Senesence (and mountebank)

Senescence. I awoke this morning with that word turning over in my head. And mountebank, that was the other word. Senescence and mountebank. Strange what the cauldron of sleep sends roiling to the top. Strange too how certain ideas thread in and out of one's thoughts. We started King Lear in class, a play that has profoundly shaped my understanding of human suffering and delusion.

Last week, too, a friend and I fell into a conversation about how our concerns-- self-absorbed, self-pitying--could so easily exist alongside our awareness of so much unspeakable suffering in the world. I remember telling him about the surreal simultaneity of reading about Haiti the other morning while savoring these amazing tangerines my wife had bought. At lunch yesterday with Josh, my new faculty mentee, we fell into a conversation about how utterly unaware many of our students are of the world beyond their own experience. Then I re-read this poem by the late poet George Buchanan:

There is neither war nor peace, there is war-and-
peace, not either/or but the two:
rather, if you please, fusion, the play of one into
the other, the blend.
War-and-peace isn’t anger or stillness, but
persons moving in the great events of their
city every day.
Not peace of mind but the troubled mind:
the warman on the peace path, the peaceman on
the warpath.
It is the impure joy, the dream and the awakening,
the two sides of the medal:
the anxious holiday, the sunny tour of an Italian
lake with a sick girl,
the extravagance of an unhappy time in a delectable
but costly place,
friction in the country drawing room with an out-
look of trees,
the senescence and poverty of a great public figure,
the evil politics of a new and exquisitely laid out
town.
It is co-operation with disliked persons, not segregation
or party alignment,
but swallowing resentment, working with detested
characters, undertaking a keen enterprise with
untrustworthy associates;
talking of god’s love with a bad-tempered clergy-
man;
drinking a fine claret holding the glass with fingers from
which torturers have drawn the nails;
coming home after dark to a divided family, living
in harmony with a bitch.

Buchanan’s poem takes on extra weight when you realize he’s not writing out of some cushy American sense of guilt: an awareness that our comfortable indolence exists side-by-side with great tragedy. No, he speaks from Northern Ireland, a place where he lived with the immediacy of history and war and the bitch of intractable contraries. And yet one shouldn’t overlook the other side (what war is fused into): the delectable, the lovely outlook, the joy, however impure. This is the poet’s predicament, especially in a place like Ulster. How does one witness harmony without denying that disharmony exists?

(And now I remember where I happened across that word senescence. As for mountebank? Well, that hits a little close to home.)

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