Middle age was once our thirties and forties, based perhaps on halving the biblical seventy years. Today it seems to be whatever one feels like, we being only as old as we feel, apparently. Few people today under forty think of themselves as middle-aged, or admit it, while there are those in their sixties and seventies who are only as old as they feel and therefore, by their own reckoning, middle-aged. Middle age seems to go with keeping fit to reduce the middle of your anatomy. It sometimes means losing focus on objects in the middle distance. It means discovering you are not the centre of all attention, not the middle of the universe.
Our middle name is often a cause of involuntary denial and identity puzzle. A middle name is like some personal secret that, once disclosed in a social context, can give way in others to mirth, amazement, disbelief, and infinite conjecture. How could you live with a name like that? What deep meaning did it have for your parents to have chosen that name of all names? The name itself may be as common as your main name, yet something about it being your middle name turns it into a weird revelation of everything you are trying so hard to keep from the world. Just the revelation of having a name other than the one you use every day is enough to send some minds into a spin. And sometimes the more middle names you have, the worse it gets.
These thoughts sprang to mind in the middle of winter while at my workplace in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Middle Park. The terms middle income, middle management, middle stump are not misplaced when talking about Middle Park, and the suburb today is decidedly middle class. None of these things have to do with the name itself, but its name lands us in the middle of a quandary. ‘The Encyclopedia of Melbourne’ (ed. Brown-May & Swain, 2005) has an entry for the suburb but no explanation for how it got its name. Even more strangely, neither does the recent book ‘The Heart of Middle Park : Stories from a Suburb by the Sea’ (Middle Park History Group, 2011), so invitations are out for someone to explain why the suburb is a Park and what it’s in the middle of. Albert Park is to the north, but there is no park to the south. It is possible that its toponym comes from being land reclaimed between the old lagoons, including the one known as Albert Park Lake, and Port Phillip Bay. Any improvements on this guesswork are welcome.
Obviously things become more relative the more we learn. The middle is only the middle in relation to the definition points around it. Another Melbourne planning oddity is Middle Camberwell, which has been on the periphery of Camberwell for decades. When Europeans finally got around to changing Near East to Middle East, this still didn’t mean much to those Australians who from their angle care to see the region as the Near West. J.R.R. Tolkien adopted the Old English word ‘middle-earth’, meaning the world we live in, for use as the setting of his considerable fictions. He reintroduced the word into usage. The term has older echoes in the Chinese concept of the Middle Kingdom, or Zhongguo in Chinese, which is in fact the oldest and most common name for China itself. So if you live in China at any age in any age you regard yourself as being in the middle, just as a librarian in Middle Park would feel he is at the centre of everything in the Library, and the world as a matter of fact, in the middle of winter.
Even the middle of winter is open to conjecture. Is it the longest night of the year, the solstice? Or the coldest, rainiest week? Is it the height of the ski season or the low of knowing your team will not reach the finals? Is it the week the cootamundra starts to blossom? The overlay of the four seasons of Europe on Australian conditions has never helped in saying when we experience the middle of winter. The Indigenous Australians have seven seasons of the year, of which at least two correspond with the wintry phase we experience in Middle Park and the rest of Melbourne: any concept of middle is not fixed.
The Library itself caters mainly for two kinds of brow, the high and the middle, while the lowbrow is not actively encouraged, even if treated as a worthwhile object of research within reasonable grounds. The Library holds plenty on the middle period of Kierkegaard, the middle period of Jung, and in fact the middle period of almost anyone spiritual you care to name. Being a library specialising in spirituality it holds an extensive collection of writings in Middle English, which is the English that last employed the term ‘middle-earth’, by the way. And the Library, due to buying policies in several areas including church history, mysticism, and hagiography, has a huge and always growing collection of works of all sorts about the Middle Ages. Just as users of Middle English knew they were speaking English but didn’t know it was Middle English, so no one in the Middle Ages (which includes all speakers of Middle English) knew they were living in some pre- or post- age of some kind or another but would never have thought of it as the Middle Ages. Many believed the End could arrive any day now. The Middle Ages could only have been defined by someone who was postmodern enough to see that the Middle Ages had come to an end. Various postmodern people in the 15th century seem to have judged that the Renaissance had hit and it was time to put the old times behind them. Two events are amongst those treated as points of closure, the fall of Constantinople (1453) and the day Columbus conked into somewhere Indian (1492), though most people agree the Middle Ages begin with the recognised fall of the Western Roman Empire (476). Those who adopt the long view argue in philosophical vein that we all live in a Middle Age, others that humanity itself exists in a Middle Ages, with a fairly certain before and after.
The Old English word ‘middle-earth’ contained its own implicit meaning, was its own Weltanschauung as latter-day Germans like to say. On either side of the middle where we now find ourselves, is heaven or hell, a prospect described in fervent detail in the here and now by the most famous medieval poet, Dante Alighieri, in his big poem, the Divine Comedy. This is how it opens:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
chè la diritta via era smarrita
which some translate as the poet in the middle of his life finding himself lost in a dark wood, though you will notice the Italian actually says he finds himself in the middle of the way of our life. The opening line, in other words, says that we all share with Dante in this way, that we each find ourselves in the middle asking questions, searching for a way forward. From the first line we are with Dante and see things through his eyes: it is an invitation, in the middle of everything else, to go on a tour of discovery. It is a tour of discovery of everything else, and so in its course of ourselves. Literal scholars say Dante was 35 at the time.
What is the middle anyway? Often we are in too much of a state of flux to say exactly. At the Library counter if a borrower asks how I am the response might be “oh fair to middling”, while if a long, distracting conversation looms the polite excuse is, “sorry, I am just in the middle of something.” The middle of what, though? More work? The ‘something’ won’t be finished until the middle of next week. Only some things are certain: it is neither the beginning nor the end, we are neither in youth nor old age, and we are in a place that is neither a park nor between other parks yet is called Middle Park. We can go whole days not thinking about our middle name.