The Return of the Serious Man

The Return of the Serious Man

Among the random trivia banging about in my brain is the afternoon many years ago when, as we were walking around the fields at the college we both attended, my friend turned to me and asked, “What do you think about when you are alone?”

You see, even at that young age I already had a reputation not only for being alone, a state that seemed to come very naturally to me since early childhood, but also for thinking.  I would walk about, alone, and I would think.  The two activities seemed to encompass most of my time back then.  To a significant extent, they still do.

Henry David Thoreau, himself the deepest of thinkers, wrote a book called “Walking” that of course included what passed through his mind as he wandered the hills and forests of New England.  Thoreau was certainly not overtly successful in his lifetime, nor was he known for his ebullience. In these qualities, if no others, we are the same.

You see, I too am the kind of person you dread seeing walking across the room toward you at a party or any other festive event.  You will notice the deep crease in my brow.  You will see the slow but purposeful nature of my walk.  You may silently concede, having in the past already been unsuspectingly caught in my attention and intention, that escape is impossible. The crowd parts like the waters before Moses and all in my way desperately avoid eye contact.  There is no one so feared at a joyous occasion as a serious man.  Already you will be theorizing frantically about how you can minimize the encounter, and therefore the damage. Your smile as I approach, though pained, is at least minimally courteous.

“So, what’s it going to be?” you might say, impulsively deciding to take the bull by the horns, “Perhaps a brief re-examination of the hideous trauma of your childhood?”  You will arch an eyebrow.  “Or a light conversation about the imminence of death?  Or taxes?  Or death by taxes?”

Of course, I will not be dissuaded by such ploys, for I have heard them all before, like an old practice bull who has seen the pathetic toreador desperately waving his ragged crimson cape so many times that it has lost any meaning.  The truth is, I would sincerely enjoy a lengthy conversation about the imminence of death because, well, it needs to be discussed and tomorrow, or even thirty seconds from now, may be too late.  You see, I have long understood that we operate in a world of assumptions as easily perforated as the then paper wrapping a wedding gift, paper that soon will be rent and tossed in the trash, probably along with whatever it contained.  But don’t get me started.

I have told whoever I have met as well as myself ten thousand times that I did not ask to be this way; I did not ask to be a serious man. Somehow, it just came with the territory. There I was, small and vulnerable on the face of the planet, unwanted and, if possible, unseen.  My earliest wish was to be invisible, to somehow avoid the very silent assertion of existence.  I firmly responded to Hamlet’s existential inquiry in the negative, begging only not to be.  About that there was no question.

But that was then.  Now I understand that even a serious man has a right to be, and even to acknowledge his existence to others. The deepest question is, in talking to myself as I incessantly do, is anyone listening?

My idea of traveling light, communication-wise, is to “contract for safety”, guaranteeing with reasonable certainty that I will not hurl myself in front of a speeding train for the next ten minutes. To promise a day is beyond imagining, an hour means that the question is not being taken seriously.  But ten minutes I will promise – long enough, if you are willing, for a final conversation.

Back in the post-war days one could saunter listlessly though the lonely streets of Paris clad in a wrinkled trench coat as rainwater dripped off one’s fedora and despair seemed the only sensible emotion.  But no more.  Now, as the very viruses conspire brilliantly to eliminate us, laugh-tracks spill from television speakers and we are told to get out in the sun, but only if we are securely clothed in that same trench coat and slathered in toxic petrochemicals that destroy our sperm as well as our appetite for sex, and later we stand like sheep in long lines for “the jab” that promises mere survival until the next mutation. Some happy future holiday (perhaps VD – Virus Disappears – Day) we will emerge from the lockdowns, pale and more obese than ever, seeking distractions appropriate to veterans who have just been told the conflict is over, only to be informed anew that biological war is endless, purposeless, and random.  But, please, for your own protection, don’t get me started.

Perhaps it is only in times like these that the serious man can once more feel at home, times when terms like “excess deaths” are known and mouthed by billions, most with desperately earnest faces that would never think of speaking words like, “The end comes for us all.”  We are told to be both outraged and accepting of the inevitability of  death, as if it was unknown to the many, many billions of our ancestors who are now dust.  Marcus Aurelius, himself emperor of Rome and author of the great Stoic tome “Meditations,” said that it may give us some comfort to realize that even his predecessor the great Julius Caesar conquered the known world and was regaled with the ultimate glories but was nonetheless murdered by so-called friends and, centuries later, remains no less dead than you and I will someday be.  How many understand that we forever live in a world in which such thinking can bring a kind of bliss?

I do, and so may you, and such understanding may lessen your anxiety as I lope across the room toward you, fully armed with deep and profound questions that, though you might like to ignore them, will chip away at the edges of your consciousness for the rest of the evening or even the rest of your life.

Yes, perhaps today is the day when the Nietzschean serious man is at last reborn, understanding as he does that true joy exists only at the crumbling edge of the abyss, that pit with which we are becoming increasingly familiar, and who wants only to talk his way down into the boundless void. Perhaps it is only now, as the “novel” virus joins ecological and nuclear cataclysm in a diabolical triad, that a serious conversation may be at last possible, and even, for some, interesting.

Yes, today may be the day of the serious man at last when, strangely and without dread, you can get me started.