Old Age,Death and the Whole Shebang

21 Feb

In explaining their upbeat anthology The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death, Brad Morrow and David Shields quote David Foster Wallace by way of explaining their intention:

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self, (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I ‘m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple fingered theoretical justification, I strongly suspect a big part of [a writer’s]job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people; to move people to countenance it;since as any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

Personally, I am of the opinion this is the most sophomoric if not dumbest thing I have ever read by Foster Wallace but that’s ambient to this book note—though I wonder if the editors of The Inevitable gave the Wallace citation to the participating authors before they accepted their contributions?

Writers included in this collection are Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Dillard, Robert Clark, Jonathan Safran Foer, Sallie Tisdale, Mark Doty, Geoff Dyer, Peter Straub,Terry Castle and Diane Ackerman,Christopher Sorrentino and David Gates

Susan Jacoby is lionized (at least by her publisher as a “unsparing chronicler of unreason in American culture”) And in Never Say Die: The New Old Age:The Myth and Marketing of the New Old (Pantheon) she has found a subject worthy of her unsparingness. Reading Jacoby, Baby Boomers as well as the 70 million American who will be over 65 by 2030 will quickly learn that the economic engine driving a joyous and untroubled old age is very effective in steam rolling the less than hopeful reality. Here is Jacoby:

I hope that this book about the genuine battles of growing old will provide support for all who draw their strength and courage from real­ity, however daunting that reality may be, rather than from platitudes about “defying old age.” This commonly used phrase in the annals of the so-called new old age fills me with rage, because the proximity of old age to death is not only undefiable but undeniable. Anger, by the way, is another emotion considered inappropriate in the old; the dubi­ous notion of the “wisdom of old age” rests on the belief that elders can, and should, transcend the passions, vaulting ambition, and com­petitiveness of their younger adult lives and arrive at some sort of peace that passeth all understanding.

Nicholas Delbanco, has a decidedly more measured take with his rumination, Lastingness The Art of Old Agee (Grand Central Books). As one would expect the opening epigram from Robert Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra, succinctly suggests Delbanco’s attitude

Grow Old along with me.
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:

Delbanco explaIns:

This book is about tribal elders in the world of art; what interests me is lastingness: how it may be attained.For obvious reasons, this has become a personal matter: I publish my first novel in 1966 and very much hope to continue…An ever growing number of Americans are middle-aged or elderly:no natural catastrophe has thinned our swelling ranks. And the habit of creation does not die, so there are more who paint the sunset or take piano lessons or hunt the perfect end rhyme at day’s end…

Yet its a daunting proposition. To try to fashion work that might last more than one season is to recognize how hard it is to make a thing of beauty be “a joy forever”— that proud bias of a poet who died at twenty five…”

In these pages I consider what has been left behind: testimonials we hear and see and read…

Add to the mix of these somber thoughts on that particular unyielding certainty are Joseph Epstein’s evocation of Cicero as he presents his own thoughts on Jacoby’s rant:

Unlike Ms. Jacoby, with her penchant for doctor-assisted suicide, Cicero thought with Pythagoras that we mustn’t “desert life’s sentry-post till God, our commander, has given word.” He was of course aware of the arbitrary nature of death, which can strike at any age: “What nature gives us is a place to dwell in temporarily, not to make one’s own.”

Death, Cicero knew, is an old joke that comes to each of us afresh; and he also knew that old age is a straight man who prepares us, always inadequately, for the punch line. He was himself murdered at 63, by order of his enemy Mark Antony: the hands that had composed attacks against Antony cut off and displayed alongside his head in the Roman Forum. Cicero was wise enough to know that even wisdom itself is no protection against the forces of nature or the malevolence of men

Finally, Epstein’s own views on aging are worth mulling over: Upon turning 70 Epstein opined:

I much like the Internet, adore email, and probably use Google seven or eight times a day. But must I also check in on YouTube, have a posting on MySpace, and spend a portion of my day text-messaging? At 70, the temptation is to relax, breathe through the mouth, and become comfortably rear-guard.

One Response to “Old Age,Death and the Whole Shebang”


  1. Books, Books and More Books « ourmaninboston - February 23, 2011

    […] of California Press) Naked Heat -Richard Castle (Hyperion) Townie-Andre Dubus III (Norton) Never Say Die:The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age -Susan Jacoby (Pantheon) Enough About Love- Herve Le Tellier (Other) Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir […]

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