Alberto Manguel on the Fountain of Youth

Alberto Manguel on the Fountain of Youth1.jpg

Manguel considers the pleasures and burdens of living an endless life @ Three Penny Review.

Ten or twelve years ago, when I was visiting Berlin, Stan Persky took me to see Cranach the Elder’s painting of the Fountain of Youth at the Gemäldegalerie. It is a medium-sized canvas that depicts, in excruciating detail, a rectangular swimming pool seen in perspective full of happily cavorting men and women. Old people are arriving from the left in carts and wheelbarrows; youths emerge naked from the other side where a series of red tents await them, like those bathing-machines of which Lewis Carroll’s Snark was so inordinately fond.

The Cranach painting led Stan and me into a discussion on whether we would like to extend the time of our lives, if such a thing were possible. I said that the foreseeable end did not frighten or worry me; on the contrary, I liked the idea of living with a conclusion in mind, and compared an immortal life to an endless book which, however charming, would end up seeming tiresome. Stan, however, argued that living on, perhaps forever (provided he were free of sickness and infirmities), would be an excellent thing. Life, he said, was so enjoyable that he never wanted it to end.
When we had that conversation, I was not yet fifty; this year, I turned sixty-three, and I am more convinced than ever that an endless life is not worth living. Not that I think I have many decades to go. Of course, it is difficult to be certain without holding the entire volume in my hands, but I’m fairly sure that I’m on one of the last chapters. So much has occurred, so many characters have come and gone, so many places have been visited, that I don’t suppose the story can continue for many more pages without petering out into an incoherent and incontinent babble.
“The days of our years,” the Psalmist tells us, “are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” I am now less than a decade away from that figure, which until recently seemed to me as remote as the last digit of pi and as inconceivable as a transfinite number. I realize that, in what I must now call my old age, my body is constantly shuffling its weight upon my conscious mind, as if jealous of the attention I give my thoughts, as if trying to edge them out with brute force. Up to a short time ago, I had imagined that my body was supposed to rule only over my youth, and that, with maturity, my mind would take its privileged place. And because of the hold I believed each one, body and mind, had upon a distinct half of my life, I imagined that they would reign unobtrusively and fairly, one in quiet succession after the other.
Image: Christoph Pluemacher F-Stop Magazine