[Written in the middle of the night, while suffering jet lag–most of you will want to skip this one.]
I taught at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast during the first 4 months of 1991. Because my CIS conference was close by, I decided to take a bus back down to “Burleigh Heads” where I lived. Even though I was by myself in 1991, I rented a 2 bedroom 2 full bath apartment on the 6th floor, overlooking the Pacific. Because Australia was in recession (its most recent one!) the AUS$ was only 65 cents and rent was dirt cheap. I used to put on my swimming trunks after waking up, take the elevator down, jog along the beach, and then stop in at a health food cafe for a fruit drink. No shoes, no shirt . . . service!
In retrospect the first half of 1991 was probably “peak freedom” for my life. The 1980s had produced some highs and lows, but by the end of the decade I was getting tired of the drama of “relationships.” I was also increasingly obsessed with research, especially in the late 1980s. My father died in November 1990, and on New Year’s Eve I left for Australia, stopping on the way for a week in Tahiti and a week in New Zealand. Age 35.
I am a very visually-oriented person, so my memories tend to be of images. The first night sitting on my deck watching a wild lightening display over the Pacific, as the Gulf War commenced and bombs rained down on Baghdad. Or the oddly two dimensional-looking pine trees that lined the esplanade. Sometimes tropical birds would fly into my apartment and stroll around on the carpet. Even my memories of literature are visual. I read Moby Dick on the apartment deck, and all I now recall is Melville’s evocative descriptions of the ocean.
When I returned last week I had a bit of trouble orienting myself. The pine trees were much larger and the apartment building was all remodeled. But the biggest difference was less tangible. It’s hard for me to put into words, so I’ll use a passage from a Norwegian novel I was reading on the airplane:
You could still buy Slazenger tennis rackets, Tretorn balls, and Rossignol skis, Tyrolia bindings and Koflach boots. The houses where we lived were still standing, all of them. The sole difference, which is the difference between a child’s reality and an adult’s, was that they were no longer laden with meaning. A pair of Le Coq soccer boots was just a pair of soccer boots. If I felt anything when I held a pair in my hands now it was only a hangover from my childhood, nothing else, nothing in itself. The same with the sea, the same with the rocks, the same with the taste of salt that could fill your summer days to saturation, now it was just salt, end of story. The world was the same, yet it wasn’t, for its meaning had been displaced, and was still being displaced, approaching closer and closer to meaninglessness.
Seeing the same place after 22 1/2 years made me painfully aware that the person who lived there in 1991 no longer exists. And Knausgaard is right, even the ocean had changed. But Burt Lancaster could have told you that.
Knausgaard is talking about childhood, but in my view “meaning” drains out of our lives in two steps. Age 0 to 6 is the years of magic, 7 to 35 is the years of meaning, and 36 to the end is the years of nostalgia. For little children, places seem enchanted and parents are like gods. Even as young adults we are still visiting new places, and life seems a bit of an adventure. Other people are charged with mystery, allure, or danger. I mean other young people of course; the old don’t really exist for young adults. They are just shadows. And then you reach a point where you are just revisiting places. Even places you’ve never been before seem like someplace else you recall. People become just people. You watch your children experience meaning, and remember. Of course you know more, and your increased ability to cope with life takes the edge off growing old. But the meaning gradually slips away. (Peak happiness is supposed to occur at ages 23 and 69.)
Here’s Knausgaard again:
As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning. Understanding the world requires you to take a certain distance from it. Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, such as molecules and atoms, we magnify. Things that are too large, such as cloud formations, river deltas, constellations, we reduce. At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilize it with fixer. When it has been fixed we call it knowledge. Throughout our childhood and teenage years, we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening were are forty, fifty, sixty . . . Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance. Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning.
The semester at Bond was nice, but I still hadn’t quite reached peak freedom. After all, I still had to teach. After the semester I took a sleeper train up to Cairns (near the GB Reef) and then later flew to Darwin. I rented a van and drove 4000 miles to Perth. Each night I slept in the back. When I describe northwest Australia to Americans they sometimes say; “oh, that sounds like Nevada.” No, Nevada is like New Jersey compared to the outback. The region I traversed is probably as big as Western Europe, but had one paved road. And it was one lane in places, so you had to get off the road anytime a 40 meter “road train” approached.
At times I’d turn off the highway to visit a national park. I recall the side road would be like a driveway, with very tall grass on both sides so you couldn’t see where you were. Imagine driving on two ruts for 30 miles, unable to see anything, to a fork in the road. Then a small hand-painted arrow directs you one way or another, for another 20 miles. Lots of colorful tropical birds would circle around my Toyota Previa. At Broome I’d sleep on the beach and nighttime swims in the Indian Ocean produced a bioluminescence effect, like glittering diamonds. South of Broome there were 80 mile long beaches without a soul in sight. At Monkey Mia the dolphins would swim in close to shore and eat right out of your hand.
I met lots of backpackers. Then I continued on the backpacker circuit to Southeast Asia. Even though I was much younger then, I suppose I was already beginning to feel older than the other people I met, who were mostly in their early 20s. I got a late start in life. Then I returned home and a few months later bought my house. The next year I met my future wife, and then 2 years later we got married. Another 5 years we had a daughter, and 10 years after that I started my blog.
I suppose the blog should have provided “meaning” to my life. But it seems like something I just have to do. Meaning comes from visiting the Prado for the first time in 1986. Still, I’m sure I’m happier now with my family (who are much better than I deserve) than during my first 35 years. I was an idiot when I was young, and that’s often very painful.
Nostalgia may not rational, but it sure produces a lot of great literature. Right before the trip I read a Proustian novel by Orhan Pamuk called “The Museum of Innocence.” I’d recommend Pamuk’s book, but the real purpose of this post is not to present my pathetic life, but rather to get you to crawl over broken glass if necessary to read Knausgaard (and I haven’t even finished the book.)
I’ll leave you with one final quotation:
The only thing I have learned from life is to endure it, never to question it, and burn up the longing generated by this in writing. Where this ideal has come from I have no idea, and as I now see it before me, in black and white, it almost seems perverse: why duty before happiness? The question of happiness is banal, but the question that follows is not, the question of meaning. When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfill a whole life. Not mine at any rate.
PS. Just to be be clear, when I say “meaning” I mean something like “transcendence” not “meaningful relationship.”
PPS. You’ll notice I didn’t mention any of my life before the 1980s, as it is too painful to contemplate. I’ll just provide a list of my obsessions:
Age 14- 16: Bicycling
Age 17 – 20: Rock music
Age 21 – 30: Literature
Age 26 – 27: Bill James
Age 31 – 35: European art and architecture
Age 36 – 48: Foreign films
Age 49 – 58: Japanese prints
Of course there’s overlap, as one sees films and reads all through life. But there’s a sense in which one obsession or another dominates, especially when young. On the other hand I’d guess that Tyler Cowen is capable of being fully, 100%, obsessed with at least three areas at the same time.
I lived in the building at the lower right:
Last night my daughter and I both “watched” The Birds. Actually she experienced the film, while I analyzed it. And speaking of pretty birds, commenter Rajat took this picture while we had lunch at Sydney’s art museum: