Age Quod Agis

Jean-Paul Sartre was a lit­tle toad of a man, but he said one mem­o­rable thing: L’enfer c’est les autres. Other peo­ple are a hell­ish dis­trac­tion, a vam­piric and par­a­sit­i­cal drain on our energy and cre­ativ­ity. My men­tor Alfred Dorn wrote a mag­nif­i­cent poem on the sub­ject titled “The Island,” which ends this way:

Hell, Sartre wrote, is Oth­ers, all who ask
to lodge in us, mak­ing our life their food.
Rather than yield the island that needs no mask,
we brave the demons that hound soli­tude.

Every­where one turns in the mod­ern world, there are solic­i­ta­tions and appeals. Com­mer­cial adver­tis­ing alone has metas­ta­sized into a world-encircling mon­ster that no one can avoid. Pros­e­ly­tiz­ers and huck­sters of every type infest the planet. Unless you con­sciously block out this avalanche of noise, you will accom­plish nothing.

Even that is not enough. You also have to con­quer a per­va­sive and crip­pling fear that has spread just as widely and destruc­tively as adver­tis­ing. And that is the fear of not fit­ting in, of not being part of the mass.

Apart from sim­ple incom­pe­tence, the biggest obsta­cle to human accom­plish­ment is fear and fear’s most typ­i­cal con­se­quence, a par­a­lyz­ing hes­i­ta­tion. Today, such fear is com­monly rooted in a patho­log­i­cal com­pul­sion to sat­isfy the expec­ta­tions and prej­u­dices of other peo­ple. When you are con­stantly wor­ried about what oth­ers think, you can­not focus on a task.

Men study­ing to be Jesuits are con­stantly admon­ished with this Latin saw: Age quod agis. It means “Do what you are doing.” In other words, when you are engaged in an activ­ity do it with absolute con­cen­tra­tion, and refuse to be dis­tracted by any­thing else. The Jesuits didn’t become the most pow­er­ful order in the Catholic Church by let­ting their minds wander.

There’s a won­der­ful story about the Ital­ian artist Ben­venuto Cellini and his cre­ation of the famous statue of Perseus in bronze. Cast­ing large bronze stat­u­ary was dicey in the Renaissance—the ancient Graeco-Roman tech­niques had been lost, and artists had to guess con­cern­ing ques­tions of proper heat, metal vis­cos­ity, pour­ing pro­ce­dure, and all the rest. When Cellini was cast­ing his Perseus, a num­ber of things went wrong. Since pour­ing a large cru­cible of molten metal is dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous, his arti­sans and helpers started to lose their nerve. They filled the air with their pan­icky recrim­i­na­tions and sug­ges­tions. But Cellini bel­lowed “JUST SHUT UP AND KEEP POUR­ING!” Despite all the dis­trac­tions, Cellini remained focused on task, and he cast the statue suc­cess­fully. He refused to be afraid, and he refused to pay atten­tion to those who were.

That’s how you have to be in life about every­thing. You must be focused on task. You must have absolute tun­nel vision that blocks out every­thing and every­one not imme­di­ately con­nected with what you are doing. If you lis­ten to the bleats of the sheep around you, with their whin­ing sug­ges­tions and gut­less warn­ings and intru­sive kib­itz­ing, you will accom­plish noth­ing. You have to not care about them.

I recently invited a friend to lunch. I was look­ing for­ward to a leisurely meal, with drinks, wine, a series of courses, and a long dis­cus­sion of mat­ters of mutual inter­est. My friend called me the night before, and told me that he would have to limit our lunch time to one hour, since there was a chance that some other per­sons might require his assis­tance that after­noon. I imme­di­ately can­celled the lunch date, telling him that I would not let our dis­cus­sion be cut short by the hypo­thet­i­cal needs of some damned third party. My friend was offended, and said “How can I help it if my cell phone rings?” I retorted “Very easily—just shut the bloody thing off when you have lunch with me!”

This assump­tion that one is at the beck and call of other peo­ple, that one “has a respon­si­bil­ity” to see to the needs of oth­ers at the drop of a hat, is being incul­cated into the pop­u­la­tion by a relent­lessly other-directed edu­ca­tional sys­tem run by sen­ti­men­tal lib­er­als. We are being sub­tly social­ized into think­ing that our per­sonal goals and aims come sec­ond, while the needs of a widen­ing cir­cle of strangers come first. This is unnat­ural non­sense: our pri­mary respon­si­bil­ity is to our­selves, our imme­di­ate fam­i­lies, our very close rel­a­tives and friends, and NOBODY ELSE. I’m not an Objec­tivist, but Ayn Rand had a point about the ele­phan­ti­a­sis of altru­ism in mod­ern thought. And this assump­tion that we have to be altru­is­tic makes it impos­si­ble for us to focus on task.

How does this affect poetry? Well, con­sider: you will never be able to do the things that you must do in poetry if you are con­stantly wor­ry­ing about other per­sons. Poets have a prob­lem, and that prob­lem is other liv­ing per­sons who prac­tice the art of poetry. They are what St. Paul would have called a “stum­bling block” or a “thorn in the flesh.” For the most part, they inter­fere in what you are doing, and they dis­tract you from your task.

It’s dif­fer­ent with dead poets. All they can do—thank God—is leave the results of their labor for you on paper. You don’t have to deal with their per­sonal obtuse­ness, their petty idio­syn­crasies, their air­head pol­i­tics, or any of the other crosses that afflict you when you are inter­act­ing with poets who are still alive. A dead poet’s iden­tity is his poetry, and noth­ing else.

The Greek his­to­rian Herodotus recounts a story about Solon the Athen­ian and his visit to King Croe­sus of Lydia. Despite the vast wealth of Croe­sus, Solon refused to pro­nounce him a happy man. When asked why, Solon explained that since Croe­sus still had many more years to live, there was no way he could make a judg­ment as to the king’s felic­ity. Any­thing might hap­pen between now and the man’s death. And in fact ter­ri­ble things did befall King Croe­sus after Solon’s visit, ren­der­ing him miserable.

The Greeks felt you could not judge whether a man was happy until he was dead. At that point his life was a com­plete Gestalt, and you could look at it as a whole and deter­mine its basic qual­ity. The same thing is anal­o­gously true for poets. When all that is left is their text on paper, things become much clearer, and you can accept or reject someone’s work or influ­ence with­out the slight­est embar­rass­ment, qualm, or messy entanglement.

When­ever young poets ask me for advice, I tell them “Talk with the dead. The liv­ing are not impor­tant, since they haven’t fin­ished their tasks yet. More­over, the liv­ing will be judged by a much later gen­er­a­tion than this one, so there isn’t any call for you to med­dle with them. Just mind your own busi­ness and do your own work. Don’t be spooked by any­one or anything.”

Or, along with the Jesuits, I could have sim­ply said Age quod agis.

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.