Conversing with dead people isn't all it's cracked up to be. The other night I had a brief edgy chat with Robert Lowell, the great poet who taught me poetry writing in the 1960s and died a few years later; I don't believe there was a connection. I do this sort of thing a lot lately--talk to the dead, live in the past--probably because I am getting on. But it's mainly a matter of preference. I would rather have a conversation with Lowell than with most of those who are so-called alive--though, I tell you, he can be a royal pain.
Seamus Heaney--with whom future students will wish to converse after he too achieves the celestial pantheon--said something in support of this retrograde activity recently. Referring to elegies he had written to the poets Joseph Brodsky and Ted Hughes, he remarked, "At a certain age, the light that you live with is inhabited by shades... The death of people doesn't banish them out of your consciousness."
America as a whole seems to be taking that to heart these days, with its omnivorous appetite for all things World War II, and the new video-game movie, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, in which Angelina Jolie travels back to spend quality time with her dead father, played by her living one, Jon Voight. If you really want to feel old and out of it (and who doesn't), go see Tomb Raider. I did, and was by four decades the oldest person in the cultist audience of teenagers. (Actually, there was another fellow my age in the theater, but he appeared to have had his brains removed some time earlier. I am sure he felt the same about me.)
Civilizations tend to start talking with the dead when they become mature products--that is, when they have realized whatever dreams formed them in the first place and start to plateau. First, they begin to live in the past. Then, as Satchel Paige warned, whatever was behind them is suddenly in front of them, and a rookie competing civilization (see Goths, Vandals or Americans) takes over. This may be what is happening to us, though it is odd to think of a civilization based in a perpetual future turning around and shifting gears. Maybe we are looking backward because we are unable to live in the future anymore, because the future comes so fast that we can't look forward to it. Or because one can feel happier in the past by being selective about it. The trouble with memory is remembering too much, but a careful editing of past events can produce paradise.
Better still, make it up. Recently the Pulitzer prizewinning historian Joseph Ellis, who has every reason to be content with a distinguished intellectual life, admitted he had fabricated a history of having been a paratrooper in Vietnam. Sadly, crazily, he gave himself a past to amend some self-perceived deficiency.
Or maybe we really are becoming a mature product and are beginning to feel as comfortable with the past as Heaney is with his dead-poets society. We spend a great deal of time with the dear and departed as it is. On a given day, I can read a Hemingway story, watch a Bette Davis movie, chomp on a Caesar salad in the Carnegie Deli and listen to a Cole Porter tune sung by Frank Sinatra as I take the F.D.R. Drive to La Guardia Airport, where I board a plane to Washington.