“In my early twenties, I kept a box of green index cards, onto which I copied epigrams, witticisms, scraps of dialogue, and pieces of wisdom worth preserving. Some of them strike me now as the meretricious generalizations that youth endorses (but then they would); though they do include this, from a French source: ‘The advice of the old is like the winter sun: it sheds light but it does not warm us.’ Given that I have reached my advice-giving years, I think this may be profoundly true. And there were also two pieces of wisdom from Somerset Maugham that echoed with me for years, possibly because I kept arguing with them. The first was the claim that ‘Beauty is a bore.’ The second, from chapter 77 of The Summing Up (a green index card informs me), ran: ‘The great tragedy of life is not that men perish, but that they cease to love.’ I cannot remember my response to this at the time, though I suspect it might have been: Speak for yourself, old man…
A friend who occasionally seeks my ear nicknames me ‘The Advice Center’—a tag which, even allowing for irony, gives me absurd pleasure… But I was too quick to judgement on Somerset Maugham. ‘The great tragedy of life is not that men perish, but that they cease to love.’ Mine was a young man’s objection: yes, I love this person, and believe it will last, but even if it doesn’t there will be someone else for me, and for her. We shall both love again, and perhaps, schooled by unhappiness, do better next time. But Maugham was not denying this; he was looking beyond it…
I have always mistrusted the idea that old age brings serenity, suspecting that many of the old were just as emotionally tormented as the young, yet socially forbidden to acknowledge it. But what if I was wrong—doubly so—and this required appearance of serenity masked not a roil of feelings but its opposite: indifference? At sixty, I look around at my many friendships, and can recognize that some of them are not so much friendships any more as memories of friendships. (There is still pleasure in memory, but even so.) New friendships come, of course, but not so many as to deflect the fear that some terrible cooling-off—the emotional equivalent of planet death—might lie in wait.”
From chapters 24 and 50 of Julian Barnes’s illuminating book Nothing to Be Frightened Of.
This site is my box of green index cards, although I hope that these posts will be revealed, in future years, to be more than merely meretricious.
Something else from Maugham:
Some more from Nothing: