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Friday, 20 March 2009

Was He Spared Worse?


Had Charlotte Corday bungled the deed, Marat may be imagined to have lived on to suffer an even worse fate: old age.

It may be claimed that being oneself is bad enough. But being oneself, old, is worse. And being Marat, old... one shudders to think of it.

But he would not have been alone.

Had the murdered man remained in the living world, he would, no doubt, have grown increasingly himself. For this, whether one likes it or not, is what happens with age. He would have grown increasingly himself, that is, increasingly insufferable, as he grew older.

In this he would have resembled the Old everywhere, in every age, who, while living on well past their usefulness, nonetheless never outlive their capacity to annoy.

The tiresome preemptive superiority asserted by seniority has no better basis in logic than would an argument that the number 3 is superior to the number 7 merely because it preceded it.

The wish to convince others that by sheer length of existence one has somehow been made wise, translated into practice in the form of much lecturing and explaining to those who have come later into the world, makes great bores of the Old. Their sheer accumulation of years, they believe, renders them better able to understand things. Their successors upon the earth, by the logic of the Old, must needs be lesser beings.

The Old love to complain that the world is collapsing. Things are not as they were, therefore disaster shall befall. Bitter laments on this score are commonly heard among the Old, along with recitations of how much better things seemed to go along, in this or that former period. There was order then, and fairness, happiness, and clarity. Whereas following a long interim of befogged confusion, the Old believe, there seems to have ensued, at some point, a loss of balance, during which the world has begun careening out of control as along a winding mountain road at night, inevitably, in the end, hurtling over the cliff into chaos.

Of the several faults of the Old, it is the complaining that is perhaps the worst. In feeling themselves qualified to complain, as in much else, the Old take a great deal for granted. For, given life's full quotient of miseries in every sector, what person of any age does not feel equally qualified?

In supposing themselves to have special cause for complaint, do the Old forget that the general state of human life is such as to guarantee all living persons grounds for dissatisfaction? And if nature has chosen to shrink the brains and sap the muscles, cloud the vision and plug up the hearing of the Old, shall the rest of us take the blame for this, and accept the complaints of the Old, and evince sympathy and compassion, as though we were the cause of these dwindlings and diminutions? Should not the Old be advised to lay the blame for their decrepitude not to those younger but to nature, which is its actual cause?

Had the Old conducted themselves in such a way as to earn the respect of those younger, it is certain they would have received it. Instead, in appearing merely helpless, useless, and in the way, the Old continually defeat their own best efforts to inflate their authority. The sound of air escaping from a sofa which has been abruptly sat upon would approximate the impression given by any observation of the pitiable self-assertions of the puffed-up Old, with the inevitable consequent whoosh of self-defeat. Winks of quiet mockery and even giggles of contempt at these spectacles of exhausted venerability can hardly be said to be out of order at such moments.

Whatever it was like to be the person Marat before the moment of Charlotte Corday's striking of the blade into his breast, one thing may be certain: by failing to grow one minute older, he was spared worse.

Charlotte Corday: Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, 1860
La Mort de Marat: Jacques-Louis David, 1793



Nora said...

I've been un (or under) employed for over a year now, giving me time and opportunity to visit at length with both my grandmothers.

One grandmother is in good health physically. She takes long walks after every meal and even works out with weights once a week, in a room full of fellow octogenarians in sweatbands and legwarmers. But her mind is going. She forgets things from minute to minute, and imagines horrible things that fill the gaps in her muddled memory. She can no longer read books, as her ability to follow a plot has vanished, as thoroughly and completely as if it were never there.

My other grandmother is quick. She reads poetry and quotes it effortlessly when we speak on the phone. She makes jokes about things she's seen on the news and remembers what I wrote in a letter three months back. But she's weak. Going from bed to chair drains her. She can't breathe without a machine. Our conversations are short, and end with her exhausted.

I can't say which version age I'd rather inhabit.

On a lighter note, here's a cartoon about Charlotte Corday that I stumbled upon the other day.

Anonymous said...


Well, in case it isn't totally obvious, the real-life Awful Elder who is by implication the "original" of this piece is far more likely to be its charming author than anybody's grandmother. Certainly there are good reasons, given what you have related, to admire and for that matter love both your grandmothers, and it should go without saying both are exempted from the opprobium so liberally heaped upon the Old in this bit of licensed foolery.

The cartoon meanwhile is hysterical. I've always identified a bit with Monsieur Marat (confessed he), though happily only on the grounds of the sensitive skin--the beyond the pale aspect? You too in your public fiction orbit if not perhaps in propria persona can probably sympathize to a degree with his tub habit. And that rubber ducky is awfully cute, and one's heart is oddly touched when M. so sweetly offers to share rubber duckies with Charlotte, as he has two. Aww. I mean, seriously (?), do not the moral complications in the plot climaxed by her subsequent deed oddly thicken at that point?

Nora said...

Maybe my reading is too dark -- I blame Hadrian.

Dale said...

Ah, Tom, another terrific post. And Nora, thanks for sharing the Corday cartoon.

Nora said...

Because one novelty-Marat-in-a-bathtub is never enough, I thought I'd pass along this Star Wars-themed one as well.