Tuesday 13 June 2017

Having it all

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.
WB Yeats b 13 June 1865
As I am reminded by word-a-day today is the birthday of W.B.Yeats. As it happens, two years ago on his sesquicentenniel, I had a go at the dichotomy in the poet's life expressed by his poem The Choice quoted in full above.  A case could be made that Yeats was both pompous and self-regarding and his pursuit of Maude Gonne was annoying and her daughter goaty, but some of his poems sing in a way that they can be readily appreciated by children. Others are full of references which boiled up to the surface from the turmoil in his mind and finished up on the page.  That makes him a suitable subject for scholarly research and the bane of the lives of Irish students sitting Leaving Certificate English. That's what they do in the Arts Block - try to track down the references and sources of poets long dead.  That's why it's important to speak to creative people now before they schlep off to the heavenly mansion - saves time later when all you have is a bunch of letters and manuscripts.  You can check out the spoken word of , for example John Maynard Smith, at WebOfStories.  Then again, if you ask people - Harlan Ellison - C├ędric Villani - where their ideas come from they'll probably have a madey-uppy story that is only partially true.

ANNyway, contra Yeats, I am sure you can live both a virtuous life and create a body of work that will amuse and edify after your death.  Not tooo virtuous, that would be boring but you should try to live the life you have rather than think too much about positioning yourself in posterity. It is most likely that you and everything you did/wrote will be entirely forgotten 50 years after you peg out . . . except by your grandchildren. As evdence I offer the difficulty I had trying to locate a single photograph of Jane Gibson.

This gives me an excuse to recommend Michael "Moneyball" Lewis's 2012 commencement address at Princeton.  It is a nice exercise in humility and hubris in recommending that we at least pretend to believe that nobody makes their own fortune. It's not really to do with naked ambition getting to the top by placing a boot in the faces of those under him on the ladder; we can all escape from where we started if we form an orderly queue.

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