Sunday, January 1, 2012

Losing It

Raging Against Aging by Henry Allen, Wall Street Journal [review of Losing It By William Ian Miller Yale, 328 pages, $27]

In 1981, five days before cancer killed him, the life-loving writer William Saroyan told the Associated Press: "Everybody has to die, but I always believed an exception 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 possibly most self-deluded generation in American history, the baby boomers.

The youngest of them are middle-aged now, taking a hard-headed look at old age and asking: Now what? Some are also 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 stage of life, like childhood or adulthood.

But then what? Surely not deathhood. Or afterhood, or oblivionhood. No, a lot of people are making a lot of money promising immortality. But I digress. Then again, digression is the essence of William Ian Miller's book about old age. It answers the question of "Now what?" with its title: "Losing It."

Mr. Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, says that he is losing it himself, but he continues to teach property law when he isn't teaching law students about Icelandic sagas, which are his first love. (One of his courses is called "Bloodfeuds.") He has written earlier books about disgust and humiliation. He is in his 60s, he says, but seems to deliberately annoy the reader by never giving his exact age. He is a prankster, a tease, an imp of the perverse, a digressor-transgressor.

The book's first line serves as a warning to the reader: "Digression, cast adrift on the buoyant Dead Sea of your own narrations, is a sign of old age . . . the natural decay of the aging brain." The claim could be made that not since Laurence Sterne's great 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 decline toward the state of a turnip softening in a compost heap, if death is not kind enough to intervene first.

But why write a book about it?

Besides looking for an excuse to discuss Icelandic sagas, Mr. Miller wants to express his contempt for the positivity crowd that echoes "grow old along with me, the best is yet to be," in the words of Robert Browning, one of the softer turnips of 19th-century English poetry.

Most boomers, beneath whatever faith they have in free radical therapy or green tea, know the lonely and painful disappointments that await them. They read the necrologies in their alumni bulletins before they look at the class notes, then realize that they can no longer remember who the dead ones were. They are called "spry," or even worse, "well-preserved." White-haired, with hands fisted to hide tremors, they hate the store clerks who ask, "What can I do for you today, young lady?" Mechanics working on their old pickup trucks give them an actuarial once-over and then say: "Take care of this baby and it'll last you the rest of your life."

Mr. Miller makes sure to take all hope away from us, condemning "the positivity psychologists" who promise a glorious, sensual, wise, healthy and virtuous old age. He says that the fields they practice in—self-help, mystical geriatrics, cyber-techno-immortality—are "either culpably moronic or a swindle, one in which its purveyors, it seems, believe their own cons."

Instead, he says, life in old age "is a desperate struggle not to be laughed at, sneered at, or looked down upon." As an example, 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 irritated contempt to 'get on with it.' Can I ever get lost in a book again without my mind wandering?"

He provides no cheering statistics, medical 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 listen to endless prophecies that it won't be death. After all, a defining trait of boomers is to believe that they are somehow exempt from squalor, failure, decrepitude or fate. (I can make my own position clear: As a Vietnam veteran I feel, at 70, as if I have been transferred to a unit in which all the troops are walking wounded and their killed-in-action rate will be 100%.)

In 1992, I heard Timothy Leary, once a boomer saint and father of the LSD movement in America, tell a crowd: "Death? Get that one out of your appointment book." Fear of death was to be scorned. Death wasn't hip. Leary's hipness expired of prostate cancer in 1996.

Had he changed his mind by then? Not really: He had thought about cryonics, freezing his body to await revival by more advanced scientists. But, for whatever reason, he settled for having his ashes fired into space. After six years, the rocket fell out of orbit.

Nowadays there are predictions of decrepitude-free eternal life—perpetual elderhood—through cyborgian implants, restoration therapies, genome sequencing, cellular age-reversal work-ups and trans-humanism. The futurist and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil has written a book called "Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever." He suggests that at a moment called the "singularity," perhaps 20 or 30 years from now, science will be able to stop, and then reverse, aging. 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 eternal life. Maybe after elderhood we won't have death, just more stages of elderhood, perhaps dignified with Roman numerals, like Super Bowls: Elderhood XXVII . . . I can no longer remember how to read Roman numerals that get that high.

But I digress. The real point of "Losing It" is that it gives Mr. Miller an opportunity to play one joke after another on the reader, who can elect to be in on the joke or, possibly, throw the book across the room. The hell with you if you can't take the joke, he seems to say.

He delights in tangling us in morbid logic and including passages so complicated, irrelevant or boring that they become interesting, even admirable, as proof of mankind's capacity for pernicious whimsy. On any given page you may find Mr. Miller taking you through Dostoyevsky's "Underground Man," Slavic word roots, television's "The Wire" and of course his beloved Icelandic sagas.

Mr. Miller gives Talmudic scrutiny to the terrible paradoxes of life, bringing up impotence and then somehow digressing to medieval nobles who had no such problem but instead were sated with endlessly available sex and in their soul-sickness joined the church. "Yet, perversely, once the vow of chastity was taken, the thrill 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 what any of this has to do with losing it in old age. I'm not sure Mr. Miller cares.

Particularly piquant is the author's explanation of the common law's Rule Against Perpetuities, which would seem to limit restrictions that a dead man may place on his heirs, but only a layman could put it that simply. Even as a law professor, Mr. Miller concedes the rule to be nearly unexplainable. He then futilely explains it for five pages to prove the point, winding up with a lurch into a gloss on Ecclesiastes 9:5, "but the dead know nothing," which somehow brings up a tale from what turns out to be the Babylonian Talmud—check the footnote, which has its own digression into Hrapp, a character in one of those Icelandic horror stories.

There are no case histories or celebrities in this book, but there are many people with names like Kveld-Ulf, Anskar and Constantine the African. Six of the most boring pages I have ever read describe the last 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 fascinating, 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 dying: "Don't let it end like this, tell them I said something." Mr. Miller points out that Villa "gets credit for making a superb joke at the expense of the art of dying and its demand for famous last words. That kind of witticism, however, was not what he intended at all. He was playing it straight, anguished that he had bungled his end by not coming up with . . . some pithy statement."

In the last line of the book, Mr. Miller describes a colleague 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 answer—the question is as full of traps as "Have you stopped beating your wife?" But there are so many questions like that in old age, and Mr. Miller savors them all in the spirit of a man lying awake and seeking out a sore tooth with his tongue. As he pondered that one from his colleague, he might have gone back to Saroyan's: "Now what?"

A final confession: This whole 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 written in 18th-century style for whatever reason: "LOSING IT—in which an aging professor laments his shrinking BRAIN, which he flatters himself formerly did him Noble Service, a Plaint, tragi-comical, historical, vengeful, sometimes satirical and thankful in six parts, if his Memory does yet serve."

And so we end at Mr. Miller's beginning, a mind-twister I'm sure he'd enjoy.

—Mr. Allen, a former writer and editor for the Washington Post, won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2000.

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