LIVING RETIRED

 

David Stove

Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, at a time when they were both millionaires many times over, recorded a song called "Gone Fishin'". Its theme was as familiar as it was implausible: how they would much rather sit by "some shady, wady pool", etc., than be enmeshed, as they were, in the feverish pursuit of money and fame. The record was a huge success, making the singers even richer and more famous than they had been before: which was, after all, their intention in making it. It will hardly need saying that neither singer ever did in fact renounce show business and "go fishin'" instead; or that this experiment, if it had been tried, would have been an ignominious failure. It has been tried often enough.

Renouncing a position of wealth, influence, or esteem, and then finding that you still want to be wealthy, or influential, or esteemed (if only for your renunciation): this is one of the oldest themes of history and literature. King Lear is the best known example in literature; but Tolstoy gave a very fair imitation of Lear in real life, as Orwell pointed out. The Emperor Charles V, when he was fifty-five, handed over his immense responsibilities to his son Phillip II of Spain, promising to devote himself henceforth to the clocks which were his hobby; but in fact he proceeded to make Phillip's life a burden to him by interfering in the affairs of the Empire every single day. In the 4th century BC, the injunction to "live retired" was part of Epicurean philosophy; but Plutarch shrewdly remarked that Epicurus had hoped to achieve, and did in fact achieve, fame and influence by this injunction. Rousseau, finding himself persecuted in Europe both by kings and by angry mobs, besought his British friends to find him a quiet rural retreat in England; but when they did exactly that, and even arranged for him to get a pension from the king, he concluded that he was the victim of a conspiracy against his name and fame.

For some people, retirement is not merely disagreeable, but prohibitively dangerous. This used to be the situation of kings, as Lear found out in the play, and as Richard II of England found out in real life. Nowadays it is the situation of our drug-lords: none of them would be allowed to survive six months in retirement. Likewise, every member of the Russian Politburo knows that the first rule of survival is, to be there whenever that august body meets.

But those situations are exceptional. For most people, it is not outward circumstances that make voluntary retirement an unenviable state: it is their own inner disharmonies. We are hopelessly beset by conflicting desires. Like Charles V, we want both the pleasures of privacy and the pleasures of power, no matter how improbable or impossible their combination may be. Like Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, we want both a quiet fishing-spot, and the money we cannot make there.

This is constantly illustrated even in our little suburban lives. Professor W retires, promising to write the important book which, he says, the burdens of teaching and administration have for twenty years prevented him from writing. In fact, of course, he had actively sought those burdens (and more), and he will never write that book. He clears his desk at home for action, but nothing happens. The paper remains blank, and he is beginning to panic, when - thank God! - the phone rings. Would he agree to serv e on the citizens' committee for X? Or to act as external examiner for Y? Or to come as a visiting lecturer to Z? He closes with every offer. It is not that he does not really want to write that book; but he wants, even more, to do other things which are in fact incompatible with writing it.

Conflicting desires are also the undoing of those thousands of simple-life schemes, communes, etc., which, for the last two hundred years in the West, have been drawing the urban young into rural retirement. (The rural young, naturally enough, are mostly immune to such schemes.) These people yearn for silence, yet they must have a tractor, or at least a generator. They want to live miles away from anyone else, but also to have a good doctor at hand, and good schools for their children. They want books and music, and yet have foresworn the cities where alone those things can be had. The inconsistencies are so very glaring, and have claimed and still claim so many victims, that it is tiresome even to think of such folly: let us return to retirement in age.

Though the odds are always against it, there have been many cases of happy retirement in age. Some of them have even been cases of retirement from the most exalted positions: the Roman Emperor Diocletian, for example. He made sure of leaving behind him no one both willing and able to disturb his retirement, built a large villa on the shores of the Black Sea, and retired to it in 305 AD. He seems to have been entirely free from Lear-like hankerings: twenty-one years of trying to preserve public order in the Eastern Empire really had been enough for him. He concentrated on his vegetable garden, his cabbages in particular being a great point of pride, and a sore trial to the patience of his visitors.

David Hume is another example. The most successful British author, in terms of money, up to that time; a diplomat in Paris whom the French actually respected and liked; an important official of the Foreign Office in London: he left it all in 1771 and retired to his native Scotland. Here he concentrated on his friends and his food. He worked hard at improving his own cooking, but was never very particular as to quality. Arriving uninvited at meal time at the door of an Edinburgh friend, who protested that she had no meal prepared for him, Hume reassured his hostess: "Ye ken I'm no epicure - just a glutton." A few weeks before he died in 1776, he told Adam Smith that he could not think of any period of his life that he would as willingly live over again as these last years.

These two cases suggest something that I think is true in general: that to be capable of happy retirement, you need to be an aesthete, in a broad sense of the word. I mean you must be capable, like a child or a poet, of simple, passive, sensory enjoyments. If the pursuit of money or power or knowledge has absorbed you completely, so that you cannot now enjoy things like the sky, or the ocean, grass and trees, the music of Handel, simple good food - well then, your retirement is ill-omened indeed. An undeservedly forgotten 19th-century writer, W.R. Greg, said somewhere that he could not respect anyone who could not sit all day beside a stream, without doing anything more than occasionally throwing a pebble into it. This is perhaps a fraction severe: half a day might be fairer. But the general idea of Greg's test is absolutely right, and one reason why so many retirements are miserable is that few people can pass a test of this kind.

It must be admitted that, even for people who do pass this test, there is a biological limit to how happy retirement in age can be. Take fishing, for example. "Go fishing" is a very popular answer to the question, "What are you going to do when you retire?" It deserves its popularity, too. Fishing is one of the very few childhood occupations that can be resumed with satisfaction in age. You can hardly start playing marbles again, or "chasings", but you can go fishing again and not be disappointed. Yet there is, of course, a great qualitative difference between the mild and conscious pleasure of a sixty-year-old man who returns to fishing, and the kind of pleasure he took in fishing when he was ten. The man can no more abolish this difference than he can abolish the intervening years themselves. And this, of course, is something additional to his consciousness of approaching infirmity and death.

Henry James saw, in a certain English country house, "a great good place"; or at least, he thought he did. We have probably all at some time looked at some beautiful house and landscape in England, Italy, Tahiti, or wherever and thought: "There I could not fail to be happy!" Yet no thought could be more absurd than this one. For we all know perfectly well that not only every household, but every human being, contains the seeds of an ample crop of misery. In many cases, highly privileged surroundings merely enable human misery to assume uncommon forms.

Of course some people really are much more fortunate than others in their home circumstances, as some are in their physical or mental endowments, and as a few are in every respect. But a wise remark of Shakespeare applies even to the most fortunate: "Men are ever merriest when they are from home." To be at home, no matter how perfect that home may be, is to have always before your mind future responsibilities and expenses which you cannot meet, past errors, omissions and wrongs which you cannot now put right, associations of ideas which you can neither endure nor escape. No doubt this is why so many people, having nominally retired to their homes, embrace instead the lesser torments of travel. This is on the same principle as that on which soldiers undergoing surgery, before anesthetics had been invented, would often grip a sharp bayonet with all their strength.

The fact is that, as Hume said in The Natural History of Religion, "it is not possible for us, by our most chimerical wishes, to form the idea of a station or situation altogether desirable." The reason is that we desire incompatible things. Even if every other cause of human misery were removed, and even if only a single person were in question, that person's desires, being inconsistent, would still be incapable of satisfaction. Remold this sorry scheme of things exactly to your heart's desires: then even if, by some miracle, those desires were compatible with one another, you would sooner or later be bored with the result. In other words, the universal human hankering for novelty would, at some stage, intervene and unsettle all.

The same fact - that desirable things are often incompatible - is also the reason why no one has ever framed, or ever will frame, an idea of heaven that is both definite and consistent. Hell, of course, has never presented a comparable problem: earthly life provides sufficient intimations of what that would be like. But what would heaven be like? It is impossible to exaggerate either the variety, or the absurdity, of the answers that have been given to this question.

Heaven is a state of rest, "The Blessed Saints' Rest", some authorities say; but other equally good authorities say that it is a state of praeternatural and eternal activity. Resurrection of the body is orthodox Christian doctrine; but in what shape? Origen thought that we would all be spherical. Yet if in human shape, at what age? This difficult question was discussed by Augustine, among others, but without arriving at a rational consensus. Then, will we be clothed or unclothed? Alas, who can believe either in naked saints, or in heavenly trousers? The whole subject of heaven swarms with inconsistencies from the very outset: you are supposed to have the time of your life there, yet you have to be in a terribly bad way, in fact you have to be dead, before you even arrive.

Let us now draw a veil ... : such absurdities make one blush for one's species. The wiser sort of Christians have always said the joys of heaven are, in our present state, entirely unimaginable; which is the truth, at that. But then, these people really ought to be more circumspect still in their delineations of the "afterlife". Supposing that it were to exist, what reason can they give us for thinking that there will be much joy in it at all? Why, none, in the end, except that there is so little joy here below. This is a strange sort of reasoning: as Leslie Stephen said, it cuts across normal induction at right angles. The normal and rational way of reasoning is to suppose that the future, if there is a future, will be like the past.

All the same, in one respect religious retirement is more rational than any other kind: namely, in that it aims at the mortification of some of our desires, rather than at the satisfaction, which is impossible, of all of them. But as against that, the actual history of religious retirement is not such as to encourage the belief that human desires can be reduced to the point where they become consistent. The monk's struggle against "the flesh" is only one, and the most obvious, of his conflicts of desire. The literature of religious seclusion, though it has its moments of serenity, for the most part testifies to inner conflicts that are agonising and ever renewed.