Looking life in its face …

Edith WhartonWhy do we do what we do? Or rather why do we do the work that we do? Because we have to or because we want to? The jobbing or careering means to the (material) end or the (vocational) end in itself…

I am currently reading Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence. It was written in 1920 and the decade the subject of its interest was the 1870’s, but since this post is not a review of this novel I am not going to elaborate too much more. The subject of this post is a more timeless one.

Not a review then but a reflection on one of its passages, a mere paragraph too, but a lingering, impressing one.

Between one of its main characters Newland Archer and – so far at least – a minor character Rivière. Archer is American, a New Yorker, a product of the then new world of the 1870’s, where Rivière is French, a product of the European and old world therefore – but that is not the distance and difference between them which leaves an impression on Newland Archer. Or on me.

Nor is it even their different professional and marital circumstances.

Newland Archer is married with an appearance of domestic bliss but there is trouble in paradise between him and his wife May Welland. He works a leisurely professional pace and life as a Lawyer. His life is a clear map ahead as far as his heart can see.

Rivière on the other hand is unattached – to a partner and to a professional practice. With struggle and without safety. Not even that his map is unclear but that there is no map at all. Or need for one. Grounded as he is in the here and now.

No the divide between them that impresses and lingers in both the mind of Archer and this reader is that Newland Archer is dreaming of the life he wants whilst living another one, a safer, easier, more comfortable one. Whilst Rivière, for all his lesser wealth and circumstance, is not dreaming of any other life than the one he is living, he is living his dreaming where Archer is dreaming his living.

Rivière is at liberty. From the enslaving effect of personal wealth, if that is not getting too Buddhist on your ass. Endless material possessions and endless material distractions. From ourselves. From each other.

You see Monsieur, it’s worth everything, isn’t it, to keep one’s intellectual liberty, not to enslave one’s powers of appreciation, one’s critical independence?

Ah! To do what we love and to get paid for this too. But what if what we love to do does not pay or not enough anyway, not enough to feed and shelter us and to deal with the other demanding utilities of everyday life?

We take other employment. Hopefully temporary but it can stealthily blossom into permanence, its end ever just beyond the tantalizing horizon, the ever elusive rainbow of our desires… we continue to toil so as to continue to do what we love most in our unpaid time.

We have less of this time it is true, but better than no time at all and fading memories of a life once lived, once dreamed.

It was because of that that I abandoned journalism, and took to so much duller work, tutoring and private secretaryship. There is a good deal of drudgery, of course, but one preserves one’s moral freedom, what we call in French one’s quant-à-soi

When we can continue to enjoy the company that we keep, whether it be our own or other kindred spirits.

And when one hears good talk one can join in without compromising any opinions but one’s own; or one can listen, and answer it inwardly.

Professional platitudes and civil banalities. Or words and ideas that mean something. To us.

Ah, good conversation – there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing…And so I have never regretted giving up either diplomacy or journalism – two different forms of the same self-abdication.

To never give up on yourself. On your dreams. To live life without compromise, or at least as little as possible, to ration out the ever-accumulating small surrenders that chip away at your self, your spirit – to live life on your own terms and that others will live their lives on their terms too…

He fixed his vivid eyes on Archer as he lit another cigarette. “Voyes-vous, Monsieur, to be able to look life in the face: that’s worth living in a garret for, isn’t it?”

And what of fame, it passes too. And may also be visited upon you not in your life-time but a posthumous discovery and approval. And what of that too? – mere plaudits from the pundits of the ever-changing ages.

Instead that we lived our lives and lacking only one thing at our last breath, regret.

8 thoughts on “Looking life in its face …

  1. Damn you’re intense, Sam Flowers. I like reading books, but I seem to only stick to autobiographies or biographies. I remember reading the Madonna one, which was heaps interesting, & Barry Humphries. But this kind of book I’ve never picked up, except as homework. You’re interesting!

    “… if that is not getting too Buddhist on your ass” … 🙂

    I have at one point had 3 jobs (when my son was younger) but never have I had 3 or 2 FULL time jobs. I’ve never had a day job and night job. I think that is so, so stretching it, and I know people do this to own their home & so on – but you’re so right “fading memories of a life once lived, once dreamed”, occurs over time. So true.

    I have been in jobs I’m capable of and can do “blindfolded” but never have I fully loved my job, except my stint as an actor for the Police Academy (for recruits to handle “the public”). It is such joy to be paid for what you enjoy doing, such joy. “The air of ideas” only air worth breathing – excellent. Love how you added the quotes.

    This was great, Sam. And I read it all! 🙂 I have definitely lived life according to my heart, but sometimes, regrettably, on others’ terms. Way reflective.


  2. This such an awesome post Sam. Love Wharton, Loved age of Innocence.but honestly? I enjoyed this post more.
    Both these empowering women, Wharton & Chopin really jump started their careers once their children were raised, and the empty nest forged them forward. Something More in their lives was missing.

    Like these two iconic ladies I too have found a resurgence if you will in what empowers me. But only in the 2nd stage of my life.


    • I would but aspire to be able to write like Wharton so that is praise greatly appreciated to declare that you enjoyed my post more than The Age of Innocence itself. For a change I am speechless. Which is not good on a blog, but there you go!


      • Just so you know I was not blowing smoke, its a sincere statement. I think A of I was a good book, but it tended to be redundant in many ways I thought wasteful. But then who I am to critique her?

        I just enjoyed your post more because I feel it was not just fluff. : )


  3. Love this, Sam. Reminds me of a conversation between two women in a book I love, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin written at about the same time. The women are both married with children but one yearns for more while the other is content. I hope I’m not too rude to say that I wrote about the scene in my novel, http://thegirlinthehat.wordpress.com/2011/11/14/tweaking-chapter-25-part-1/. Isn’t it powerful when we read two people speaking words we have only thought to ourselves? Like watching yourself argue with yourself from the outside, as if that were possible.


    • I am not familiar with Kate Chopin – she now goes on my reading list. Well she is there already actually from a previous recommendation of yours! And Barefoot Baroness making a similar connection too…

      I’m pleased this post resonated with you and don’t consider linking to one of your own posts rude at all – feel free to do it again! – I like your line ‘watching yourself argue with yourself from the outside…’

      Off now to read your post.


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