This past November, I read a book that echoed my deepest anxieties, an experience which was both gratifying and uncomfortable. I was studying W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn for the course ENG329 — Contemporary British Fiction, and, while on one hand the author reassured me that existential questions are universal ones, he also confirmed there is nothing I can do to resolve them. Like myself, Sebald was absorbed by the inescapable passage of time and the expanse of the past.
When I imagine the future, Sebald’s claim that there is “no antidote against the opium of time” looms over me. Opium alleviates pain, but it is also lethal. The likening of opium and time expresses the theme of the novel that we use the prospect of the future — or the passage of time — as a sedative against the fear of the very future we look forward to. It seems paradoxical, doesn’t it?
I’ve learned that existential questions are common among us 20 year olds who have our whole lives ahead of us and who, for the first time in our lives, experience uncertainty about the shape our futures will take. For students like myself who have benefitted from a stable upbringing, the future has always felt linear, structured by sequential grades and summer jobs. Now, nearing my final year of undergraduate studies, I’ve realized how many options are open to me, and yet, these options are overshadowed by the question of whether any choice is inherently better or worse than others.
These existential reminders are not only manifesting in the books I read, but they seem to be increasingly obvious in my everyday life. I obsess over whether the elderly man sitting alone at a restaurant has had a good life, whether he is happy with his 80 or 90 years of existence, or whether he would undo some of his life choices if he could. It is a specific sadness and curiosity fueled by the fear of the future that makes me so upset at the possibility of an elderly person fated to an unfulfilling life.
Last summer, I watched the movie The Remains of the Day, which despite not literally being a movie about an old man, was one to me. The movie includes powerful themes of class, the British aristocracy, and facism — and yet, the one scene in which the aging father trips and realizes his physical decline appeared to me as insurmountable emotional trauma. Here, this man was faced with the “opium of time.” He had been among the most esteemed butlers in English society during a period when the upper class could not function without servants, and yet, old age made him burdensome. The cruel irony is that while on his deathbed he seemed remorseful for having favoured service over his son, the succeeding years ushered in the declining importance of butlers in a new social order where a servant could prioritize a family. Would a second chance have allowed for the father’s happiness, or was he, like all of us, fated to resent time?
Coincidentally, the same professor who assigned The Rings of Saturn included the novel The Remains of the Day on the syllabus. I was annoyed at having to read the text and especially irritated that I had to confront the existential questions I deliberately avoided. The aged man — the protagonist’s father — represented an ancient set of beliefs and the obsolescence of traditions. He reminded me that despite the value we attribute to our decisions, mistakes, and experiences, time negates the importance of it all.
It can be comforting to know that the choices you labour over will be insignificant in retrospect, but this truth is a double edged sword. After all, T.S. Eliot did not intend to assuage existential dread when he wrote, “In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Rather, he was confirming the same concerns that plague me.
I have never studied philosophy, and so, I lack the formal knowledge that might help me interpret my feelings toward the human condition, but I take comfort in the fact that my anxieties are shared across generations of often-forgotten people. They have found ways to cope with the question I’ve hinted at, which is, “What is the meaning of it all?”