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This Old life
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[We are honored to publish this text, which represents the opening pages of the first—and unfinished—chapter for the second volume of the memoir, As If: An Autobiography, that our dear friend Herbert Blau, PAJ author and contributing editor, wrote before his death, on May 3, 2013. — Eds.]

As we might in a rehearsal, let’s begin where we left off: “Do you smell a fault?” If not in the stars, or “the sacred radiance of the sun,” it may be in the “liability of too much life,” what’s past, and passing, and whether more or less, whatever’s yet to come. Some months ago, in the last meeting of a seminar, with the oxymoronic title, “Traditions of the Avant-Garde,” I announced that after nearly sixty-four years of teaching I had decided to retire. And as I sit here now confronting the rest of this life, and what I might write about it—how long? how much? the dire prospect that keeps us guessing—my wife reminds me that we must see a lawyer to revise our wills. My will, of course, was nothing like the aged King’s when, more than half a century ago, I was staging Shakespeare’s play, nor was there anything, then or now, like that kingdom to divide, unless it be life itself. But as we return to where we left him, with the “dark energies” there, it’s as if—by some conjunctive link to that sovereign power—we share the “fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age. …” And then, of course, there’s that other, periodic meaning of age, that ancient time, this imperiled now, in which the faults abound—“World, world, O world!”—with some transhistorical, inexpungeable madness.

Yet if the imperious Lear was under the illusion that he might “Unburdened crawl toward death,” the easing into retirement feels like a burden, and whatever my own illusions, I feel restive already. With the nuisance of dry mouth, but no apnea for a while, I’m sleeping better, and maybe a little longer, but up in the morning I still read the New York Times, where at the virulent moment, after the Arab Spring, the streets are streaming with blood and outrage, in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, even Indonesia, over a movie made by a pseudonymous Coptic Christian, portraying the Prophet Mohammed as a sex-crazed, pedophilic buffoon. On the anniversary of 9/11, an American ambassador is killed by jihadists, as anti-Americanism circulates around the globe. Here at home—trying to ignore the commentariat on the Interpol of polling, as the election debates move through a sitcom stalemate—I’m back at my desk, writing, distracted by emails, then look around at all the unread journals that over the busy years have been accumulating in our living room. I pick up an issue of Critical Inquiry, and for obvious reasons now, the years, the years, the titles of two linked essays catch my attention: “The Meaning of Life” and “What Was Life?” Since Plato, and even before, the meaning has been philosophized, but in the age of genomes, bits and bytes, biomatter and digitality, life itself is being seen as something other than what it was, if it was ever “the thing itself”—to use Lear’s venomous words about “unaccommodated man,” who on “this great stage of fools” endures the deceit of living something other than a life.

With dark matter in the cosmos having left the Enlightenment far behind, we hear from scientists, anthropologists, and inevitably philosophers too, about the transformation of life, if not its dissolution, with meaning upended by the reproducing of reproduction: biotransfer, bioprospecting, and with cloning and biosecurity, a molecularized biopolitics. “Crack Nature’s moulds, all germains spill at once,” cried the dispossessed Lear on the heath, that old life in amorphous time. Or as reality is taken over by the age of simulacra, what was life is now virtual, myriad by mediation—or with bioinformatics, remediation. Yet somehow, in the new dominion of “liveness,” on my hobbling legs, with a cane, the one certitude remains, no mere data, this body, “it smells of mortality...

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