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How He Changed over Time

ISSUE:  Fall 2020

 

He used to play the violin, but then, as his fingers thickened and lost some of their agility, he became frustrated by trying to play, and then bored by it. He put the violin away in its case for good, had the case removed to a storeroom, and, instead, invited others in to play for him and his family in the evenings. In time, this playing by others, too, wearied him with its incessant sound and he no longer invited musicians into his home or willingly listened to any music, except, perhaps, at long intervals, from a distance, a patriotic march.

He used to provide what was needed in the way of food, equipment, and guides for parties of men to go off exploring. They would bring him not only reports of what they had seen but also handsome artifacts, such as feathered tribal headdresses and small handmade axes and other tools. These he would display in his roomy front hall, and visitors waiting for a private audience would pass the time studying the artifacts and learning about the indigenous tribes of the country. He had had exactly this in mind, to educate the public, when he directed that the artifacts be displayed thus on the walls and in cabinets. But then he tired of the artifacts and lost interest in what they signaled of other cultures, and no longer cared about educating the public. He had everything in the front hall taken off the walls and out of the house and sold to a museum. The bare walls, a relief to his eyes, were then to be painted gold. He no longer sent parties of men out to explore the wilderness, for he no longer had any interest in other landscapes or the wildlife or primitive peoples that inhabited them. Geography now confused him.

He used to import and drink fine wines from France. But then he gave up drinking alcohol and put a high tariff on wines from France. If he could not enjoy the wines, he would make them more costly for others to enjoy. More generally, although he had once admired France and studied French architecture, looking for ideas for his own house, he no longer respected that country or any European country. He felt that the French, even more than other Europeans, might possibly be smarter and wiser than he was, and that feeling caused him to turn against them.

He was over six feet tall, and stood well above most other men. He had once been lean, and he knew that others had then said of him that he had “no excess flesh.” But in time he grew heavier and his waist thickened, and he inclined forward as he walked, with his eyes directed down.

He used to ride his horse on the grounds of the estate and to other estates nearby, on visits to his neighbors, and he cut a handsome figure on horseback. But over the years, as he aged, and as he grew stout, it was harder for him to mount his horse, and his hands were not as strong or agile on the reins. Riding became uncomfortable, and he began to dislike his horse, as it also now disliked him. He began to avoid the company of all animals. They paid little attention to him, and he was now a man who craved attention. They required attention and care for themselves. 

Once, years before, he had commissioned skilled copies of the best paintings by the old masters, to be hung on the walls of his parlor. Among them were portraits of his three heroes, men whose writings he had read and reread: Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke. But after a time he became bored by the subjects depicted in the paintings, or he told his wife, in any case, he was bored by them. Many of the paintings depicted brave men, wise men, learned men, or compassionate men; these were storied men, men of myth and fable, or men who had figured in important historic events, in addition to the great thinkers Bacon, Newton, and Locke, and he was, after looking up at them for so many years, now led inevitably to compare himself to these figures. He was now led to question his own worth as a human being when he gazed at them, and this made him uncomfortable. He had the paintings removed and replaced by poorly executed, but very large, portraits of himself.

In this same parlor, which looked out from three French windows in a large bay toward the formal garden behind the house, which he himself had designed years before, taking a formal garden of France as his model, he used to spend the evenings playing games with his children and his wife, or listening to a performance of new music on the harpsichord, or talking in French about new political ideas with a visitor from overseas. But in time he became bored by all of these activities, too often repeated. He found that they tired him excessively, and he would go off to spend the evening sitting in a smaller room by himself.

His wife had once delighted in his company and conversation, but gradually, now, she became accustomed to his absence in the evening from the family circle. As he sat in another room, she knew he sometimes brooded. He thought that certain people looked down upon him. He would not allow her to comfort him.

At one time, he had liked to acquire new knowledge, to feel his brain actively engaged with something unfamiliar and challenging, and for this reason he had bought or borrowed and read one book after another. He acquired knowledge not only through reading books but also through listening to the talk of well-informed men and having extensive conversations with these men, and sometimes from conversing also with women, women who had intelligent or sensible ideas, including his wife. But then he tired of new knowledge. Now he preferred to be confirmed in what he already knew, or believed he knew. And then, over time, so gradually that he did not notice, what he knew changed by degrees, so that it was no longer entirely true to the facts, but was in part false, now merely, in part, a mistaken belief. But since he had not perceived the change, he did not realize this.

He had at one time spoken French fluently and took pleasure in conversing with the French. He was able, also, to read not only French but also Greek, Latin, Spanish, and Italian, and would occasionally work on improving his German. But as he read less and less, and ceased to welcome foreign visitors into his house, he began to forget these languages. And as he forgot them, he also came to feel that to be so very well educated was the privilege of only a few, not the many, and he preferred to be one of the many, or to see himself as one of the many. Or, perhaps, he preferred to be one of the few, but it was now a different few, it was the few of those who were powerful, and wealthy, not those few who were also very well educated.

He was at times, in some periods of his life, very wealthy, and spent his money freely, on rebuilding his house, and adding to his gardens, and increasing his library, and buying fine things, especially clothing, for his children and wife. But he was often, also, bankrupt, and at these times would sell some of what he owned. By the time he died he would be, once again, heavily in debt.

He used to enjoy a wide variety of food from Europe, especially from France, cooked in many different ways and accompanied by complex sauces. But over time, he came to prefer certain familiar cuts of meat cooked always in the same way, and plain bread. In fact, he now preferred most of his food to be plain. He ate more sweet dishes, often the same ones, and drank sweet drinks with his meals.

He used to have one of the largest personal libraries in the country, until he found it harder and harder to read anything at all. He mixed up the letters and his eyesight began to fail. He could have worn corrective glasses, but he was a vain man and would not tolerate being seen in them, even by his family. His memory also began to fail, so that he could not keep the sentences in his head, if he tried to read. For a short time, he brought in assistants to sit with him and summarize for him what was in the books, but even this became too difficult, since he could not understand, or remember, what the young men said, even as they were saying it. They sometimes drew diagrams and pictures for him and he could understand the pictures, but many complex ideas could not be represented by pictures. He now rejected complex ideas. 

At last, as the books on the shelves reminded him too painfully of what he had lost, he came to resent them and had them removed. He owned, at that point, 6,700 volumes. He sold them to the government, and they formed the beginnings of the government’s own vast library. He never went to see them there, as he no longer had any interest in libraries. Once the books were gone, his own bare shelves were a relief. He did not allow a smaller collection of books to grow in the place of the large one and occupy the shelves again. He did not, in particular, acquire a copy of Don Quixote, as he had earlier wished to do. Instead, he declared that the shelves were to remain empty and had them painted gold. He had come to value gold above all else, as representing a thing of the very highest value. He had not only his shelves and the walls of his entry hall painted gold, but also the frames of his portraits.

He once took pleasure in creating his own designs, for his rooms, gardens, and furniture, and had hired fine craftsmen to execute them. After observing the architecture of France, he had added thirteen skylights to his house and a dome to surmount it, and connected two parts of the upper floor with a mezzanine, a new thing at the time. He created alcoves in the bedrooms in which to put the beds, in order to save space. In his dining room, he devised a dumbwaiter to be fitted inside one part of the fireplace, for bringing wine up from the cellar below, as he had seen once in a tavern in Europe. For his study, he designed a revolving bookstand. It could hold open, for reference, five large books at a time. When he no longer read books, he had the revolving bookstand removed to a storeroom. He could have sold it to a library, but he no longer harbored kindly feelings toward any library. 

He once had extensive gardens of vegetables and fruits and kept a detailed diary of crops, harvests, and yields. He would walk daily through the gardens and orchards, stopping to confer with the gardeners. But then he lost interest, and tired of walking. He stayed out of the gardens and chose not even to look at them from the windows of the house. At last, he had the gardens plowed under and seeded for lawns, and, if he needed to cross the lawns, rode over them in a small motorized cart, for fear of touching the grass with his shoes. He had also, in the meantime, come to believe that exercise was harmful and that any man had only a limited reserve of physical strength which could soon be spent. 

He once said that the future of the country depended on the ability of the people to make informed decisions. He continued to believe this but came to feel it was even more important for him to control the decisions they made, and so he decided also to control what information they received. Thus, he conveyed to them not only good information, but also, when he wished or needed to, false information.

He once had, when he was young, ideals for the country. He had visions of what it could become, and how perfect its government and its society could be. Over time, however, he lost those ideals. They tired him. He came to embrace a different idea, one that filled him with nervous interest. He now saw the country as a vast and rich resource that could be well managed to the benefit of a certain few able men like himself.

He once said that what gave a man happiness was “tranquility and occupation.” But then he came to reject tranquility as having no value, and to prefer a state of agitation, and the nervous energy of sleeplessness. Whereas he had once had many occupations, he now had few. One was to watch other men more articulate than he was engage in public debate. These had to be, however, men with whom he agreed, since for him to be in disagreement agitated him more than he could bear. 

As for happiness, at heart he was almost certainly not a happy man. He was certainly not as happy as he had once been. But because he offered false information not only to others, but also to himself, he surely would have said, if asked, that he was a happy man. 

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