Prerogative of youth

The prerogative of youth is to dream of adventure and achievement, of embarking on the archetypal quest. Biology plays a role in extending the self from the comfort of childhood survival and nurturing into the realm of reproduction — in this case not necessarily literally (though that is part of youth) but as a re-producing of the self. With a re-created self in the search for identity comes construction of a new mirror for testing the new self, and, turning outwardly, a new lens or scope for viewing the world. Even the scope metaphor fits the quest theme.

Though conditioned in part by biology, the prerogatives of youth are also conditioned by society and culture, so that the identity sought is often bounded by the “heroes” of the popular culture, be they Json, Odysseus, or the latest Hollywood celebrity. These “heroes” are vehicles, either byways or dead ends in the quest. Many youth succumb to or misconstrue the heroes of the day as ends in themselves, and indeed may remain spiritual or psychological dead ends because of their misinterpretation of what the quest is all about.

If taken as byways, however, such stopping points need not be fatal, though they can absorb all of the resources of the questing youth, resulting in an involuntary dead end. Further, there is no knowing whether a byway is a dead end or not. There are no pathways on the sea, and navigating by the stars depends on foreknowledge and clear skies. Hence the angst that pursues the youth whose quest is too ambitious, whose ego is too expansive, whose dream is too literal. The quest may be busy with people, which may obscure the future.

Projecting outward means projecting the existing and growing self into a preexisting natural world, but also into a fixed social world where power and possibilities are historically delineated. These social factors, combined with biological forces that emphasize survival and reproduction — transmuted into the expansion of the ego — make remote the possibility of anything new.

Not something new that is a recombination of factors, for that is always a possibility. A person always lives out a pattern that is set as biological inevitability: birth, growth, maturity, decay, and death. Within these set realities, whatever happens is a response to the parameters, to the quality of experience, within them. The prerogative of youth is to quantify experiences within the parameters, not merely to adjust the quality. Whether this is a folly — this time expended and energy burned for the sake of experience, discovery, or mere experience of quantity — a psychological impact results. The impact is probably determinant of the rest of life, the quality of the rest of life. Whether the experiences involve damaging health, acquiring power, exploiting others, serving a group, or trapping the self in an involuntary conventionality, no one can predict of youth. Yet the result will be seen in retrospect as probable, as likely, as inevitable.

All of this prefaces a reality: that youth are seldom interested in solitude or eremitism. Why should they be? The biological determiner demands a level of competition, either to survive, excel over others, fashion a new and capable and mature self, a functional ego satisfying many impulses, needs, fears, and dreams. Hovering over youth is the cultural and social content through which youth expresses itself and which at the same time youth resents. Youth is presented as in perpetual rebellion, so that even involuntary conformity to limits does not impede tokens and symbols of rebellion. All of this represents engagement, engagement of the self with the world and others, as if nothing else exists but the raging contest of ego and world. Rebellion in this context is not dissent or revolution which has an agenda, but engagement. Yet there is no place to go in rebellion. It is rebellion for its own sake, rebellion against what is, but not rebellion for what is not.

And yet rebellion is the prerogative of youth. It demands comprehension because it is universal and deeply primordial, within the very marrow of the body. It is universal but it is not permanent. The energy slows, congealing here and dissipating there. Youth passes into age. And with age the quest falters, or turns into something else, some new piquancy, some new desire, whether it be desire for power, or a new form of rebellion, a rebellion now against the body’s changes, against the body’s shifting energies.

But that is not what youth cares about. In youth, the self feels both that it can live forever and that it can die tomorrow — neither one matters. What matters is the ongoing, the momentum, the proof and feedback of vitality, of the body crying out for movement, for perpetual motion, for a burning candle, the candle burning at both ends, as Edna St-Vincent Millay wrote:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light!

The youthful sentiment of the poem is unmistakable: that our candle (our lives) burn away anyway and that we youth alone can and ought to seize the power and energy of life in order to make it something joyful, or at least spectacular, regardless of who is watching approvingly or disapprovingly.

Similarly Dylan Thomas in his advice to a dying father, reflects the passion of youth:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Thomas argues that those in life who fail to live fully go gently, quiescently — while those who lived fully must rage against the absurdity of life having to end. It is a philosophical and psychological conundrum of youth’s heart in an older man. An aging man not yet understanding age.

But even centuries ago, these themes were rife. Milton’s Satan epitomizes youth in his wakened desire for independence, for his negative quest, his rebellion, his absolute defiance of authority.

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Satan cannot have a history in Milton; he cannot grow old. But like everyone and everything this Satan, too, will grow old, older still in recognition of the collapse of his rebellious effort, in the boredom and dissipation of its aftermath. Already the biblical Satan — the Genesis serpent versus the Apocalyptic one, the conspirator with God to torment Job — is an old and willful mischief-maker, a liar and sociopath incapable of raising his voice. That will be the fate of Milton’s young rebel.

And the youthful Lord Byron, feverishly engaged in worldly experience, pausing in a moment of anxiety to realize that “solitude should teach us how to die.” He ended his short life with ignominious death in the Greek war of independence against Turkey — dying of infection from a sloppy bleeder. A perpetual youth outstripping his resources, Byron did not realize that solitude should teach us how to live as much as how to die.

But the mistake of the poets is understandable. It is the prerogative of youth.