Not long ago, I was invited, accompanied by a trio of talented band mates, to give a performance of my original songs, just now released as a CD and digital download. The host organization was a swank retirement residence which resembled a five star hotel catering to a ritzy and fashionable clientele. The impressive and rambling building was situated in the midst of a vast sward of well-tended lawn, bordered by a lily pond and surrounded by hedges and flower beds. The pastoral location put me in mind of the English Renaissance poet Thomas Campion’s lines from a celebrated Masque: “Now hath Flora rob’d her bowers/To befriend this place with flowers.” This place was certainly thus befriended.
One entered on the mezzanine level, looking down on a large, elegantly appointed atrium featuring a comfortable lobby decorated with floral wallpaper, a café, a bar, a piano in the corner, ornate vases brimming with flowers, and a team of diligent attendants carrying trays of snacks, desserts and urns of coffee in preparation for the event. Soon the elderly residents began to file in, installing themselves on couches and armchairs, paying little attention as we began setting up our equipment, tuning our instruments, checking sound levels, and so on. There followed a brief introduction and we launched into our first song with the usual mixture of nervousness and swagger.
The performance itself, at least from our perspective, was a qualified success. I muffed an extro riff midway through, though no one seemed to notice, and at one point an amplifier malfunctioned and wreaked havoc with a harmony interlude, thankfully soon corrected. Otherwise we sailed through our production with a reasonable degree of competence, and I felt that, on the whole, we had done a credible job of entertaining our audience. I was shortly to be disabused. While a few of our auditors were clearly pleased and dutifully complimentary, the majority seemed to exist in some parallel universe with only the thinnest of threads connecting it to the customary world which I had assumed we shared.
To begin with, some of our more tryptophanic listeners had fallen asleep, half-hidden behind the blossoming flowerpots. Many, as I subsequently discovered, were effectively deaf — not tone deaf, but so hard of hearing that we might have manifested to them as a pantomime ensemble gesticulating to no purpose. Others were frankly puzzled. One woman informed me afterward that she and her friends had expected a traditional sing-a-long so that they could, well, sing along. A repertoire of new and original songs was not what they had bestirred themselves for. Others had been so busy chatting before, during and after the concert that they had little idea of what had just taken place. A tottering gentleman regaled us at length with his dimly remembered personal history. Another, a 90-year-old Don Juan, was exclusively interested in one of the female members of our troupe, whom he followed doggedly around the room. And so it went. I felt we could just as well have shouted banalities into the mics or told off-color jokes for all the melodic impact we’d had.
Of course, this was a retirement residence, an “old folks’ home,” and I should have anticipated no different a reaction from the generally uncomprehending response we met with. And lest I be mistaken for harboring a streak of cruel condescension, let me say that, after my initial shock, I realized that such an elderly company deserved nothing but sympathy and understanding. My error was assuming — since we would be performing in a state-of-the-art institution, doubtlessly among the most opulent in the country — that the residents would carry their age rather better than those who had not benefitted from the advantages they enjoyed. I should have known that, with providential exceptions, age is age no matter how pampered, and that sometimes money only whispers.
It was some time later, when I was reflecting on this chastening experience, that I began to sense a weird, partly scalene but apt cultural analogy at work. The retirement residence struck me as a kind of glyph or emblem for the edifice of Western civilization — two millennia or more in the making; favored by innumerable advantages, medical, technological, alimentary; its denizens profiting from increased life spans; its premises massively imposing; and the whole inordinately wealthy compared to its Third World counterparts malingering in their rundown homes.
And yet it cannot hear the music, as it were, neither the music of the past to which it has turned a deaf ear, nor the ominous trumpets and fanfares of approaching armies and impending ruin. Far too many of us have been rendered impervious to the realities of our day — “furloughing reality,” to borrow from Sarah Palin — owing to a faulty education or a naïve trust in a morally compromised and professionally disingenuous media establishment; others prefer to remain unmindful, content with their comforts and diversions while the skies darken overhead; and others still have made common cause with the forces arrayed against them, believing they will be spared a final accounting. Additionally, the “work ethic” has gone by the board, an issue addressed in one of the songs (“By Gananoque Lake”) about the moral value of steadfast hard work and the baneful and widespread influence of the “Occupy” mentality.
Mutatis mutandis, Western civilization is, on this (slightly discrepant) analogy, an upscale senior residence staving off the recognition of its own mortality, oblivious to the warnings, correctives, reports, analyses, studies and insights of its most committed thinkers, our “ancestral voices prophesying war” — although these voices are more contemporary than ancestral, and the war is occurring on many different fronts: physical, cultural, psychological and affective. We appear, on the face of it, to be losing on every one of them.
Admittedly, the correspondence is not perfect (as Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in his Biographia Literaria, “no metaphor runs on all four legs”). The seniors ensconced in their fauteuils, tweaking their hearing aids, chatting distractedly or snoozing away, were all solvent, and many were demonstrably prosperous. The plutocratic atmosphere was undeniable. But the rapidly aging Western world, for all its accumulated affluence, is now going broke, facing crushing debt loads and bleeding cash entitlements, funded and unfunded, which it cannot hope to ever defray or repay. What was once a blooming garden is growing progressively arid, flimsily camouflaged by an artificial inflorescence. Indeed, pace Thomas Campion, the decaying temenos of our culture is no longer befriended by flowers — which, as the verses of one of the songs featured in the residence gig fortuitously spelled out, have been inserted as dried place holders in the pages of an unread book.
As a rule of thumb, we can posit that living on borrowed money is living on borrowed time. If the members and administrations of our civilizational retirement residence do not awaken and cease concerning themselves with trifles, consulting a outworn score, living beyond their means, defaulting even on an acknowledgement of the perilous conditions they have brought on themselves, and pretending they are safe behind their tony premises, insulated walls and floral wallpaper, they will one day find themselves on the outside looking in, wondering where all the flowers have gone.
As for the actual seniors of the residence, may their well-earned slumbers remain undisturbed.