ever want to, for that matter. Whole careers have been built on rescuing “unjustly neglected” authors, of course, but oblivion is sometimes the rightful outcome of history and a mercy for everyone involved. At the same time, the accumulation of long-unread books is something like a literary equivalent of the kitchen middens that archeologists occasionally dig up – the communal dumps, full of leftovers and garbage and broken or outdated household items. The composition of what’s been discarded and the various strata of it reveal aspects of everyday life of long ago.

Jockers uses his digital tools to analyze novels by, essentially, crunching them -- determining what words appear in each book, tabulating the frequency with which they are used, likewise quantifying the punctuation marks, and working out patterns among the results according to the novel’s subgenre or publication date, or biographical data about the author such as gender, nationality, and regional origin.

The findings that the author reports tend to be of a very precise and delimited sort. The words like, young, and little “are overrepresented in Bildungsroman novels compared to the other genres in the test data.” There is a “high incidence of locative prepositions” (over, under, within, etc.) in Gothic fiction, which may be “a direct result of the genre’s being ‘place oriented.’” That sounds credible, since Gothic characters tend to find themselves moving around in dark rooms within ruined castles with secret passageways and whatnot.

After about 1900, Irish-American authors west of the Mississippi began writing more fiction than their relations on the other side of the river, despite their numbers being fewer and thinner on the ground. Irish-American literature is Jockers’s specialty, and so this statistically demonstrable trend proves of interest given that “the history of Irish-American literature has had a decidedly eastern bias…. Such neglect is surprising given the critical attention that the Irish in the West have received from American and Irish historians.”

As the familiar refrain goes: More research is needed.

Macroanalysis is really a showcase for the range and the potential of what the author calls “big data” literary study, more than it is a report on its discoveries. And his larger claim for this broad-sweep combination of lexometric and demographic correlation-hunting – what Moretti calls “distant reading” -- is that it can help frame new questions about style, thematics, and influence that can be pursued through more traditional varieties of close reading.

And he’s probably right about that, particularly if the toolkit includes methods for identifying and comparing semantic and narrative elements across huge quantities of text. (Or rather, when it includes them, since that’s undoubtedly a matter of time.)

Text-crunching methodologies offer the possibility of establishing verifiable, quantifiable, exact results in a field where, otherwise, everything is interpretive, hence interminably disputable. This sounds either promising or menacing. What will be more interesting, if we ever get it, is technology that can recognize and understand a metaphor and follow its implications beyond the simplest level of analogy. A device capable of, say, reading Williams’s line about the poem as machine and then suggesting something interesting about it – or formulating a question about what it means.

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