I have always had a fascination with Ancient Rome. When other boys were playing with their toy American soldiers, I had scores of tiny Roman legionnaires. G.I. Joe I found boring; G.I. Julius, however, enthralled me. And I still remember my childhood glee at “decoding” the I, V, X, L, M, and D’s on the cornerstones of downtown buildings to reveal their construction date in cool Roman numeral cipher. In fact, I just had a friend turn 50 last month so in my Roman-numeral inspired birthday card I congratulated him on going straight to “L.”
As a youngster, I loved everything Latin — especially "Pig" (or “ig-pay atin-lay” as we porcine linguists pronounced it). Such enthusiasm prompted me to take four years of Latin in high school and then minor in it as an undergraduate. My college roommate teased me for studying a language I couldn’t even speak. Having been forced to hear every night his excruciating struggles practicing pronunciations for his introductory French class, I accused him of the same thing.
But even with my long-term devotion to Latin, I base this essay on a respectful disagreement with the Roman author Seneca’s most famous dictum:
“Vita brevis est, ars longa” – “Life is short, but art is long.”
The meaning is quite obvious: our individual lives are brief, but great art (which captures life) is immortal, since it can remain alive for all time. Human Monas and Lisas may live over eighty years if they’re lucky, but Mona Lisa is forever. Actually, I fully agree with that thought, but it strikes me that the antithesis – “Life is long, but art is short” -– more accurately reveals literature’s unique allure.
Yet how can I seriously label our fragile and fleeting time on earth as “long”? Granted, our time here does seem all too short in general, and, at my age, I find it getting shorter by the year, but it can certainly be all too long in the details. Yes — weeks, months, years, and even decades have an insidious way of flying by as we age, but that fact does not mitigate the dull truth that a single day, hour, or even unfortunate minute can often seem endless.
Who among us, during an especially boring lecture, dreadful headache, or lonely weekend has not looked at the clock and then glanced again to see a time we hoped would be an hour later, only to discover that not even ten minutes had crawled by? And each and every one of our days, though exciting at times, is stagnated with dull routines: showering and dressing in the morning, driving all over town in the afternoon, worrying ourselves sleepless many nights. These dull and unpleasant minutes add up to hours of our lives each month. Yet we don’t begrudge nor resent this waste of time because as adults we recognize it as the foundation of daily life, the routines we endure and which somehow make our brief encounters with sudden joy, love, and inspiration seem all the more rewarding by contrast.
But isn’t one of literature’s greatest glories the fact that authors have the god-like ability to eliminate all such tedium from their characters’ lives? It’s been pointed out that in not one of the 40,000 novels written during the Victorian period did a character ever excuse herself to go out to use the bathroom. It wasn’t prudishness that caused Dickens to eliminate this realistic routine from his books; it was his good sense as an artist. It’s bad enough we can’t escape this unpleasant chore in our daily lives. We should at least be spared it in our fiction.
Thus, the very treadmills that make life seem tediously long make life in literature seem refreshingly short. Great authors – like all great artists – select only those elements of life best suited to their thematic purposes. Their stories may seem realistic, but they actually have been pruned of all the boredom inherent in our quotidian schedules. Dull days and worthless weeks in a character’s life conveniently take place between the end of chapter five and the beginning of chapter six or, on occasion, before the first word of chapter one.
What a heaven this earth would be if we were able to write our lives in such a fashion. Of course, we would all edit out April 15th permanently. If the I.R.S. agents inquired about payment, we would simply inform them that paying taxes is "not suited to the thematic role" in our current life’s story, but should we return from the dead, then perhaps payment and interest would be included in our sequel.
Ben Franklin famously said that nothing is certain except death and taxes. Here again I must disagree with a distinguished epigrammist, as I did earlier with the Roman Seneca. Franklin obviously forgot about the magical creative powers of novelists. Not only do they have the ability to write Deathless prose -- but, if they so choose, Tax-less prose as well!