October 28, 2011


William Ian Miller, 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, sometime satirical and thankful in six parts if his Memory does yet serve (New Haven & London: Yale U. Press, 2011) (From the book's jacket: "In Losing It, William Ian Miller brings his inimitable wit and learning to the subject of growing old: too old to matter, of either rightly losing your confidence or wrongly maintaining it, culpably refusing to face the fact that you are losing it. Miller's greatest fear is the loss of mental faculties--memory, processing speed, sensory acuity, the capacity to focus. But he is acutely attuned to bodily decline as well--sags and flaccidities, aches and pains, failing joints and organs. What are we to make of these telltale signs? Does growing old gracefully mean more than simply refusing unseemly cosmetic surgeries? How do we face decline and the final drawing of the blinds? And, most urgently: How will we know if and when we have lingered too long?" "Drawing on a lifetime of deep study and anxious observation, Miller enlists the wisdom of the ancients to confront these vexed questions head on. Debunking the glossy new image of old age that has accompanied the graying of the baby boomers, he conjures a lost world of aging rituals--complaints, taking to bed, schemes for taking it with you or settling up accounts and scores--to remind us of the hardships and the tactics that accompany our so-called Golden Years. Eccentric, elegant, and darkly intelligent, Losing It will raise the spirits of readers young and old." It is very difficult to read a book in which, passage after passage, one sees oneself (in which I see myself) in a not flattering light. "If I had a hard time adjusting to the roles demanded in the prime of life, then what am I to do with old age, where I am not even sure I know what I look like? Maybe playing the old man properly requires thinking you are twenty years younger than you are and acting the fool who thinks such. If that is the case, them my failure to recognize myself in the shop window proves me perfectly immersed in the role of the old man I thought I wasn't." "But with recognition comes deflation and shame, because you fear that others can see your pathetic vanity, that they caught you in the act of such egregiously self-flattering complacency, that they caught the old guy checking himself out in the shop window. Any minimally astute observer, such as one of your students, can see the pretense in the way you talk, or try to hold yourself, which you believe is ramrod straight, but the sag at the knees and the crick in your back betray you. Yet that shame is also a its own sort of vanity. It assumes people, younger people, to be exact, are looking at you, or looking at you as anything other than a sixty-something, cancelled soul. As one female student told a female colleague of mine, which my colleague, reveling in Schadenfreude, hastened to relay to me: 'Oh, Professor Miller, he's such a cute old man.' That was rather more painful than the specter in the shop window, though I still vividly remember when I was twenty how someone forty might as well have been a member of a different species, or a shade in Charon's boat crossing over. The idea that such moribund souls could be objects of desire or have any themselves was beyond my imaginative powers. And still is. The student and my colleague were instruments of cosmic comic revenge, punishing me for having somewhat too good self-esteem, which like so much self-esteem had become quite unhinged from reality." Id. at 16-17.).