During the autumn of 2020, I somehow found myself as a reluctant ‘poet-in-residence’ at The Secret Garden in Symi where I combined reading some of my compositions with those of more well-known and more able ‘practitioners’. Sadly, a great deal of my early work currently languishes in a self-storage facility in Abergavenny. When it will see the light of day here on this island, given the restrictions imposed by coronavirus pandemic or the vagaries of Brexit, is anyone’s guess. However, one poem that might surface in due course at The Secret Garden is entitled ‘A Love Song of a Dying Epicurean’ written in the early 1970s.
I was reminded of the poem earlier this year (well at least the title!) when I eventually caught up with Daniel Klein’s Travels with Epicurus. First published in 2013, the work is subtitled ‘Meditations from a Greek Island on the Pleasures of Old Age’. Seven years earlier, the author had scored a major literary success with Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar which combined his interest in philosophy (he graduated in the subject at Harvard College) as well as humour (he spend several years in the not-always-so-funny world of television comedy).
While Travels with Epicurus does indeed provide a deft introduction to this famous philosopher, it is essentially a prolonged meditation on the possibility of ageing ‘authentically’. Klein’s cultural references are wide-ranging, but always apposite and thought-provoking. (Less than a handful were unknown to me.)
This volume is neither a reader in philosophy, nor a travelogue in the conventional sense; rather Klein skilfully weaves together the life and preoccupations of Epicurus with not only with his own biography and concerns, but also, correlatively, with those of his Greek friends and neighbours on the island of Hydra. Early on, Klein observes:
“[T]here is no rest for the striver. Just beyond the completion of each goal on our life-achievement “bucket list” looms another goal, and then another. Meanwhile, of course, the clock is ticking—quite loudly, in fact. We become breathless. And we have no time left for a calm and reflective appreciation of our twilight years, no deliciously long afternoons sitting with friends or listening to music or musing about the story of our lives. And we will never get another chance for that.”
Klein is right to put the spotlight on Epicurus, an interesting and influential philosopher who has much to teach us. (I would love to have been a guest in The Garden.) Does the latter have the final word about wisdom? Of course not. There are several issues here. Should the pursuit of aesthetic satisfaction in one’s twilight years, for example, gradually assume primacy over ethical considerations? Do older people need to disengage slowly and quietly from their earlier preoccupations concerning social and political justice? Is achieving serenity simply another item on the bucket list? Should we, in Dylan Thomas’s words, in some instances “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”? Discuss!