Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Path to the River

Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945) wrote a beautiful essay titled “The Path to the River.” Written when he was 63 years old, the great author, thinker and social critic reflects on growing old. “My most astonishing realization is that I have lost a great deal of luggage,” he writes.

Not physical luggage, but metaphorically speaking. Nock finds that much of the cares and worries he carried as a younger man no longer interest him. Here is a great passage:

“I discover that my interest in many matters which I thought were important, and that I would still say, offhand, were important, no longer exists; interest in many occupations, theories, opinions; relationships, public and private; desires, habits, pleasures, even pastimes. I can still play good billiards for instance, and if anyone asked me, I should reply unthinkingly that I enjoy the game; and then it would occur to me that I have not played for months running into years, and that I no longer care – not really – if I never play again. As an item of luggage, billiards has gone by the boards, though I do not know when or how; and many matters of apparently great importance have gone likewise.”

Ah, this is very interesting! We have had such conversations with Bomstein before, lingering over beers at our favorite alehouse, which we’ve dubbed Absurd HQ. We, too, have noticed a more disinterested view of things that before concerned us greatly – and we have also, almost reflexively chalked it up to age. (We are nearing our 40th birthday and we can’t help but notice certain changes taking place). We have recognized for instance our gradual disinterest in sports, both in watching and playing. Like Nock, if asked, we would answer without hesitation that we play golf and enjoy the game. And then on reflection, it would occur to us that we haven’t played for months. And yet… we don’t miss it. Not really. Likewise, we enjoy watching sports, so we think. But then we haven’t been to a game of any kind in years. We watch games on TV. Sometimes. And when we don’t, we don’t really miss it. Not like we would have years ago. It’s a strange thing.

This may seem a trivial matter. But we find the same phenomenon with other interests and topics as well, things you might think more important – such as politics, work, whatever. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that the concern has reached a level of disinterest. We still enjoy certain things very much. But our relationship to these things is more detached than before. It is hard to explain. Let us turn to Nock again:

“Awareness that this process of unconscious sifting and selection has been going on is presumably final evidence that one is off the main road and well on the path to the river. It is called, rather patronizingly, ‘the acquiescence of age’: but may not that mean no more than an acquiescence in matters which has in the long run proven themselves hardly worth troubling one’s head about? ‘The fashion of this world passeth away,’ said Goethe, ‘and I would fain occupy myself with the things that are abiding.’ If that be the acquiescence of age, make the most of it.”

Indeed. That is it. And, instead of ‘acquiesce of age’ might this not be ‘acquiescence of absurdity’? The path to the river is a path to the absurd. And yes, we agree with Nock: Make the most of it! There is much in the world that societal pressures tell us are important things. But they are not. They are all equally unimportant.

We were thinking of these ideas on our walk recently. It was a bright fall morning. The sun still low and rising in the east, the grasses shimmering with dew and the air crisp with the woody smell of damp earth and rotting leaves. We walked amid towering oak, maple and pear trees alight in autumnal colors – fiery red, blazing orange and gold. A breeze rustled the trees and sent a gentle shower of leaves down around us. It was quiet, save for the rustling trees, the twitter of birdsong in the distance and the crunch of dead leaves beneath our feet. It was an enchanting scene. It was magical and wonderful. And we thought, reflecting afterwards, how nothing mattered in that instant. We were in the moment as much as we could ever be. We cared for as little then as at any time ever. And we thought about Nock and his words about aging. Might the acquiescence of age also stem from a growing awareness of the absurd? Unconsciously, over time, we arrive at this stage by degrees, as concerns fall from us as a snake sheds its skin.

Or, to use Nock’s analogy, we are like travelers who go through life picking up all kinds of luggage… and then, we find, somewhere and somehow along the way, we have lost a great deal of it. And yet, we are not concerned. In fact, we don’t miss it at all. Then we realize we are well off the main road… and on the path to the river, or absurdity.

P.S. You can find Nock’s essay in the book The State of the Union. It is a worthy introduction to the work of Albert Jay Nock and his silky smooth prose.


  1. According to this NYT arcitle, the world is actually more random than people realize. All stock-picking financial expertise is really an illusion, blind luck. Confident professionals are often caught up in an illusion and should be viewed with caution. Sounds like what we've been reading here on your blog as well.

  2. The experience you describe during your walk is what I experience when I go out to take photographs in the park in my community. The earthquake in Turkey, Gadhafi's assassination, taxes, etc all remain important in one sense but without purpose in another. And I will look for Nock's essay.

  3. I do not believe that the path to the river is toward absurdity as you seem to say. Rather it is a gradual realization that the activities that had such allure in youth are in fact absurd.

    You seem to describe absurdity as a goal or an achievement when it is merely a shift that turns you gradually away from the frivolity of meaningless busyness and toward an inner calm.

    Within this inner calm still stirs the desire to find something to replace the attractions of our youthful zeal, but they all seem equally unimportant, all equally absurd.

    There is a desire that this dawning realization is in itself significant (otherwise why would it be happening?) but in fact the awareness of absurdity is just as absurd as everything else.

    As we move toward the river, to eventually leave this realm behind and be carried away in its endless flow, what remains is not the content of what we have done, but the radiance within the experience of simply witnessing it.

    What an amazing experience we are having and what an amazing world to have it in. To be a part of all this for even a fleeting moment is the only realization that contains nothing other than itself.

  4. JJ -

    Poetically put. And we agree: it is an amazing experience and a liberating one! As we go through life, we continue to find new layers and richness in the absurd view.

    In our experience, many seem to view the absurd as a cold, and even paralyzing, philosophy. But on the contrary, we find it incredibly warm and invigorating. It makes us appreciate each fleeting, meaningless moment all the more.