I was in Powell's, yesterday, buying Christmas books -- a mystery for Martha, collections of Manga for the kids (I still don't get Manga. It looks pretty much like Western cartooning to me, except with huge eyes, and endless martial-arts contests between minor deities. But everyone the age of my kids seems to be besotted with it. But anyway, that's not what I started to say.)
I was in Powell's, I say, and walking through the philosophy section, I felt a dreary hopelessness. Lots of people must feel that about books from the git-go, but to me it has been strange and scary, developing this response over the past couple years. Books used to be enticing. I used to look forward to them with an insatiable appetite. But now they're oppressive. Seldom, seldom does a book take me anywhere new, now. I read a few pages of a "new" book and it's just an old book, dressed up a bit or down a bit, salted with a few new facts sometimes, if I'm lucky, or set in a new place. But it's old characters in the new settings, and they wander through old stories like forgetful old men, their pasts more vivid than their presents. Supposedly factual books are just the same -- the same tired old narrators, the same rhetorical moves. I know them all already. Nothing they say will change my life. I know that before I start, so I read them idly, inattentively. Does this mean that I'm old? Or just that I've read too much?
It's not depression. I know depression intimately, in all its guises. I recognize the taste of depression immediately, and I know its physical sensations -- the slightly intensified power of gravity, the sense of the sun hefting a vast mattock over the sky, ready to drive me into the earth. This isn't that. It's a milder, sadder feeling, a bit careworn, quite ordinary. It's like being impatient with the children when they're tiresome. Like pushing away a leftover dinner on its third day. Just tired of it.
There's no sense of intellectual triumph here. Quite the contrary. It's not that I think I understand everything conceptual. It's that I think I have understood everything conceptual that it's in my power to understand. I am less intelligent, fractionally, than I was ten years ago. I can tell that. My mental edge is a little blunted. I used to be able to solve quadratic equations in my head. Not now. And I know that only gets worse. I pretty much know what I'm going to know, understand what I'm going to understand -- conceptually -- in this life. If I am to travel to new countries, any more, it will not be in books. Chaucer wrote:
And as for me, thogh that I can but lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte,
And to hem yeve I feyth and ful credence,
And in myn herte have hem in reverence
So hertely, that ther is game noon
That fro my bokes maketh me to goon,
But hit be seldom, on the holyday;
Save, certeynly, whan that the month of May
Is comen, and that I here the foules singe,
And that the floures ginnen for to springe,
Farwel my book and my devocioun!
But this is not May. It's December. I go from my books to a white sky and a sharp wind. Love has no new words for me, either. It speaks to me more of death than of beginnings. If the Dharma will not take me anywhere, now, then I think my travelling days are done.
I wrote this to Suzanne just now, clarifying, I hope --
You see, I used to walk through a bookstore seeing new worlds to conquer. I would master Kierkegaard. Eat up Nietzsche. Engulf Hegel. And then I would be a transformed creature, a creature who lived in the land of wonders, seeing a new heaven and a new earth.
Or in the stories, I would be Odysseus, or Dante, or Frodo. Travel with them, see with their eyes, and come to a new country. Even foolish science fiction would take me to unimagined places. And I would be new, there, a newly-made traveller.
Or I would learn Greek or Latin or Hebrew or Old English, and find the very roots leading into the heart of truth. And then I would be a different person, because someone who can reach right into the heart of it is a wizard who can see things other people can't.
So I walk in the bookstore now, and I feel the tug of those yearnings. Even then they seldom paid off. It may be now that they will never pay off again. That's okay. In real life we never get to strike the same bargain over again. Those new countries ready for conquest -- they were largely imagined. Never conquered. Wonders came in other ways, mostly.
Transformations too. Or, when they did, looked different. It wouldn't be a transformation, after all, if it looked the same from the inside as from the outside.