October 16, 2010

Dear Colleague:  

    Bernard Berenson, the art historian and collector, lived in a villa, outside Florence, that was filled with art treasures. In extreme old age, he became a tourist attraction and the first thing his visitors said to him was invariably his great good fortune living in the midst of such beauty and luxury. His melancholic reply: “What beauty? What luxury? I live in a ramshackle cottage, the roof of which is almost bare of thatch, the windows and door creak, the walls are cracked, but worst of all is the plumbing, which is often choked with filth that I am unable to expel.”

    Berenson was, of course, referring to his body. He lived in his decaying body rather than in his villa. I once visited an undergrad’s room. It was cluttered with computer and other hi-tech gadgetry, the bed was unmade, and on the rumpled sheets I could see an apple core or two. Smelly socks and other dirty laundry were thrown against a corner of the room. The small bedside table had on it a slice of half-eaten pizza. “How can anyone live here?” I thought to myself. The student strode in, beaming with health. I stood corrected. Of course, he didn’t live in the midst of sordid chaos. He lived in his magnificent body.

    The novelist Hanif Kureishi indulges in a fantasy in which a character in his sixties (Leo Adams) simply buys a body. A surgeon transplants Leo’s brain into its new domicile. No big deal. But first, Leo has to shop for a body that is classically handsome, “neither white nor dark but lightly roasted, with a fine thick penis and heavy balls.” He finds one. The transplant is successful. What a revived sense of vigor! “When I pee,” says Leo, “the stream is full, clear, and what I must describe as ‘decisive.’” Just walking is joy, like being at the wheel of a sports car.

    “What a pity that the best part of life comes at the beginning and the worst part at the end,” said Mark Twain. F. Scott Fitzgerald was much taken by this observation and wrote a short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" on this theme. Button begins his life as an old man and grows progressively younger until he turns into an infant. “Through the noons and nights he breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smell, and light and darkness. Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk faded out altogether from his mind.” That’s the final stage in regression, the moment before death. Before infancy and the end, however, is the pre-pubescent child of explosive energy. Explosive energy, yes, but one member of the child’s body doesn’t quite fit the bill, namely, the penis, which is just “a sleek little snail forever soft, rubbery, good only for peeing long distances on the side of the road.”

    Aging, for the male, is always about the loss of sexual prowess. At least, this would seem to be the case in our time. Would Prozac have sold as well in the Edwardian Age? Modern critics, for all their admiration of Henry James as a writer, often pities him for his pinched sex life, a consequence of his failure to admit his sexual orientation. Poor guy, in the end James renounces all real pleasure and retreats, as Colm Toibin puts it, “into the sad, helpless monotony of the self... the locked room of himself.” But is pity called for? In the period before World War I, men can be grotesquely innocent of the “rank sweat of an enseamed bed” and yet lead the most aesthetically piercing lives. As example, John Updike offers, besides Henry James, John Ruskin, John Singer Sargent, and George Bernard Shaw (Due Considerations, p. 379). 

Best wishes,



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