Fighters

Edvard Munch, Between the Clock and the Bed (1940–43)

I have had this self-portrait of Edvard Munch on my desktop screen for years. Now I discover a similar work by John Butler Yeats, the father of W.B.Yeats. Yeats, it is said, worked on his self-portrait off and on for several years and regarded it as his masterpiece.

These are images of men at the age at which I now find myself, down to certain details I catch sometimes in a mirror. An awkwardness about the neck and the wrists, a shakily erect posture as the ghost of what might once have been a military bearing, a jacket bought many years ago from which the shoulders have retreated.

*

John Butler Yeats, Self-portrait (1911-1922)

Every day, overnight, comes a little meditation into my inbox from Plough, the organ of the redoubtable Bruderhof. By chance the other morning it was this from Kierkegaard:

The path of an honest fighter is a difficult one. And when the fighter grows cool in the evening of his life this is still no excuse to retire into games and amusement. Whoever remains faithful to his decision will realize that his whole life is a struggle. Such a person does not fall into the temptation of proudly telling others of what he has done with his life. Nor will he talk about the “great decisions” he has made. He knows full well that at decisive moments you have to renew your resolve again and again and that this alone makes good the decision and the decision good.

I am the last person to quarrel with Kierkegaard, but what does he mean by fighter? Not retiring into games and amusements is good, but what does the rest of it mean? I go back and forth to the self-portraits of these artists in the evening of their life and ask if they have fallen into the trap of Kierkegaard’s proscription against boasting, surrounded as they are with the tokens of a life’s work.

But no, Kierkegaard has the key. Munch and Yeats do not tell, or talk about. They show. And in this wordless showing, looking out at us from an infinite well of self-possession and self-knowledge, is the resolve, the affirmation that every decision once made is renewed again.