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On Frivolity

Some may surmise that these pages have arisen as a consequence of a society that encourages relativism, as well as its distant, more provincial cousin, frivolity.  While I will not gainsay such allegations, frivolity is a staple of childhood and adolescence, a condition that we only acknowledge more clearly as the years pass and our values – one would hope – gel into a structure that promotes a universally applicable moral law.  A philosopher, especially one of the last hundred years or so, would not hesitate to ask whether frivolity and morality are in any way mutually exclusive; well, they are in most ways; but it would be difficult to argue that the idle pastimes of the young and very restless are necessarily immoral.   An economist of any time period (they really do begin to resemble one another upon close inspection) might calmly explain that with the exception of professional athletes – a very small percentage of our population – people tend to get better at their jobs as they get older.  That is why in places like Denmark so many citizens start university in their mid- to late twenties, having spent five to ten years traveling, partying, and loving.  There are, of course, extenuating circumstances (family illness or invalidism, for example) that would hamper such escapades; but for the most part, this can be accomplished with a bit of imagination, luck, and intestinal fortitude.  Mostly, as it were, to combat the solitude that frivolity inevitably begets.  And a poet of some caliber would write an ode to frivolity, because frivolity and odes, and the writing of frivolous odes, are almost intrinsically linked.  Wine, women, and song was a phrase I heard uttered many a time as a child, and it seemed rather ridiculous that someone could devote his life and work to the momentary lapses of hedonism.  But if the poet himself cannot truly write what he feels in his heart and his loin, he may be relegated to eternal frivolity and then to regret.  This is, we come to understand, a particular form of damnation.

And yet there are advantages.  Frivolity becomes desirable in the wake of a relationship of some importance, ostensibly because we want to rid ourselves of emotional responsibility for one night or a bit longer.  The irony of course is that such interludes only underscore the importance of what we have just left.  From a male perspective, one has less of a tendency to break down in middle age (also known as prime daddy and breadwinner age), acquire a red convertible sports car and a barely legal convertible girlfriend, and race off into the sunset or whenever the car and the girl lose some of their luster.  That this maudlin occurrence keeps, well, occurring allegedly tells us how important it is to exploit the variegation and vicissitudes of youth.  Many very happy people may boast of teenage titillation that has grown into lifelong partnership, and I have always admired such souls.  I have admired them because life would be much simpler and safer that way.  Most of us, however, require practice, perhaps because we are less sure of what we want, or perhaps because we have always envisioned exactly what we want.  So when, in the quiet stability of our middle years, temptation rears its very pretty head, we may stroll down a crooked, frisky path in the bottom of our soul and take solace in the fact that the adventure portion of our program has been completed.  And this is why we are encouraged to indulge our frivolity when we are younger: we have to build a set of memories, people, places, feelings, and thoughts that will serve us later when we look back at our accomplishments and failures, and act as a guide for further action.  The only question is at what point we should start looking back.  We want to know that what we have done, experienced, and lost, has taught us well enough to enrich our futures with expectations, hints, shades, colors – everything that makes us smirk at those young fools who know nothing of life.  We know, and we're right.

Strange is it, then, that we counteract this overwhelming desire to be right – which we only get to be once we're adults – with the encouragement of frivolity in our children.  You will hear it in the well-worn phrase, “a child needs time to goof off and be a kid.”  Few truer things have ever been said.  But why is this true?  Perhaps when we are wee chicks scurrying about the henhouse, sometimes after other chicks, the frailty of our bonds seems temporal and dull.  When I reflect upon all the time wasted in the pursuance of things that neither help me now nor had any edifying or interesting qualities whatsoever (listening to popular music being one of the more egregious sins), I shudder at so much of life fretted away.  I remember time plodding along as a child because my memories – however deep, however yearning for significance – were hopelessly superficial replicas of the memories of others, of what we are taught as children to think and believe.  We all learn that childhood and adolescence are garish tributes to frivolity; that adults might indulge us our observations, even occasionally chuckling at their unintended appropriateness, but that we really know nothing about this world; that we may yearn to be adults and then spend our adult lives reminiscing about the freedom from responsibility that so characterized our younger years; and most of all, we learn that to fit in with everyone else our age, we must embrace this frivolity.  We are then ranked by our peers as to how quickly we have assimilated this mediocre manner of existence where the only thing mocked more than excellence is ineptitude (high schools have much in common with governmental bureaucracies).  Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more infuriating than watching a bunch of teenagers react in perfectly predictable fashion to some lewd provocation.  It is the end of all thoughts, the moment when we become base robots for the most mindless (and often cruelest) goading, all in the name of claiming to understand what we are supposed to do and how we are supposed to think.  Which, if so many adults wander through life without a clue about, neither a child nor a teenager will be able to grasp.  We know this now, and children have an eerie premonition about it as well.  They know they are not adults; they know that they really don’t know a lot; and yet they persist because otherwise they might admit defeat and make their actions before the age of twenty-two or twenty-three completely and utterly valueless.  But later it is precisely these early years that we cherish for their innocence, for their discovery, for their simplicity.  And once again we find ourselves staring at a mirror and seeing regret.

But life is about memory not regret.  We may choose to remember or obliterate certain things, yet others envelop us without our consent; things we learn and things we experience from life outside of efforts to improve ourselves intellectually.  In time we are left with two testaments, legacies that require formal terminology, so let us call one intellectual pension and the other, its opposite and ally, mnemonic pension.  Intellectual pension is what we learn over a lifetime, what people truly bound to the accumulation of systematic knowledge are to take with them into the grave and perhaps into a beyond.  Obviously, intellectual pension is optional but highly recommended: we don't really need to read, to learn, to improve ourselves, although history tells us we should do everything possible in that regard.  Mnemonic pension is what we all feel at one point or another, our nostalgia for youth or for what we have experienced regardless of age.  It is the river that we cannot enter twice; it is the storage of moments – sweet and bittersweet – we have when we have come to the realization that we are no longer twenty-one or twenty-two, or even twenty–five, and that a distinct part of life is gone forever.  At what point exactly this understanding sets in, and whether it is necessarily joined by acceptance, varies from soul to soul.   But mnemonic pension is stacked full of frivolity: in fact, most of our memories mean nothing to anyone except us and almost all of them have little valence for the course of human events.  These are flashes of smiles; moments of hurt or joy; for someone like me, words used in particular circumstances that will always be associated with one person or one event; sounds, smells, the softness of fabrics, glimpses at something out of the corner of our eye.  And there will be regrets, because anyone who has decided not to take a risk will have pangs of remorse while gazing upon a purple sunset.  O those frivolous days lost to our calendars of order and assignment!  There might have been something to them after all.

Reader Comments (2)

Beautiful and deep. Demands rereading. Speaking of demands, I demand more essays in this mode.

August 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMelancholy Korean

Thank you as always, Steven, I'll see what I can do.

August 14, 2008 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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