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Gilbert: Forever Young

05/03/12 7:55AM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) Commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert has been thinking about two things that all people have in common - aging and mortality. They've been on his mind since Dick Clark died recently at the age of 82. But then writing about Dick Clark never seems to get old.

(Gilbert) Born a month after the great stock market crash of 1929, Dick Clark was, for 33 years, host of the TV show American Bandstand, a music performance show that featured clean-cut teenagers dancing to top 40 rock and roll hits. He was also producer of numerous highly successful TV game shows and his youthful appearance throughout the decades earned him the nickname America's Oldest Teenager. Ironically, it was the ever-youthful Dick Clark who, for years, helped us ring out the old year and ring in the new as emcee of the New Year's Eve TV broadcast from Times Square.

Perhaps no other American personified that very human yearning for perpetual youth more than Dick Clark. It's a dream as old as time: Bob Dylan wrote a haunting song with the refrain, "And may you stay forever young." Natalie Babbitt's wonderful young adult novel Tuck Everlasting explores the often-overlooked downside to remaining young forever: while you watch everyone else getting older and experiencing . . . well, life, you
never grow up.

No issues are more fundamental to the human experience than aging and mortality. In the Greek myth of Tithonus, Tithonus is the lover of Aurora, the goddess of dawn. Aurora asks Zeus to make her beloved immortal, but she forgets to ask for Tithonus to be given eternal youth. And so he lives forever, but with the passage of countless years, he grows so decrepit that he is shut away in his room, babbling endlessly, with barely enough strength to move. In some versions of the myth, he's turned into a chirping cicada or grasshopper, symbols of immortality.

It's a powerful story many poets have written about. Just a few years ago, scholars discovered a poem about Tithonus written twenty-six hundred years ago by one of the greatest poets of Greek antiquity, a woman named Sappho. It's one of only four poems by Sappho known to still exist.

Roughly twenty-five hundred years later, in the mid-1800s, the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote a poem that begins with this beautiful and sad lament by Tithonus:

. . . the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality

In Tennyson's poem Tithonus recalls how gloriously beautiful he was in his youth. Now, he says, he must live a "gray shadow." And so he begs the goddess to take back the gift of immortality, and let him die.

We all understand what Woody Allen means when he says that he doesn't want to achieve immortality through his work. He wants to achieve it through not dying. But aging and death are both part of life, and there cannot be the one without the other.

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