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.