On first words, last lines, and final thoughts

It was while lying in bed beneath the flowered sheets that I’d read to her the opening line of Mrs. Dalloway and we’d loved. “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” And it was while lying on the grass beside the northern spring lake that she’d read, less enthusiastically, the opening lines of To the Lighthouse. “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.

I can remember lying on top of the sheets and reading that line to her. On the beach, we opened the book and already had in mind the idea that the next first line must shimmer, must shimmer as radiantly but also in its own way, had all this mind and then found Mrs. Ramsay’s words wanting by comparison. I think we had wanted to love those lines just as much as we’d loved Clarissa’s, but then we couldn’t work ourselves up to the business.

In the years since we parted, I’ve mused about those opening lines: the invitation to a dinner party, the unforeseeable end of childhood. Here are cut flowers, stalks stout, eyes raised up from the table, welcoming all, and there the lark flying, its extravagant song, its flitting farewell to boyhood. In the years since, I’ve read the first lines of stories, essays, and books with an eye to… well, with an eye to an inexplicable something.

She said she’d pick up the flowers herself. Yes, but you’ll have to be up with the larks. Compare with Gopnik (Adam–not his sister) from his book on winter for which I am to write a review: “I recall my first snowstorm as though it were yesterday, though it was, as it happens, November 12, 1968.” After that sad start, it took some courage to read on.

(A note: the awkwardness of first lines: to be lived with, smiled about. An image, a real one: clinking teeth for a first kiss.)

The delicacy of first lines, like warm greetings, has led me to think about the pallor of last words. On his deathbed, Wittgenstein reportedly said, “Tell them it’s been a wonderful life.” Before then, nobody who knew him could have had any idea that Wittgenstein could manage to tell a joke. Though maybe, after having tried to build the perfect house–white, sharp, without eros–for his sister who’d spared no expense and after having failed miserably, he finally–I don’t know–felt maybe that lives were nothing like modernist buildings or engineering projects. Or maybe he wasn’t telling a joke after all; perhaps he really meant it.

Whatever it is he said or meant, I realize that, in interpreting his words, I am, as it were, talking over him, not letting him have the last word–his final words. And this all along has been my weakness: the desire to put in the last words. The desire to get in there in the nick of time, to be so clever till the very end. The stillborn dream of the clever one is to make the end his own. These, my dear, are my terms. Don’t you love my mastery? Can’t you see that this world I have made, with these words, my own?

Only a few days ago, I wrote to a beautiful woman about this problem: “Something I’ve learned over the past year or so is how to let the other have the last word. When I’ve done this, sometimes I’ve heard the other’s last word resound. I think there’s a restraint involved, at least initially, but after a while a learning to listen and let be.” All well and good apart from the fact that I’d managed, once again, to talk over her when I’d written these lines about final lines. (Open parenthesis. In this case, I wanted to give her praise. Is this exculpation by another name? Close parenthesis.)

In my philosophy practice, I am now, or so I would like to think, much more attuned to letting the welcomed one have the first and final lines. At least I want her to have them. Want to give her the opening she needs in order to say the opening words and make the parting gesture. (Do you see how alluring that idea is? And do you see a radiant life just here: in all the giving all others the first and final words and in the not feeling as if you’ve merely settled for a few good words in between?)

Maybe the idea is to let every other have the first words and the last lines. And then, when it comes time, to be silent, letting the gods have the final thoughts.

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