PROSE

Diners in a restaurant with subdued lighting

After Waking
In a dream, an older man goaded him: “Are you good?” “No,” he answered, but the man wanted a more robust response. “Not really bad,” he ventured. Waking, he thought that love—physical love—was an addiction, so any sudden rupture of it was like crashing. He replayed the worst such crash, remembering how she’d weighed him against another, reducing what was between them to a litmus test. Later, walking back from the pier, he’d told her that he’d loved her honestly. It was true: he really had loved her, for all the good it did them. He saw too how everything he did thereafter was meant to forestall the recurrence of this addiction. Perhaps one point of marriage then was to domesticate the drug of physical love so that the married couple can get on with their lives. It wasn’t enough, at some points, this methadone-like substitute, but it had staying power, like any evolutionary fixture.

Then there was his nature to consider. Given the choice, he preferred to sleep alone, relating to women most easily on a conversational plane. When making love, it took time for him to settle in and catch their rhythm. Breaks in the flow of arousal made room for talk that was as memorable to him as the rest. Women are hyper-distinct, which conversations and lovemaking bring out. He carried all this along or more accurately it was there, surfacing as how it was with one or another at specific moments in time and space. If sometimes, pining for a manifestation of the past, a real woman seemed also like a phantom, this double vision resolved itself and she rejoined ordinary life.

Bourgeois Life
The look back was strewn with paths that wove in between the great roads of work and family, those twin highways that kept life going despite every hazard—yet were the hazard from the standpoint of the paths. A bourgeois—he was open about that. Now that he was older, he seemed even more solidly so. Many were wealthier, but he’d done okay. Within bourgeois life, marriage serves to accumulate not only progeny, settings, and assets, but also familiarity, mutual knowledge, and acceptance of the essentially alien other. Marriage only seemed to require a desire for itself. Of the different ways that men and women cohabit, it struck him as the best. A psychic once told him that what the universe gives us isn’t ours to reject. And a mentor noted that everyone does their best with the situation as they see it. These were versions of the stoical fatalism that allowed bourgeois life in late capitalism to continue.

Blurred selves in gendered bodies, he concluded, after the psychic described a voyage across multiple lives. It was like a play of many acts in which everyone regularly exchanges roles and sexes. His own borders were certainly fluid. The femininity of one brings out the masculinity of another, he noted, and those with loose borders may crave this, even as it walls off other things. Better an interior life with occasional visitors, but this had proved difficult. We spend decades trying to arrange things to suit our peculiar natures. We do so within the confines of received life, of course, working the seams of its now-solid, now-porous boundaries.

The evening his lover tested him and found him wanting, she became as opaque as the face of a canyon wall—a moment that reminded him of a brief, clairvoyant moment when he could sense the presence of a few of his family’s dead. Women open to a word or a gesture, he thought, and then they don’t. This is one of their specific powers.

Adrift in Time
He approached life like an amateur, making notes in his daybooks like an 18th-century naturalist to try to construct a working theory of everything he experienced. He thought of himself as a child of the Enlightenment, but he knew more about the periods that came before and after it. The titans of the current economic order resembled the condottiere of Renaissance Italy, focused on the main chance and disdainful of any resistance to their will. “They bid the future to come to them,” one said, but Machiavelli had made much the same point centuries earlier, adding salient details on how to execute one’s plan, and when and why to extinguish those who stood in the way.

Humanism is an old man’s game, a redemptive last act. He admired the ones who soldiered on, intent on passing along what they’d acquired to their progeny in a bid for genetic immortality. Here and there, it worked. In the Duoro Valley he saw remnants of the aristocracy’s long game: the manor with its husbanded hectares of soil, constantly renewed by generations that depended on it for their identity and fell back on it for their livelihood.

In the pantheon of the Greeks and Romans, there were the major gods, the local gods, and the fates. Instinctively, he placed himself within this system that addressed life as he understood it. He prayed to a protective god in moments of peril, and to the local gods for luck. Like the gods, he knew that the fates ran the show, spinning their generators of randomness. Like the gods, he shared—illogically and delusively—that sense of exemption that made it possible to set to work despite knowing he would die, that with each passing day he drew closer to death, which he accepted on one level as pure extinction. As the Buddha said, it didn’t matter. Life is about life. “One world at a time,” as Thoreau said. Or as the old monk told Dōgen, “Other people are not me.”

He learned only belatedly that there’s a difference between the words modern and contemporary. In a technical sense, it was wrong to conflate them, yet clearly it was as a modern that he passed through unfolding contemporary life. It always shocked him that people tried to undo what the moderns succeeded in doing. Yet he also saw himself as a postmodern, wary of canon and grand narrative. Politically, he was more interested in the operative than the ideological. Politicians were liars and incompetents, with a few exceptions, mesmerized and corrupted by power and money. Very little worked well, at a time when events constantly exposed this. Yet he followed politics avidly, like others might follow a sport, but without their team allegiances or even their emotional attachments to the leading players. The handful of politicians he admired seemed to have fallen into their roles by luck or by accident.

Contemporary life is like acid reflux on the heels of an ostensibly three-star meal. It was hard to imagine, some of it, but depravity is often a failure of the imagination, a failure engorged by repetition. We are struck by the engorgement—human appetite in the thrall of monomania. And these monomaniacs are on the ascendant, he thought, their banners flying: My Contemporaries. He was a child of moderns, growing up in a modern house filled with modern art and modern furniture. Only the TV, an ungainly brown metal box, felt out of place, an intruder, interrupting every conversation the way the radio did in the car when the talking started or the lyrics blared. Over-amplification was his Great Satan.

In the ideal modern apartment as Le Corbusier drew it, the worker read his paper in peace. In Tokyo, standing in its replica, he tried to imagine being that worker, a householder with a family. The apartment was smaller than he’d realized, although a view might have made it feel more spacious. At a lecture he’d heard, an architect said of the sketch that, “Le Corbusier designed for men as if they were gods.” Yes, but household gods.

If the grand narratives are dead, as Lyotard wrote, or if, as Vico observed, every era’s narratives are encoded with a context that time strips away, then either narrative’s grandeur is ephemeral or our vision of it is fatally impaired. In every Portuguese town or neighborhood, the church had a baroque altar or side chapel, layer upon layer meant to resist time’s erosion. Here and there, secular palaces stood as bulwarks against anarchy, while the occasional cloister alone made a place for silence, refusing to put a roof on emptiness.

Time also eroded resonance and made no-go zones of the cities he loved. He kept a list of them on hand to ease the pain of so much colonization, but they failed to compensate. It wasn’t that he wanted to fix the world arbitrarily, but he disliked what it had become: variations on a tiny number of themes. The effort of travel needed to be paid off by ample difference, and too often there was none. It wasn’t just that a place had changed, but that it had become like every other place that had changed in the same way.

The I Ching refers to “the law of least resistance” and also points to water analogously as a perennial solution to our human dilemmas. “Flow on,” it suggests. At another lecture, an expert in river deltas described the folly of trying to alter the flow of rivers like the Mississippi and watersheds like the Veneto. That Venice’s lagoon is becoming a bay he attributed to alterations made to its watershed in the 13th century. The law of least resistance is partly about inexorable force—how it looks for a way through, propelled along by whatever propels it. We cling to our illusions of free agency as our lives take us from one meal or bed to another, dictated by fortune and our nature. It’s a miracle we get anything done, but the doing is largely to keep the game going: provide ourselves with the food, the beds, and the company. A good life is when the doing has its own pleasures and they outweigh the pain of being.

Where the Heart is
We underestimate how tied we are to a place. It took time for him to realize this. Once, in a period of estrangement, he moved to an apartment and immediately felt alienated from all that mattered. After this, he gave up thinking he could ever leave the place he loved. It was like a beloved one: he constantly saw different aspects of it in a new light that revealed something he hadn’t noticed before.

He understood the contingency that a place like this represents—a gift that the gods might snatch away—but this is what life presents, an inherent fragility that we regularly acknowledge and then put out of mind. Time ravages everything, he thought, and nothing is immune. Despite his vows and acquired self-knowledge, he found himself imagining places purpose-built for life with another—a world of their own, detached from everyone else. Several times in the past he’d bought lottery tickets to this parallel paradise, but they were never good for travel.

Several people are seen from a distance standing on a contemporary rooftop deck in overcast weather.

The Possibilities and Limits of Writing
Life arrived in snippets and he struggled to make sense of them. In the social sciences, Friedrich Hayek argued, simply describing something accurately is a legitimate move. His life appeared to him as a continuous narrative in which these snippets accumulated. This was the opposite of how others found it, he learned, which explained why the accrual of love and commitment, to him the heart of the matter, carried no real compensatory weight with them. The narrative he constructed gave the women who figured in it a claim on him that he could never put aside. The frisson might wane, but his desire for their company remained. Sometimes, despite their reservations, despite their official attitude, there was laughter and reconnection. He saw this as part of their particular, unfolding story.

Once, banished from an intensely close relationship, he tried to capture it in prose. He sometimes reread the manuscript, written to forestall all the pain that followed. It didn’t work and he was plunged into narcissistic grief, but in retrospect he was glad to have it, because it set out their time together with considerable accuracy. His diary entries and correspondence from this period, on the other hand, were almost unbearable to read. There’s very little we can do when life really goes south. We act heedlessly, like true idiots, until we finally recover ourselves and accept things as they are. Most of what we write in these periods, to or about the other, is deplorable from end to end. It would be better to go far away, to make a clean break long enough to heal, but of course we never do.

A Buzz in the Head
Toward the end of a nap, he heard a buzzing in his head and saw numbers turning rapidly, the way they do when something has gone wrong. If I can slow them down, perhaps it will stop, he thought. If not, I’m probably having a stroke. Later, awake, it was clear that he hadn’t, but the possibility of one was there, part of this new territory. We arrive here to find this flimsy bridge between two blanks. We share this intermediate space with the living and with the remains of the dead. Some of their effects speak to us and make us grateful for their presence. Geologic time dwarfs us, and then cosmic time subsumes it too. Whatever was flung out originally to expand and evolve collapses into unimaginable density and then presumably is flung out again.

As he grew older, he began to see his parents as contemporaries. They sometimes appeared in his dreams in active roles, still family but no longer parents. In these dreams, there was always a failure to arrive. He attributed this to the fact that they were dead—a loss of agency. It was as if they were moving against the flow of the narrative, resisting time in order to deliver a message. What was the message?

Everything he did for himself he did in the spirit of this interlude that the gods or chance afforded him and in the face of doubt that anything he did would endure. The making itself resonated and doubt was pointless. That he was no genius was indisputable, but he had just enough talent to stay interested. The test, Schopenhauer wrote, is if one falls asleep when left to one’s own devices. He understood clearly who and what resonated, but was less sure why. He saw resonance as an attribute of possibly genetic, even cosmic memory, a form of recognition.

The Truth of Himself
“Who am I really?” Despite his gendered attire, he knew there was no single answer. He moved at varying paces from one state of being to another. Seemingly complex transitions were conjured up in an instant. His inner self varied in the same way that a river has eddies and main currents. When a woman asked him, in effect, “Who am I to you?” he tried to answer honestly and to situate his “I” within the immense and shifting landscape of her feelings.

“The world is full of people with narcissistic tendencies,” Karl Ove Knausgård wrote. On a beach in Playa del Carmen he’d boned up on the subject. He learned that when one’s heart’s sent rolling, the ego is yanked off like some glued-down bandage. The madness that ensues relates to the rebirth these events signal, a disorienting freedom from an ego to which one clung out of habit. Like undertow, you just have to give in to it.

He saw his past as a series of corridors behind doors, each corridor leading to other doors and rooms. Memory gave it all form and substance: the sound of the knife as the vegetables were chopped; or the sight of tears as it became unavoidably clear that they were drifting on the raft Medusa, both as spectators and participants. It splits apart and they each wash up on a different shore, with a few exceptions. Like the suicide twins, for example, paired in his mind despite their different genders, means, motivations, and timing. Put them together in a room in the afterlife and it would take awhile for them to understand why they were there—maybe an eternity.

Long After Waking
Christopher Alexander wrote that we know the good by whether it has life or not. In the heat of lovemaking, good has a specific meaning. That has its truth too, but like lovers’ correspondence and life’s narratives, its truth is contextual—stories we tell ourselves that are different from the stories told by those who shared our lives and beds. The events that gave rise to them resurface in our consciousness to be pondered. In retrospect, much is questionable. This can blind us to the fact that some of it was good, however brief and elusive it later proved to be.