Tributes and musings
Insignificance and Old Goriot?
I have been musing today about the question of the significance of individual lives. Dad’s life ended over 27 years ago, and that is almost as long a period as I knew him. I have spent part of this day – an otherwise happy one – in a nursing home, full of very elderly and mostly) very sick people. People now warehoused, with a significant degree of care and safety, have lives that lie largely in the past. Every one is a prospective tragedy, but a very personal one, for themselves (those that remain aware of this) and for relatives and friends. Dad was spared the indignity of serious physical and mental decay, but we who loved him never got the chance to tell him that, say goodbye or know his wishes for a world which he was to leave.
Oddly, I have spent another part of the weekend discussing oral history, and yet I never raised the missing factor. Data, subjective impressions and otherwise suppressed stories are often revealed through oral history, and the debates centre round the validity of revealed or asserted data and subjective accounts. What is rarely discussed is the completely subjective, the sense of recovery or retention of traces of lives that are otherwise lost. There is grief in there, somewhere.
And there is grief in my accounts of my father, longstanding and stable grief, but one that is, possibly, assuaged by these attempts at the biographical. Dad’s life was, like most lives, both commonplace and unusual, and the reason for tracing and writing about it is not for some sort of historical record (although, as one contact has indicated, there is significant data in his wartime career). It is really there only for myself, to set down what I have discovered, sometimes through my own memories. But it has to be said that what is being discussed is an insignificant life in many ways. Like those elderly people today, it probably matters little how their lives have been lived, what people they were and are, and how they will be remembered. I am becoming aware, late in my own life, of the enormous divergence between the general insignificance of individual lives and the deep significance of those lives to small numbers of people.
I recall reading Balzac’s Old Goriot many years ago, and was struck by the dismissive heartlessness of one of the characters, when told that Old Goriot has just died:
“According to statistics, sixty persons have died in Paris this very day. Are we called upon to weep over Parisian hecatombs? If Pere Goriot is dead, so much the better for him. If you were all so fond of him, you can go and keep watch beside him ; but leave the rest of us to eat our dinners in peace.”
Sad but rational, I suppose – we cannot mourn them all, but can mourn the isolation and insignificance.
It is hard, almost impossible, to convey the personal significance of a life that has ended, and if you are reading all this and wondering why any of this matters to me, then I have clearly demonstrated this point! We clearly live with this duality, of the total indifference of most to our lives and our fate, and yet the enormous significance of our own lives and some others.
20 April 2014