The first link is to Frank Bruni's article in today's NY Times about the food critic Craig Claiborne. Bruni calls him "the father of contemporary restaurant criticism." The title of a recent biography on him is, "The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat." Either would make a fine tombstone inscription, I say.
And yet Claiborne was also, to put it in Larkinian bluntness, fucking miserable. "[F]earful, irritable, lonely and depressed," is how Bruni puts it. "...for the 'personal poem' Claiborne produced as an anniversary present to one longtime lover, he paid $240 to Limerick Lane Poetryworks, which promised verse to call your own in return for the right background information. This was in 1992, the same year that the James Beard Foundation gave him a lifetime achievement award. He skipped the ceremony."
To me, an acclaimed writer paying someone else $240 for a five-line joke is sadder than skipping a prestigious lifetime achievement award. Bruni concludes: "His tale is a sad reminder: happiness has less to do with achievement than with perspective. And sometimes the person inside a life, storied or otherwise, is least able to savor it."
The second link is to Michiko Kakutani's review of Philip "They Fuck You Up" Larkin's collected poems, also in today's Times. If you have not read Larkin, be advised that he is widely considered a Big Deal in mid-twentieth century English poetry. Many critics argue that he was The Biggest of Deals. If you have ever read Larkin or even two paragraphs about him, you already know he was quite the drag--though admittedly a pretty funny and thoughtful drag. (This be the blurb: "Thoughtful!" -Dennis O'Toole.) There is nothing terribly illuminating about the review, decent as it is. If you are a go-getting do-shit machine and only have time to read one of the links at the kick-off above, read Bruni's. Even still, both articles are "sad reminders" of the chasm that sometimes exists between achievement and happiness.
After reading them this morning, I thought of my own ambitions and concluded that rather than chasing mighty achievements I'd prefer to find happiness in something more mundane and common. Like, say, friendship. I then recalled these oft-quoted lines of W.B. Yeats:
Think where man's glory most begins and ends
And say my glory was that I had such friends.
However, I caught myself: that quote is not actually the modest appreciation of simple friendship that years of greeting cards and decorative pillows would have us believe. Yeats is name-dropping. In context, ("The Municipal Gallery Revisited"), he is saying, "I'm in a prestigious museum right now where portraits of my famous friends are hanging on the wall. BOOYAH."
Now, that's not a fair summary. "Booyah" was only in the first draft. And though he does drop a few ten-dollar names, he does it in the most, shall we say, thoughtful manner possible:
Heart smitten with emotion I sink down,
My heart recovering with covered eyes;
Wherever I had looked I had looked upon
My permanent or impermanent images:
Augusta Gregory's son; her sister's son,
Hugh Lane, 'onlie begetter' of all these;
Hazel Lavery living and dying, that tale
As though some ballad singer had sung it all...
It's 1937. Yeats is 72 years old, and his "mediaeval knees lack health until they bend." He sees his pals, many long dead, and then--spontaneously overwhelmed with powerful emotion--looks for a bench to collect himself. My heart recovering with covered eyes... If he's name-dropping, then he's doing it with soul.
Still, this is a level of glory most of us will never approach. Our friends have not likely had their portraits painted by the finest artists of our nation. Children will not be sent on field-trips to museums to see our friends hanging in gilded frames throughout the galleries. Docents and tour guides will not recite the lists of our friends' achievement's for decades and centuries hence. (The painting of Synge above is by Yeats's actual dad, and perhaps the very painting mentioned in the final stanza that prompts the famous "such friends" couplet.)
But, despite their gross deficiencies in power and achievement, I like my friends all the same. And I bet that, unless you are some cartoonish social climber with your own reality show, you like your non-famous and mildly-accomplished friends just fine.
So then, can we feel the same way about, and find glory in, our equally modest and unremarkable achievements? The lesson of Craig Claiborne and Philip Larkin evokes another oft-quoted line of poetry, though not one that has ever been stitched onto a pillow: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair."
Poor Ozymandius, King of Kings. A few millennia pass, his monuments crumble, and suddenly the guy can't get a table at Le Bernadin to save his immortal life. But look on his works, ye humble, and buck up! Turns out they didn't really matter so much. I met a traveller from an antique land who said ol' Ozy had a bunch of buddies, and that they were each super nice and extremely funny. He had each of them killed and entombed with him so they could all hang out in the afterlife.
Yep. That's exactly how I intend to go out.