Monday, January 15, 2007

150. Play and Pay

Watching, while they lasted, the quick-jump joys of Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962)--as the two friends (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre) raced through their early adulthood, straight into World War I (on opposite sides) and the arms of the mad Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), where they held tight, released, and held again, squeezing until all breath was expelled--I was rueful in my assessment, if I may use so dull a phrase. On the one hand I envied their mad rush: They were using their strength while they had it, trying everything once--and finding much of it (some version or another of) good, running like children who whip their heads back and forth as they fly, heedless of destination, the terrain a veering blur, heads aching and mouths open in grins that refuse to become grimaces--but do, and that's the other hand: Senseless to the end, they dash toward their dooms; as Jim notes succinctly--always so, almost abrupt, whether in foolish whim or sudden certainty: "We played with life and lost."

I both yearned for and was appalled by the reckless course they run. I myself lived a much different third decade, having internalized an eminently useful yet--or should I say "and necessarily"?--deflating rule: If I do this or that now, what will "this or that" in turn do to me in ten years? Imagine being twenty and always caretaking some emerging thirty-year-old; one would have little time for one's current self, that unformed charge demanding so much, in silence but firm. Of course, sometimes I ignored my duties; but mostly I stopped, let the others make their pell-mell way, and stood--well, to rescue some pride let's say high on the windy hilltop, like a scout suddenly spotting a suspicious rustle--while less pensive heads rolled on, dizzy with the speed of their descent. So here I am, watching Jules et Jim, safe--thanks to that careful fellow thirty years ago--but again, sometimes rueful that I did not look up from the meticulous cataloguing of Needful Things to jump and be damned.

Then again, it worked. At twenty-four--after jerking around like a badly made tin toy,* mooning over one safely unattainable prize after another--thirteen days after I met my incredibly-soon-to-be wife, I asked her to marry me. We were both stunned, and I was not sure if I had thwarted my plans for the decade-away me--or whether after all I ever had any plans, just a hidden but essential impulse, and tried it out for sure that once--saving all untrammelled joy for one quick leap--and found out that if you take off just right, the ground does not rush up at you, but you almost become the air you're falling through, like Alice down the rabbit-hole, able to pluck from the shelves this and that as you go--and in the end it isn't falling, merely arriving. And so I have been arriving for the past twenty-five years--ahead of schedule, so to speak--and still playing with life, neither winning nor losing, but nonetheless in the game. It's a silly thing, but true: If you're lucky enough to have a roof over your head and meals in front of you and some measure of health, you are free enough to lose only when you quit. Catherine quits, because life will not let her play her particular game any more: She's been at it too long without a decisive move; so, like everything else in Jules et Jim, she loses quickly, with a look, a racing hurtle, and a fall.

Once again I've written myself into--I will not say for certain whether it is the truth or a reconciliation; maybe some of both, but mostly I've cast off my rue without plunging, but still loving Jules' et Jim's et Catherine's first high capering kicks, a part of me always playing, despite the fact that I'm not so much in the game as making it up as I go along, at long last letting the years do as they will, no longer ill at ease over the next move.

*Credit Where Credit Is Due Dept.: I have, ah, appropriated this simile from the final "British" chapter of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, in which Alex, "cured all right," sees his old droog Pete, now married, "very nice, very pleasant, you know. Harmless"; and Alex, "both very very tired and also full of tingly energy," begins to see himself as another "clockwork"--this one, though, has no purpose or direction, but is "like one of these malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and off it itties, like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being like one of these malenky machines." Alex concludes it is necessary: "And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round, like some bolshy gigantic like chelloveck, like old Bog Himself (by courtesy of Korova Milkbar) turning and turning and turning a vonny grahzny orange in his gigantic rookers." Alex's job, you see, is to become a real orange, all clockworks sprung, despite the "terrible grahzny vonny world."

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