• The Chiming Bells of Mortality

    “On oi theoi filousin apothneskei neos.”

    “Whom the gods love die young.”

    Menander

     

    “…meta toi khronon ouketi poulyn, skhetlie, ten makran nukt’ anapausometha”

    after not much time, poor fellow, we shall rest throughout the long night.”

    Asklepiades

     

    The winds churning the eastern Aegean all the autumnal night have quieted. Dawn creeps up over the island’s coast and across the sky, illumining clouds heavy with rain, clouds hunkering over the mountains like boulders suspended, leaden but preternaturally weightless. It is, finally, peaceful. I come downstairs and find the cast-iron stove has gone cold, the old stone house, chilly and damp. I’m here to work on a book and absorb myself in Greek literature — mostly verse I’ve read for decades, verse that has, in one way or another, always accompanied me, at least since the early 1980s, and signposted my life’s most important moments. It has served me as scripture of a sort — not in laying down divinely revealed truths, but in transmitting wisdom, in helping me to observe, question, and reflect. The Greek of the poetry I love ranges from Ancient to Medieval to Modern; the older it gets, the tougher it is to follow, yet the grander, the more timeless the import. I study and ponder it, and meaning shines forth, as sunlight, breaking free of clouds, glows on the shattered Doric columns of fallen Hellenic temples.

    I’d come to Greece despite believing that the inevitable was about to happen to my ailing 94-year-old father, and possibly quite soon. But I’ve learned to stop — or made myself stop — expecting his death. If an event of this magnitude has to happen while I’m away, it might as well happen while I’m here, in Greece, where I had first launched myself abroad — and into my life — in 1982.

    Strangely restless, I sit down and pop open my computer, but I can’t concentrate on the screen. Leaving my cell phone on the dining-room table, I head out for a drive, steering along the village’s zigzagging alleys and down onto the undulant, pockmarked asphalt leading through groves of sodden olive trees toward the gulf. The wind dies, leaving only a pattering rain to dapple the glassy gunmetal sea. But soon the storm starts up again and black clouds roll back over the mountains. I drive on to the wave-battered coast, just east of the ruins of a Dionysian temple. Two millennia ago, people drank and danced there, honoring the god of wine, madness, and inspiration. If I drove back east to the other coast, I’d see Turkey. Migrants had been arriving from there in recent years, thousands a day, in makeshift rafts. I’ve driven enough, so I return. The house is cold again. I see I’ve missed calls from my sister back in the States.

    I call her and learn that my father died during the night.

    The gods must not have loved him; he drifted on into advanced senility and decrepitude. For years, he was confined to a wheelchair, demented, disinhibited, at times irascible. How it pained me, as it surely pained him, that he deteriorated so; he had been a proud, self-reliant man, always sober, always composed. During my most recent visit, though, he was content. “I’m in the final stages of life,” he told me in one of last lucid moments. No more struggles.

    Now he’s gone. I ready myself to return to the States. I feel an emptiness in my mind where my father’s presence had once been: he exists no more, and I have no faith in the supernatural. I think of Hedylus and his line,

    Miso zen eis kenon ou methuon 

    I loathe living in a void, not drunk [on
    wine].

    ¤

    I would love to put out of my mind the truth I’ll have to live with for the rest of my days: “If I live a thousand years more, I’ll never see my parents again,” an old French man told me two summers ago in the Alps, where I’d gone to trek for a magazine article. My mother passed away in 2005. My thousand years begin now. The past remains closed to us. The philosopher Heraclitus said,

    Dis eis tov auton potamon ouk an embais.

    One can’t step into the same river twice.

    Panta khorei kai ouden menei.

    Everything changes and nothing remains.

    I take cold but genuine comfort in knowing that I am — we all are — born without purpose, and that our universe will likely end in heat death. Why, then, should our sufferings, our day-to-day worries and aches matter? Dante festooned the Gates of Hell with one of one of the most chilling lines in Western literature:

    Lasciate ogni esperanza, voi ch’entrate!

    Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!

    Or as Menander put it,

    Koinon ton Haidin eskhon oi pantes brotoi

    All mortals share the same Hades

    To me, at least, the words are liberating. They preclude the birth of misguided aspirations and years of wasteful pursuit. I don’t feel the need for hope; it’s enough to be alive. I believe I’ve taken to heart the epitaph on the tombstone of Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of Zorba, the first book I read in Greek:

    Den elpizo tipota, den fovomai tipota, eimai lefteros.

    I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.

    A line from a Maniot song written by Kyriakos Kassis has also served me as a mantra:

    K’alo kalo den mathame/pio kali’ apo ti lefteria!

    We have learned of nothing better than freedom!

    What have I learned at all? Where have my years gone? Cavafy’s Keria (Candles) comes to mind:

    Tou mellontos i meres stekont’ emprosta mas
    san mia seira kerakia anamena …
    Ti grigora pou i skoteini grammi makrainei
    Ti grigora pou ta svista keria plithainoun

    The days stand before us a row of lit candles 
    How quickly the line of extinguished candles lengthens
    How quickly the extinguished candles multiply

    The burning candles ahead are diminishing in number, occasioning me no grief. I’ve had the great adventures I so longed for and I’ve written about them; I’ve lived well enough, found enough happiness to consider myself lucky. What awaits me? A slow decline — possibly not so slow. I’ve discovered in the past couple of years that I may be suffering from a neurological disease that threatens to turn things messy for me. But for now, I’m well enough. Still, the extinguished candles multiply. As Anacreon put, with remarkable clarity:

    Polioi men emin ede
    Krotaphoi kare te leukon
    Khariessei d’ouketh’Ebe
    Para

    My temples are already gray
    My head is white
    Graceful youth has passed

    ¤

    Before my father’s death, through his nine years of decline following the first “transient ischemic attacks” (as the doctors called them), I used to think of Lethe a lot. Lethe, the river in Hades from which souls drank to erase memories of their past lives, the river flowing into the cave of Hypnos (Sleep), the son of Nyx (Night), the brother of Thanatos (Death). Always, in some way, I’ve searched for my own Lethe. In recent years, I’ve taken great pleasure in deep, dreamless sleep.

    But no Lethe for me at the moment: I’m driving on a mountain road. Headlights flash behind me, cars speed up and pass me. The lights of the capital flicker ahead, by the sea. My journey home to my father begins there.

    ¤

    Ten days later, having delivered a secular eulogy to the proudly godless man my father was, I’m back on the island. The propeller plane lands in a downpour and ripsaw winds, within sight of the choppy Aegean, bouncing on the tarmac to a halt. I’m soon driving back to the village. I begin to feel the onus of the coming years. The prospect of growing old seems much more real than before, more isolating. Euripides:

    To de geros akhthos
    baruteron Aitnas skopelon
    epi krati keitai, blepharon
    skoteinon phaos epikalupsan

    The burden of old age
    lies heavier than the peaks of Aetna
    on the head, covering
    the light of the eyes with dark.

    Yet I recall the Epitaph of Seikilos:

    Oson zes phainou
    meden olos sy lypou
    pros oligon esti to zen
    to telos o khronos apaitei

    As long as you live, shine
    Have no grief at all
    Life is for a short while
    Time demands an end

    No passage of poetry rings truer to me at this moment. Phainou. Shine. Absorbing myself in what I read has always gotten me through; there’s no reason to think it won’t now. Euripides again:

    Me zoin met’ amousias! …
    oupo katapausomen
    Mousas ai m’ekhoreusan

    I would rather not live without the [pleasures afforded by] the Muses who rouse me to dance

    Living in “amousia” — roughly, a state of “Muse-lessness” — is unacceptable. I find my Muses, they find me, and

    To de kat’ emar oto biotos
    Eudaimon, makarizo

    Him whose life each day is happy,
    I deem blessed

    I refuse to submit, at least in spirit; what will happen to my body I can’t quite say. For now I awaken eager to start the day.

    The rain lets up. The evening sun, weak, of softly burnished gold, suffuses the violet-blue ether in the west. A phrase from an early Christian poet comes to mind:

    Phos ilaron agias doxes!

    Joyful light of sacred glory!

    It is glorious, this Grecian light at dusk. At this moment, on this island road above the Aegean, I find Lethe has lost its hold on me. I can think only of phos ilaron, joyful light.

     

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