The Once and Future King on compromise and disillusionment in middle age

This is from T. H. White’s absolutely brilliant book The Once and Future King — Book III (The Ill-made Knight), chapter XII (page 374 in my edition):

There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have until they are middle-aged. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people, because it is not logical and does not obey laws which are constant. It has no rules. Only, in the long years which bring women to the middle of life, a sense of balance develops. You can’t teach a baby to walk by explaining the matter to her logically — she has to learn the strange poise of walking by experience. In some way like that, you cannot teach a young woman to have knowledge of the world. She has to be left to the experience of the years. And then, when she is beginning to hate her used body, she suddenly finds that she can do it. She can go on living — not by principle, not by deduction, not by knowledge of good and evil, but simply by a peculiar and shifting sense of balance which defies each of these things often. She no longer hopes to live by seeking the truth — if women ever do hope this — but continues henceforth under the guidance of a seventh sense. Balance was the sixth sense, which she won when she first learned to walk, and now she has the seventh one — knowledge of the world.

The slow discovery of the seventh sense, by which both men and women contrive to ride the waves of a world in which there is war, adultery, compromise, fear, stultification and hypocrisy — this discovery is not a matter for triumph. The baby, perhaps, cries out triumphantly: I have balance! But the seventh sense is recognized without a cry. We only carry on with our famous knowledge of the world, riding the queer waves in a habitual, petrifying way, because we have reached a stage of deadlock in which we can think of nothing else to do.

And at this stage we begin to forget that there ever was a time when we lacked the seventh sense. We begin to forget, as we go stolidly balancing along, that there could have been a time when we were young bodies flaming with the impetus of life. It is hardly consoling to remember such a feeling, and so it deadens in our minds.

But there was a time when each of us stood naked before the world, confronting life as a serious problem with which we were intimately and passionately concerned. There was a time when it was of vital interest to us to find out whether there was a God or not. Obviously the existence or otherwise of a future life must be of the very first importance to somebody who is going to live her present one, because her manner of living it must hinge on the problem. There was a time when Free Love versus Catholic Morality was a question of as much importance to our hot bodies as if a pistol had been clapped to our heads.

Further back, there were times when we wondered with all our souls what the world was, what love was, what we were ourselves.

All these problems and feelings fade away when we get the seventh sense. Middle-aged people can balance between believing in God and breaking all the commandments, without difficulty. The seventh sense, indeed, slowly kills all the other ones, so that at last there is no trouble about the commandments. We cannot see any more, or feel, or hear about them. The bodies which we loved, the truths which we sought, the Gods whom we questioned: we are deaf and blind to them now, safely and automatically balancing along toward the inevitable grave, under the protection of our last sense. “Thank God for the aged”, sings the poet:

Thank God for the aged
And for age itself, and illness and the grave.
When we are old and ill, and particularly in the coffin,
It is no trouble to behave.

Guenever was twenty-two as she sat at her petit point and thought of Lancelot. She was not half-way to her coffin, not ill even, and she had only six senses. It is difficult to imagine her.

A chaos of the mind and body — a time for weeping at sunsets and at the glamour of moonlight — a confusion and profusion of beliefs and hopes, in God, in Truth, in Love and in Eternity — an ability to be transported by the beauty of physical objects — a heart to ache or swell — a joy so joyful and a sorrow so sorrowful that oceans could lie between them: then, as a counterpoise to these attractive feautures, outcrops of selfishness indecently exposed — restlessness or inability to settle down and stop bothering the middle-aged — pert argument on abstract subjects like Beauty, as if they were of any interest to the middle-aged — lack of experience as to when truth should be suppressed in deference to the middle-aged — general effervescence and nuisance and unfittingness to the set patterns of the seventh sense — these must have been some of Guenever’s characteristics at twenty-two, because they are everybody’s.

And here are two reminders of antidotes to this ossifying tendency: Let’s do everything! and My plan for 2012: do things that children do. They are far from a complete solution, but they’re ingredients.

And yes, it was my 46th birthday a couple of days ago, thanks for asking.

9 responses to “The Once and Future King on compromise and disillusionment in middle age

  1. Happy birthday, Mike! Thanks for posting this. I’m still coming to terms with the idea of middle-age, but when I woke up and saw this in my news feed, I was thinking, “How did you know I needed to read this today?”
    ; ]

  2. Good words. Thanks. :-)

  3. I do love The Once and Future King. It’s always a book worth re-reading

  4. Happy trip around the sun and well done, sir!

    I’m wary of the experience myself; I like your advice, to do what kids do, though I cannot keep up! (those little turbines of theirs..)

    I keep wondering when exactly it will happen, as if some big switch will flip; in your 20s, you are at peek performance but lack experience; in your 30ths, you’re bogged down by mortgages or responsibilities, settling down, still peek, and with some oomf in your step. Then the 40s come, and you’re a little slower (mentally, too ;) and fueled on coffee, weary of chasing kids around, but still feeling fine. When you’re a kid though you’d say 30 or 40 year olds are … old, but we tell ourselves, now that we are here.. still feeling okay, so, not old.

    But at _50_, you’re _old_ aren’t you? undeniably… ‘old’, right?

    So, at 40, feel fine; at 50, old. Gradual slide, or does it hit at 49, and boom, start to feel it? :)

    Damnit, I’m not going to get old, k? 50, I’m going to snooze through after a bottle of rum, not going to shake your hand…

  5. At forty-six, I don’t feel anything remotely resembling old. But the stats say otherwise. For males in the UK, average life-expectancy is 79.5 years, which means I’ve used up 57.9% of my allocation. I can feel that I’m not as mentally agile as I once was — I can understand why it is that most of the best work in pure maths is done by young researchers — and of course my poor aching body is gradually decaying. On the other hand, I’m much more knowledgeable than I used to be, and (maybe more important) wiser. When you add it all up, I feel like I’m still, overall, on an upward curve; but that’ll have to change some time.

  6. Saw an article today that was going on about the average age for breakthroughs in various fields; apparently it drifted over the years (later over time) due presumably to more base knowledge needed; the article showed graphs for before-1935, and 1935-1965, and 1965 to future, with something like a 5 year later drift from earlier to now. But more to point, the earliesr age was 38 (pre-1935) and something like 43 for discoveries now. It did vary by field and by experimental versus theoretical .. ie: experimental discoveries tended around peek age 46 presumably due to experience based findings, and a bit younger for theoreticals (brain more flexible at younger); it varied from math to phiolosophy and poetry, with poetry and such being peek late 50s, and painters later still.. ie: most valuable paintings are for end of life of painter, not earlier works. Interesting, but I didn’t read much into it.

    I was surprised in general .. I always thought the most creative moments were late 20s or early 30s, but apparently most successful creativity is late 30s and early 40s. Hmf! You’ve still got some mileage in you ;)

  7. That’s encouraging. Where’s the article?

  8. I’ll see if I can dredge it up, but the odds are poor .. was a wandered link from a link from a link sort of thing. The Googles turn up quite a few similar articles, but the one I read had lots of pretty graphs and footnotes so it was the better paper. Ah well :)

  9. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 33 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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