SENILIA - I walk towards death wherever I am
The Danish poet Hans Adolph Brorson, priest in the southern Jutland town of Tønder, wrote in 1734 the psalm I Walk in Danger All the Way, which third verse asserts the certainty of death:
And death pursues me all the way,
nowhere I rest securely;
He comes by night, he comes by day,
he takes his prey most surely.
A failing breath, and I
in death's strong grasp may lie
to face eternity today.
It happens that I think about this hymn, particularily in its Swedish version that states I walk towards death wherever I am. This mood is quite common in Nordic poetry. For example, we find it by the ever-melancholic Swedish flaneur Hjalmar Söderberg. Greatly appreciated in his native country Söderberg aimlessly wandered through existence. Plagued by the harsh demands of the surroundings he nevertheless scrutinized his environment with a clear mind. Throughout his life during the first half of the last century, Söderberg mantained a detached yet emotionally poignant writing style. Obviously, he pursued an all-encompassing love, which he nevertheless knew was transient:
One wants to be loved, in lack thereof admired, in lack thereof feared, in lack thereof loathed and despised. One wants to instill some sort of emotion in people. The soul trembles before emptiness and desires contact at any price.
Age did not matter so much to Söderberg, according to him life was not particularly fun anyway, regardless if you were young or old: “It's nice to get old. Being young was bloody awful.” This attitude did not hinder neither Söderberg, nor his imaginary characters, to make bold decisions, In his frightful tale Doctor Glas, filled to the brim by passion and venegence, Söderberg stubbornly persists in claiming that even if you try ever so hard to become part of life around you, your sense of loneliness will never disappear: “I believe in the lust of the flesh and the incurable isolation of the soul.”
In 1907, not yet forty-years old, Hjalmar Söderberg wrote a poem:
Det mörknar över vägen,
det börjar bli tungt att gå,
och tunga bli alla tankar
när skymningen faller på.
The road darkens,
my pace is getting heavy
and heavy are all my thoughts,
while twilight looms.
By then Hjalmar Söderberg was hardly at the end of his life´s journey and his famous, widely admired novels came later.
What about me, then? For sure, I may sometimes feel that it darkens over my road as well. Some of my friends have died and so have my parents. Several friends have been quiet sick, ending up on the brink of death. One of them is now struggling through a crippling ailment and others feel the merciless lashes of old age. Thinking about my own age, I come to remember an oil print that used to hung over the sofa bed in my parents´ cottage ̶ Ages of Man. I am now sixty-four years old and have for a number of years already been walking down these stairs.
Does such thoughts plague me? Not at all, I feel fine, my health is okay. However, I know that if I would live for another few years stiffness and arthritis will affect me and my memory will be even more capricious. Science has demonstrated that beyond the age of sixty our brain loses its ability to change. It becomes much harder to learn something new, partly because the brain is unable to repair itself any longer. Neurons are beginning to age and even die before we reach thirty years, but after we have arrived at the age of sixty this decay increases ever more and the brain shrinks by about five grams per year. For every year that disappears it will become increasingly difficult for me to keep all my skills and knowledge intact. I may even feel how my nerve cells are breaking down and die. How dementia's dark shadows lurk in the future.
Particularly in those days, when old men tend to be depicted as despicable creatures, whose aging bodies have lost all their entertainment value, while they nevertheless doggedly lust for youthful virgins, who might be vanquished only through wealth and power. Gone are the wise old men of the past.
Once an old man, who had been a missionary in Congo, told me that a common greeting among the people with whom he had lived for more than fifty years had been:
̶ So nice to see that you have grown old and fat.
A polite manner of stating that you have grown wise and lived a healthy life without worries and starvation. Such a greeting would have been quite insulting in our Westernized societies.
Our views of aging are probably closer to Tom Lehrer´s vision, as expressed in his song When You Are old and Grey, in which he in his most witty mood is rhyming in an exuberant Cole Porter manner:
Since I still appreciate you
let's find love while we may.
Because, I know I'll hate you
when you are old and grey
So say you love me here and now,
I'll make the most of that.
Say you love and trust me,
for I know you'll disgust me
when you're old and getting fat!
An awful debility,
a lessened utility,
a loss of mobility
is a strong possibility.
In all probability
I'll lose my virility
and you your fertility
and this liability
of total sterility
will lead to hostility
and a sense of …. futility.
So let's act with agility,
While we still have facility,
for we'll soon reach senility
and lose the ability.
However, there is not reason enough for us old men to despair. Life remains rich and beautiful, in spite of the fact that we have lost the attraction we might once have had among young ladies. The path of life does not only lead forward. We may look back as well, although it is quite foggy even there and much have been lost within a murky past. However, it may also be a relief that much filth and grime have been cleared away from our memories. My dear and old friend Didrik once told me, this must have been sometime in our youth, that he would not write any memoirs before the age of seventy:
̶ Then all redundant memories have been cleared out, together with pointless worries. Stress and vain pursuit for prestige have evaporated. I also assume that at that time oblivion would have blurred the memories in such a manner that my literary style would appear to be delightfully modern and innovative. I also assume that in our old age we will perceive our limited future in the light of memory. What some of us would call “experience”.
I do not think I have become any wiser over the years and it is actually quite worrisome to think about how big memory chunks have disappeared from my brain. Though, maybe, Didrik was right after all ̶ some of my memories have obtained a rare sparkle, as if they originate from a fascinating novel and not at all from my mundane existence. They are no longer sharp and clear, but they are still there, like something I once read and became impressed by.
My friend Claes, who died before he became thirty-years of age, and whose absence is still present among his comrades. I remember how we were standing around his coffin, looking at each other. For several of us it was the first time that death had come so close to us. Many years before that solemn moment, I and Claes had a joint encounter with old age in a manner that I still remember. Not only old age, but something else as well. A meeting with some servants of an old castle brought us back to a bygone era. To a class society we thought had disappeared a hundred years back in time. For sure, during visits to hospitals and retirement homes I had already witnessed the effects of aging and disease, though what Claes and I experienced during that particular evening was something completely different. Both amusingly absurd and tragic. I think all those involved in that visit, except me, are now dead, but it is probably still best that I do not reveal the name of the castle we visited.
Claes and I were still in high school, but it must have been during our last year in school, since if I do not remember it wrong it was Claes who drove us up to the castle. He was one year older than me and had a driving license. Claes's grandmother worked as cook at the castle and since the elderly couple who owned it (I should probably keep their titles secret as well) was absent, their valet, let's call him Öman, had offered to show me and Claes the interior of the castle. Claes´s grandmother had told Öman that I already then was an avid admirer of all kinds of art, Claes was more into music.
Öman received us standing by the stairs of the castle´s main entrance. His appearance surprised me. At that time I assumed he was an old man, as a matter of fact he was probably younger than I am now. Öman's livery was of an old fashioned design; a waist-long jacket, worn over an elegant black and yellow vest, though it was remarkably stained.
Öman was noticeably drunk and his voice was somewhat slurred, though I assumed it could also be because his dentures had not been correctly fitted in his mouth. The butler was in a radiant mood, good-natured and humorous, he brought us to the castle´s neat kitchen where Claes´s grandmother received us within whitewashed walls and among shining pots and pans. After coffee and buns at a large table in the middle of the kitchen, Öman took Claes and me on a tour through the castle´s many rooms, while Claes's grandmother attended to her kitchen tasks.
Öman was an excellent guide, comprehensively describing the artworks and treasures we came across. He astonished us when he with a secretive smile turned a power switch and two large alabaster vases were lit from their inside. One of the vases was cracked in a spider web like pattern and Öman proudly explained:
̶ It was I who knocked it down, but I was also the only one able to glue it all together again.
̶ But what did the count and countess say when they discovered that such a valuable vase had been broken?
̶ Ah, they have not noticed anything. They are both very old and live in worlds of their own.
Öman's comment made us aware of other incongruities. Below one of the radiators we spotted a puddle with something that seemed to be urine.
̶ Ah, now the dog has been peeing inside again. It is actually Gren's task to take that annoying floor mop for a walk, but as long as the Count and Countess are not at home, he does not give a damn.
̶ The dog?
̶ It is a tiny little bastard, no one likes it. I do not know where he can be right now. I have been told that we must have a dog in the castle. I assume it has something to do with insurance requirements, some kind of protection for the collections, though that little mop is completely worthless. Do you not want to have a sip, boys?
Öman had brought up a bottle of port from a Chinese urn, swallowed a mouthful, corking the bottle again and when Claes and I had declined a sip returned it to the urn. Astonished Claes wondered:
̶ Do you keep it there even when the Count is at home?
̶ Of course, he does not notice things like that. By the way, I have some drinks all over the place. It's one of the advantages with this kind of job.
̶ How come?
̶ When there is some kind of grand festivity here at the castle, quite huge purchases are required, meaning that we put something aside for ourselves. It´s hard to keep track of everything and the count is a generous man.
We arrived in the library. With a sigh of contentment Öman sank into one of the cosy armchairs, opening up a cigar case in silver, which had been placed on a side table and presented it to us:
̶ Do you mind a cigar?
Carefully we sat down and accepted the cigars, while Öman took a matchbox from a silver rack and lit them. He leaned back and managed to produce a perfect smoke ring. With pleasure he noted:
̶ This is great. Every day I pamper myself with a moment like this, an instant of peace and quiet.
̶ Even when the Count is around?
̶ Why not? It's only the Count who ventures into the library.
̶ Are you relaxing in here together with him?
The question seemed to make Öman utterly surprised:
̶ That cannot be! Absolutely not. When the Count is in here I cannot sit around smoking his cigars. Imagine that! No, no, it's when he's not in the hooks I can relax in here.
̶ But if he should surprise you?
̶ He never does. I hear him when he´s on his way. He has walking sticks.
̶ And the lingering smoke?
̶ Oh, he does not notice that at all. He smokes so much himself.
Our guided tour led us down to the lower floor where the guest rooms were located. I was astonished to find how tastelessly decorated they were. Vulgar bed covers and curtains; gaudy but faded. In particular, I remember a curtain patterned with characters from Disney's Bambi.
̶ Does the Count and Countess entertain a lot?
̶ That depends. Generally, it is rather empty on the premises, though occasionally the place is filled up. Especially during the mouse hunting season, the hunting grounds around here are quite renowned and then we have other occasions like birthdays and such. Then it happens that members of the Royal Court show up. Yeah, both the King and Queen have been here. Especially the King, he likes the hunting and enjoys the relaxed atmosphere when the youngsters are around.
After the tour, Claes's grandmother invited us to pasta and wine in the kitchen and now Gren turned up. He was also dressed in livery, though it was better kept than Öman´s outfit and Gren was also significantly younger. He had a slight hunch and a somewhat bent posture, but like Öman, Gren had a humorous glint in the corner of his eyes. Claes and I asked how it was when the castle was full of guests and during the huge dinner parties. Claes's grandmother replied:
̶ Then it can be quite lively, to say the least. This in spite of the fact that several members of the nobility are quite aged. You can certainly not maintain that most of them spurn alcohol, the events can be rather rowdy. Recently, we had to strengthen the regular staff with personnel from the Grand Hotel in town. It actually happens rather often. In general, it's only I who is doing all the cooking alone, though occasionally with some help from Sara, who is in charge of most of the cleaning and daily maintenance of the castle, but she's not around at the moment. Yes, yes, you saw the state it was in, she concluded, throwing an accusing glance at Öman and Gren, who pretended not noticing it.
̶ That fat biddy from Statt is droll, declared Gren as he filled up his and Öman's glasses. Screaming and cursing all the time, pissed as a newt. I cannot understand how she can keep her head moderately clear and keep moving around while being in a state like that.
̶ If it had been only that, Claes´s grandmother noted. Last time she was around she slipped on the floor and took quite a fall. Just like that. No damage done, she has more than enough of fat to dampen a violent tumble like that. "Whops, I slipped!" she bellowed, while one of the waiters had to help her up on her feet again. Worse was the cooking. They had forgotten to cook the potatoes, but she did not make any fuss about that: "Skip that! Give them apples. They won´t notice anything. They just eat the meat and sauce anyway. And what´s wrong with apples?” For dessert we were supposed to serve chocolate mousse with raspberries, but the old hag thought it would too difficult and we had not enough eggs, so she sent Gren and Öman to the village to buy ice cream and bananas instead.
̶ It was a matter of some urgency and we almost ran into a ditch. Ice cream, by the way. What we came up with not worthy of that name. It was some of that soy-based hogwash they have nowadays and the bananas were all green, inedible all of them. Nevertheless, it was far too late for subtleties and that hotel crone just shouted: "Shovel it all in! They have already drunk so much that they won´t see and taste any difference from the mousse."
Claes's grandmother shrugged her shoulders:
̶ Yes, I don´t understand how we could manage. That was some lucky lady that old hag. I´m sure they´ll hire her again. The Countess was quite pleased with it all.
̶ You see, the Countess is far from being any gourmet. She´s not eating much, but that does not mean that she is particular fussy about food. She doesn´t know much about it, or doesn´t really care. She eats like a sparrow.
̶ But they always insist on having a three-course dinner, and never the same, stated Claes´s grandmother.
̶ They change for every meal, Öman said, adding:
̶ Everything has to be neat and tidy, with silver and crystal, all of it. “According to custom,” insists the Count. Tradition and manners are important, you see. During meals I´m placed behind the Count; serving and clearing away. Gren is behind the Countess, doing the same. The Count always enjoys the food and eats with good appetite, though I have never seen the Countess finishing an entire portion. She picks around the food and takes a morsel or two, though she drinks quite a lot of port with the dessert. And do you know what they always have standing in the middle of the table?
While the butlers and Claes´s grandmother watched us curiously, we tried to figure out what it could be, but we had to give up wondering:
̶ What do they have there?
̶ An old transistor radio at full volume! Öman concluded while emptying his glass.
̶ What are they playing? wondered Claes.
̶ Nothing special. They don´t mind. They listen to anything.
̶ But, why do they then have it turned on, I mean … if they don´t listen to it and why do they have the radio placed in the middle of the table?
Gren gave us a twisted smile:
̶ Boys, think twice about it ... what do two so old persons have to say to each other after all those years?
More than anything else from that absurd evening, Gren´s words have stayed with me. For me they have become the very picture of tragic old age and lack of communication. An aged couple, lost in bygone times, while the present is passing them by. Alone in a big castle. Strangers to one another and their surroundings. Not noticing the puddles made by a dog they hardly care about. Blissfully unconcerned about dust and broken pots, while their servants do not put too much effort into securing the well-being of their employers. And then this extraordinary scenery in which these two old-fashioned representatives of age-old privileges are sitting on opposite ends of a huge table, dressed-up for dinner, quietly chewing their food, while their servants are standing behind their chairs and a transistor radio blares its muzak through empty salons and chambers.
Of course, I cannot guarantee that my story is flawless in all its details. Maybe has the time that elapsed since my castle visit added some, and taken away other memories. Like Öman when he pieced together the broken alabaster vase I have been forced to join parts and pieces of various memory snippets into a device I assume equals the original. Not perfect, but anyway in such a shape that it can endure a quick glance, though not any closer inspection.
The alabaster vase stood there in a corner, illuminated from the inside after Öman had pressed the switch. However, the Count and Countess did not notice that the vase had been broken and even Öman ceased to think about it, just as my anecdote soon will be forgotten and it was all for nothing I patched it together with the remains of neglected memories that I found among my brain's dead neurons.
Like the ending of H.C. Andersen's story about the Christmas tree, which forgotten and despised was dragged down from an attic to be burned as fuel for heating a laundry boiler. In the yard the children sat around the fire. "Piff, paff!" they cried as the fir-tree sighed and thought:
̶ All over! If only I had been happy while I could! All over!
Under the large boiler, the fire blazed violently, crackling it threw cascades of glowing sparks and cinder high up in the air. The dry torches growled in the stifling heat. Piff! Paff! shouted the delighted children
… but at every pop (which was a deep groan) the tree thought of a summer´s day in the wood, or of a winter´s night out there when the stars were shining; it thought of Christmas Eve and of Humpty-Dumpty, the only fairy tale it had ever heard and was able to tell … And by this time the tree as burnt right up.
Like most of Andersen´s tales The Fir-Tree is deeply tragic and ends with a coda in a minor key:
The boys were playing in the yard, and the smallest of them had on his chest the gold star which had crowned the tree on its happiest evening. That was all over now, and it was all over with the tree, an so it is with the story. That´s what happens at last to every story ̶ all over, all over!
Andersen, Hans Christian (2014) Fairy Tales. Copenhagen: Gyldendal. Brorson, Hans Adolph (2015) “I Walk in Danger All the Way. Psalm 45 in the Danish Psalm Book, translated by Ditlef G. Ristad,” in Lutheran Service Book. St. Louis MO: Concordia Publishing House. Söderberg, Hjalmar (2002) Doctor Glas. New York: Anchor Books.