Of Youth and Age

T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem, The Waste Land, begins:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

I first read these lines in my early 20s and thought I understood them. But as it is in so many instances of literature, this poem seems commensurate with a certain age, the way Proust is an author for one’s forties and J.D. Salinger for the early teens. The meaning of this strange admixture of memory and desire which indeed comes about suddenly in Spring is not fully appreciated until one reaches an age where the crucial bit, “cruellest,” is actively felt. The opening of The Waste Land finds us somewhere between the youthful outlook of the Pastoral mode and the poetic resignation of Ecclesiastes: “the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail.” In that middle space desire persists, but memory indicates the direction in which you’re going, how far you’ve gone, and thus the inevitable matter of the diminishing return.

For me this late middle period, or if you prefer middle age, outlook is best illustrated not by allusion to Spring, but Fall. Here it is, the beginning of September, and it is a beautiful sunny day – Autumn is in the air – as the students return for another year of classes. I admit the whole thing makes me deeply nostalgic. But for what exactly? The facts of much of my years as a student were: tedious lectures, essays, term papers, exams, poverty. I know I do not miss any of these. And yet, when I walk alongside the residences and I get a glimpse inside, a part of me is absorbed into the scene and I want it all again. One month of actual student life, if not one day, would cure me of this, for I’m certain it would be an utterly depressing and irksome experience. But then, I am thirty-four years old and they are twenty. What I really want seems to be this: to be at a point in my life where discovery is a normal mode of experience, where everything is charged by a sort of blind, intense wonder.

A college student is ignorant and entirely at the mercy of hormones, or desire. That is the whole point of being young. But one does not think about that under the spell of nostalgia; one thinks how marvellous it is to have pals gathered about, rather than scattered to the corners of the earth, as they now are. And one ponders how wonderful it was to fall in love for the first time – all while harbouring the conviction that college romance is uninspiring and pedantic, and we’d be better off without it.

Nostalgia is pure sentiment. That is why you can never quite argue yourself out of it. A good lie deeply felt is more useful than an unpleasant fact arrived at through vigorous examination supported by evidence. And the principal lie about college, perhaps even about youth, is that you are freer than you will ever be later on. What you in fact are, for the most part, is confused, naïve, excited, drunk, anxious about the future, tired, and horny. Above all, if you are a young man, horny. All of these remind you that you are at the mercy of mysterious (so it seems at the time) forces, the forces of April. That is what it means to be young. And of course part of the habit of youth is abandoning oneself to these things, because the future, one suspects, consists of stability, boredom, and convention.

Your youth teaches you, if you are paying attention, that it is good to be alive, and it is also messy and inconvenient and painful and absurd. The young accept and even exploit this recognition, and the old perhaps wish desire would relent and leave one well enough alone. Somewhere in between these, life is overtaken by professional and personal aspirations, all of which are organised around making of one’s living a structured, comfortable, and secure affair. And for a time you almost believe it is so – that life has something like predictability about it. A comic idea, when you come to look at it. Nonetheless, a middle aged adult is typically a person who has long ago stopped believing – stopped feeling – that the future is a domain of great promise and newness, whether or not this was ever the case. One gets on with it, and is rewarded for a short time with the illusion that we are more or less on a manageable and rational voyage. The seasons go round, now and then stirring memory and desire, and this too passes. The business of life carries on. [- September 2000]

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