[EDITOR'S NOTE: A new story, Thoughts on Being Old, has been posted this morning on Blogher.]
If newspapers are the first draft of history, then certainly end-of-life memoirs must be the second draft. The best of them, written with an eye toward summing up before shuffling off this mortal coil, cast a hard, cold eye on what was, what is now and what might have been.
In an extraordinarily good piece titled Political Firebrands from Decades Past Still Burn Hot posted on alternet.org last weekend, Anneli Rufus notes that we “rely on our golden-age dissidents to write the most stinging critiques of American society.” In her take on four new memoirs, she tells us why these books by political observer and novelist Gore Vidal, progressive art critic Robert Hughes, rocker David Crosby and former Black Panther Flores A. Forbes are must-reads:
“We have reached an era in which firebrands wear Depends.
“If these authors are tribal elders dispensing lore around campfires - if these memoirs are the Iliads of shaky-handed, age-spotted bards - then what do they say? How do the old gods and creation myths hold up?
“A bit bent. Bruised. In some cases flayed. Gazing way back, these authors now write neither in the heat of youthful passion nor even at the middle-aged putative peak of their powers.
“They appear unwilling to candy-coat. Maintaining their principles, and aware that in this Information Age countless Sherlocks are fervently winnowing truths from lies, these authors cast the past in such a pure unfiltered light as to make us flinch.
“Because heroes in that light appear only human. Because some hopes and dreams never came true. Because we realize that history repeats itself, that ideas and ideals we prize as avant-garde, as our own inventions, really aren't.
“Writhing under their own gaze, these authors wonder what was worth what.”
I don’t know how old Ms. Rufus is, although she is clearly a good deal younger than these authors, and it is refreshing to hear from someone who takes seriously what the best of elders have to contribute.
“Is it that reeling in the years lends clarity - or that outlasting your associates and your idols burns away residual layers of love, regard and fear?” asks Ms. Rufus. “You know what they say about he who laughs last.
“Or is it that, as their reward for survival, the old are allowed a certain honesty, a where's-the-beef bluntness? The young make a habit of mocking the old. When not rendering the old invisible, when not imagining them irrelevant, the young ridicule the old with jibes they would never dream of inflicting on other minorities. Want to tell someone she's out-of-it? Call her Grandma. Ha ha.
“And yet among actual golden-agers, the ones who didn't die, are activists and insurrectionists and right-on queers. Gore Vidal is past 80. When he looks back, it is in terms not of decades but half-centuries...
“It is the old who truly know the ball-and-chain of remorse and regret. They write with a special kind of sorrow, either because so little has changed or so much.”
Ms. Rufus gives a tantalizing sampling of particulars from the books of these four old men and I am chafing not to quote more. So go see for yourself. It is a long piece and worth every minute it will take you to read it.
Vidal’s memoir, purchased on advance order a couple of months ago, arrived just yesterday and the other three are now on order. I have often rued that I will not live long enough for there to be the distance necessary to know which events from my life will have historical importance. Now, based on Ms. Rufus’s overview, I believe they will go a long way to providing some clarity and understanding to the eras through which we elders have lived – a second draft of our history.