Raging Against Growing Older
H. Allen; Wall Street Journal; 12/31/2011
In 1981, five days before cancer killed him, the life-loving author William Saroyan told the Associated Press: "Everybody has to perish, but I always presumed an exemption would be made in my case. Now what?"
There it is: "Now what?"
That is the great question growing all the greater for being asked by the biggest, most self-conscious and quite possibly most self-deluded generation in American history, the baby boomers.
The youngest of them are middle-aged at this point, taking a hard-headed look at old age and wondering: Now what? Some are additionally taking a soft-headed look, as if they were already demented beyond grappling with reality. Some of them like to think of old age as "elderhood," which is thinking of old age as just another phase of life, like childhood or adulthood.
But then what? Certainly not deathhood. Or afterhood, or oblivionhood. No, a lot of individuals are making a lot of money promising immortality. But I digress. Then again, digression is the heart and soul of William Ian Miller's book about old age. It answers the question of "Now what?" with its title: "Losing It."
Mr. Miller, a teacher at the University of Michigan Law School, affirms that he is losing it himself, but he proceeds to teach property law when he isn't educating law students about Icelandic sagas, which are his first love. (One of his classes is called "Bloodfeuds.") He has authored earlier publications about disgust and humiliation. He is in his 60s, he says, but seems to intentionally annoy the audience by never supplying his precise age. He is a prankster, a tease, an imp of the perverse, a digressor-transgressor.
The book's first line acts as a warning to the reader: "Digression, cast adrift on the buoyant Dead Sea of your own narrations, is a signal of old age... the natural corrosion of the aging brain." The claim could be made that not since Laurence Sterne's superb 18th-century joke of a novel, "Tristram Shandy," has any book been so well-founded on the slippery rock of digression.
The point, if I may dare to sum up: Old age is an annoying, ridiculous and pathetic downfall toward the state of a turnip softening in a compost heap, if dying is not kind enough to intercede first.
But why compose a book about it?
Besides searching for an excuse to talk about Icelandic sagas, Mr. Miller wants to exhibit his contempt for the positivity crowd that echoes "grow old along with me, the best is yet to be," in the terms of Robert Browning, one of the softer turnips of 19th-century English poetry.
Most boomers, beneath whatever faith they have in free radical remedies or green tea, know the lonesome and agonizing disappointments that await them. They read the necrologies in their alumni bulletins just before they look at the class notices, then understand that they can no more recall who the dead ones were. They are called "spry," or even worse, "well-preserved." White-haired, with hands fisted to disguise tremors, they hate the shop clerks who inquire, "What can I do for you today, young lady?" Mechanics working on their outdated pickup trucks give them an actuarial once-over and then declare: "Take care of this baby and it'll last you the rest of your lifetime."
Mr. Miller makes sure to take all expectation away from us, condemning "the positivity psychologists" who promise a glorious, sensuous, wise, healthy and virtuous old age. He says that the fields they practice in—self-support, mystical geriatrics, cyber-techno-immortality—are "either culpably moronic or a swindle, one in which its purveyors, it seems, trust their own scams."
Rather, he says, life in old age "is a desperate challenge not to be laughed at, sneered at, or looked down on." As an illustration, he asks: "What of my clearly decaying scholarly capacities?... I can't even reliably come up with words like 'refrigerator' or 'kitty litter' and must endure my wife's hand gesture of annoyed contempt to 'get on with it. ' Can I ever get lost in a book again without my thoughts wander?"
He provides no cheering stats, health care reports, predictions of scientific miracles, or celebrations of wisdom and the joys of grandparenting, and he does not bother to refute those who do, except by insulting them.
But now what?
The boomers pay attention to endless prophecies that it won't be death. After all, a defining characteristic of boomers is to believe that they are mysteriously exempt from squalor, failure, decrepitude or fortune. (I can make my own position clear: As a Vietnam veteran I feel, at 70, as if I have been transported to a unit in which all the troops are walking wounded and their killed-in-action amount will be 100%. )
In 1992, I heard Timothy Leary, once a boomer saint and father of the LSD movement in America, tell a crowd: "Dying? Get that one out of your appointment book." Dread of demise was to be scorned. Dying wasn't cool. Leary's hipness expired of prostate cancer in 1996.
Had he changed his thought process by then? Not really: He had thought about cryonics, freezing his body to await revival by more advanced researchers. But, for whatever motive, he settled for having his ashes fired into space. After six years, the rocket fell out of orbit.
These days there are predictions of decrepitude-free endless life—everlasting elderhood—through cyborgian augmentations, renewal remedies, genome sequencing, cellular age-reversal work-ups and trans-humanism. The futurist and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil has published a book referred to as "Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Permanently. " He advises that at a moment called the "singularity," perhaps twenty or thirty years from now, science will be able to stop, and then reverse, growing older. He plans to resurrect his dead father using artificial intelligence and DNA.
There are many more prophets like him winning believers and making money, as one always can by promising everlasting life. Perhaps after elderhood we won't have death, just more periods of elderhood, perhaps dignified with Roman numerals, like Super Bowls: Elderhood XXVII... I can no longer recall how to read Roman numerals that get that large.
But I digress. The real point of "Losing It" is that it offers Mr. Miller an opportunity to play one joke after another on the audience, who can choose to be in on the joke or, perhaps, throw the book across the room. The hell with you if you can't take the joke, he would seem to declare.
He delights in tangling us in morbid reason and including passages so complicated, irrelevant or boring that they become fascinating, even brilliant, as proof of mankind's potential for pernicious whimsy. On any given page you may find Mr. Miller taking you through Dostoyevsky's "Underground Man," Slavic term origins, television's "The Wire" and of course his beloved Icelandic sagas.
Mr. Miller offers Talmudic scrutiny to the awful paradoxes of life, bringing up impotence and then somehow digressing to ancient nobles who had no such issue but instead were sated with endlessly accessible sex and in their soul-sickness joined the church. "Yet, perversely, once the vow of chastity was taken, the enjoyment would be restored to what earlier had been tiresome luxury," he writes. "The paradox is that having given it up, you now had it to give up."
I am not sure just what any of this has to do with losing it in old age. I'm certainly not sure Mr. Miller cares.
Particularly piquant is the writer's explanation of the common law's Rule Against Perpetuities, which would seem to limit constraints that a dead man may place on his heirs, but only a layman could put it that simply. Even as a law teacher, Mr. Miller concedes the rule to be nearly unexplainable. He then futilely talks about it for 5 pages to prove the point, winding up with a lurch into a gloss on Ecclesiastes 9: 5, "but the lifeless know nothing," which somehow brings up a tale from what turns out to be the Babylonian Talmud—examine the footnote, which has its own digression into Hrapp, a figure in one of those Icelandic horror stories.
There are no case chronicles or celebrities in this book, but there are a lot of individuals with names like Kveld-Ulf, Anskar and Constantine the African. Six of the most monotonous pages I have ever read describe the final words of King David (see Samuel 23: 1-7) as well as his dealings with Abner, the son of Ner, Amasa, the son of Jether, and Shimei and Barzillai—so tedious, these Torah-borers, that they're intriguing, an enormous joke, along the lines of the famous Ben Stein economics lecture in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
Mr. Miller cites Pancho Villa, who is said to have said while perishing: "Don't let it end like this, tell them I said something. " Mr. Miller points out that Villa "gets credit for making a great joke at the expense of the art of dying and its desire for renowned last words. That form of witticism, however, was not what he planned at all. He was playing it straight, anguished that he had bungled his finish by not coming up with... some pithy statement."
In the last line of the book, Mr. Miller describes a friend cutting him off in mid-sentence and asking: "Do you want me... to let you know when you are repeating yourself? Or would you prefer that I let it slide?"
He doesn't give his response—the query is as full of traps as "Have you quit beating your wife?" But there are so many concerns like that in old age, and Mr. Miller savors them all in the character of a man lying awake and seeking out a painful tooth with his tongue. As he considered that one from his friend, he might have gone back to Saroyan's: "Now what?"
A final confession: This entire disquisition on Mr. Miller's book has been a digression. I could have just cited the book's title and left it at that, a title authored in 18th-century style for whatever motive: "LOSING IT—in which an aging teacher laments his diminishing BRAIN, which he flatters himself formerly did him Noble Service, a Plaint, tragi-comical, historical, vengeful, oftentimes satirical and thankful in six parts, if his Memory does yet serve."
And so we finish at Mr. Miller's starting point, a mind-twister I'm sure he'd enjoy.