Thursday, September 6, 2012

Later Never Comes

Die Verehrung vom Unerrichbarren—The Adoration of the Unattainable (inspired by Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Der Tod in Venedig) – Vintage wooden frame with antiqued silver leaf embellishment; beach sand; colour print of Venetian Gothic arches; colour print of antique gilt Catholic monstrance; colour print of Venetian canal panorama; hand-tinted print of an antique carte de visite of a youth in a sailor suit

The advent of autumn is here—the closing of the seasons. Now starts that annual roller coaster ride, the beginning of school, the celebration of Halloween, of Thanksgiving, and the holidays, and then—slam—we’re into a whole new year.

Where does time go?

Good question, but we humans are masters at frittering away time; we’re just killing time, isn’t that the phrase—as if we have unlimited time to waste.

Time is a tricky thing.

Remember when you were a kid and time just seemed to crawl? The school day dragged, it was a haul to your next birthday, an eternity to summer vacation, forever until Christmas. The older you get, though, the faster time goes, moves forward—everything would be better, everything could be achieved if you only had the time.

We convince ourselves that life will be better after we’ve cleared a few hurdles, when we graduate, when we get married or after we have a baby, have a better income, or after we retire. So we pair off or marry and discover relationships are far more complex than we expected. We tell ourselves we’ll be happy when we“find” ourselves or when our spouse gets their act together, only to discover that we, he or she never quite does. Kids come and along with them the challenges of parenting. The perfect career eludes us. Retirement finally arrives only to find us in bad health, financial strain, or bored into depression.

What’s that old question?

If not now, when?

So stop waiting until you finish school, you go back to school, you sign up for the gym, you lose ten pounds, you gain ten pounds, until you have kids, until your kids leave the house, you start a career, you retire, until you get married, until you get divorced, until Friday night, until Sunday morning, until the first or the fifteenth, until you get a new car or home, until your new car or home is paid off, or until you get a better car, a better job, until your ship comes in, until spring, until summer, until fall, until winter, until death, to decide that there is no better time than right now to be happy.

And here comes the Hallmark card cliché—Happiness is a journey, not a destination; a collection of choices, not a set of circumstances.

The ancient Greeks measured time in two ways—chronos and kairos.

The difference?

To quote author Sarah Ban Breathnach: “Chronos is clocks, deadlines, watches, calendars, agendas, planners, schedules, beepers. Chronos is time at her worst. Chronos keeps track. ...Chronos is the world’s time. Kairos is transcendence, infinity, reverence, joy, passion, love, the Sacred. Kairos is time at her best. ...Kairos is Spirit’s time. We exist in chronos. We long for kairos. That’s our duality. Chronos requires speed so that it won’t be wasted. Kairos requires space so that it might be savored. We do in chronos. In kairos we’re allowed to be ... All that kairos asks is our willingness to stop running long enough to hear the music of the spheres.”

It’s like losing yourself in a good book or piece of music or favorite film, or the time spent dreaming while gazing into a fire, or throwing a Frisbee around the backyard with friends on a firefly-filled summer’s night.

It’s taking time to smell those roses.

A moment to remember.

A moment in which your life changed.

Such a moment happened to Thomas Mann, renowned author of The Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, while he, his wife, and his brother toured Venice in the summer of 1911. The trio checked into adjoining rooms at the elegant Grand Hôtel des Bains on the beaches of the Lido. On their very first evening there, in between grumbling about his stomach-, head- and toothaches and waiting for the dinner gong to ring, Mann spied an aristocratic Polish family—a mother, her three daughters, and her young son. It was the young son, a sailor-suited, angelic ephebe with blond curls and blue eyes, who captivated, who enthralled, who cast a spell over the grim German writer.

That chance encounter inspired what is considered one of Mann’s masterpieces, one of the greatest literary masterpieces in the world, the novella, Death in Venice.

The deceptively straightforward plotline concerns Gustav von Aschenbach, a renowned, aging author, who, suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, decides to tour Venice, taking a suite at the elegant Grand Hôtel des Bains on the beaches of the Lido. On his very first evening there, Aschenbach spies an aristocratic Polish family—a mother, her three daughters, and her young son. It is the young son, a sailor-suited, angelic ephebe with blond curls and blue eyes, who captivates, who enthralls, who casts a spell over the grim German writer.

But unlike Mann in real life, the spell cast has fatal consequences for his fictional counterpart.

Fascinated, Aschenbach trails the boy, he watches him relentlessly, hoping for even the slightest crumb of attention. That crumb comes one evening, when the boy tosses a charming, insouciant smile in the writer’s direction. Struck to his very core, Aschenbach flees to an empty garden to profess in a whisper to the open air, “I love you.”

Fascination becomes obsession, but never a word of desire does Aschenbach declare to the boy. Moment after moment is lost, and in his romantic delirium, Aschenbach fails to notice the manifestations of death lurking everywhere—from the pathetic farcical old queen he stumbles upon who with black wig, false teeth, pasty make-up, and dandyish attire tries to recapture his faded glory days and display his virility to a group of jeering youths to the cadaverous gondolier who repeatedly intones, both carnally and ominously, “I can row you well” while ferrying Aschenbach Charon-like, within the confines of a long black coffin of a boat, through the Venetian canals. Aschenbach’s mal d’amour also strikes him blind to the seriousness of a cholera epidemic afflicting the city.

Rapt in his self-delusions, ignoring the fact that he is feeling more and more unwell, Aschenbach calls on the hotel’s barbershop, there to have his hair dyed black and his face painted, his cheeks rouged, until he resembles nothing less ridiculous than the pitiable letch he’d seen trying to catch the eye of any attractive young man days earlier.

Aschenbach’s dream is finally shattered when he learns that the Polish family is due to depart. Despondent, he makes his way to his favorite beach chair, his make-up, his hair dye running in the heat of the sun. The boy is there, standing alone in the sea, gazing out to the horizon. Then the boy turns toward his admirer. For Aschenbach, this is the invitation he’s been seeking, and believing that the boy is beckoning him, he attempts to rise, to follow, only to collapse back into his chair.

Gustav von Aschenbach is dead.

Thomas Mann wrote in his diaries:

“As it is, in three days I won’t see the boy anymore, will forget his face. But not the experience of my heart. He will join that gallery about which no literary history will speak.”

But Mann was mistaken—the boy did take his place in literary history, as did Mann’s alter-ego. Not only literary history but cinema history as well when in 1971, Death in Venice was filmed by director Luchino Visconti, starring Dirk Bogarde as Aschenbach, with the ethereally handsome, fifteen-year-old Swede, Björn Andrésen, as the object of his infatuation.

Since then noted British composer, Benjamin Britten turned the story into an opera and choreographer John Neumeier transformed it into a ballet. It also serves as the basis for the 1997 film, Love and Death on Long Island, in which a timeworn novelist, played by John Hurt, fixates on a young teen movie heartthrob, played by Jason Priestley. The film was based on a novella of the same name by Scottish writer and critic, Gilbert Adair. Clearly enamored of Mann’s original, Adair also wrote a short story about, as the author himself stated: “a visitor to a museum, one in which a Canaletto retrospective is being held, who furtively stalks an adolescent boy past one Venetian landscape after another.”

Death in Venice also inspired the songs “Grey Gardens” by Rufus Wainwright and “I Just Want to See the Boy Happy” by Morrissey, in addition to the short story “Gannymede” by Daphne Du Maurier. And there’s even the “Death in Venice” cocktail, a strawberry vodka martini, available at the Grand Hôtel Excelsior on the Venetian Lido.

All this because of a single moment in time.

Call it what you will—

Fate.

Chance.

Destiny.

Providence.

Or simply dumb luck.

I’d like to end now with a quote from Dr. Seuss—yes, Dr. Seuss:

How did it get so late so soon?
It's night before it's afternoon.
December is here before it's June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?

Just think about that when next you’re killing time instead of making it on a cool September eve…

Happy Autumn to you all.



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