Becoming Less & Less

Life made more sense in the Middle Ages, when no one lasted past forty.
Brian Morton Starting Out in the Evening

Philip Roth’s Exist Ghost, like his other recent books (The Dying Animal and Everyman) is a meditation on aging. In Exit Ghost, Nathan Zuckerman returns to New York from his solitary home on a mountain in New England, sans television, sans computer, sans telephone, although he does have a typewriter.

“I’d conquered the solitary’s way of life; I knew its tests and satisfactions and over time had shaped the scope of my needs to its limitations, long ago abandoning excitement, intimacy, adventure, and antagonisms in favor of quiet, steady, predictable contact with nature and reading and my work.”

In New York he confronts old age squarely in the person of Amy Bellette, the former mistress of his beloved mentor, also a cloistered writer, and Jamie, the young and beautiful writer, who along with her husband, will swap their West Side apartment for his isolated retreat for a year.

The once beautiful and charming Amy is now an old woman, an invalid who is recovering from brain surgery. Jamie’s allure draws him back to everything he thought he had left behind, an intimacy of the mind and body. “…a man who’d cut himself off from sustained human contact and its possibilities yielding to the illusion of starting again.” To paraphrase Roth, there is the desire still and the temptation aroused and the reality is agony.

Yet Zuckerman is 71 years old now and has recently had prostate surgery, leaving him both impotent and incontinent. “To possess control over one’s bladder—who among the whole and healthy ever considers the freedom that bestows or the anxious vulnerability its loss can impose on even the most confident among us.” Again, to paraphrase Roth, there is no virility, only the arousal and the anticipation.

Earlier in Everyman Roth had written that “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” No once has characterized aging more accurately; no one has described it so cogently.

In a longer passage from Everyman, Roth ruminates further about the experience of growing old, “He neither possessed the productive man’s male allure nor was capable of germinating the masculine joys, and he tried not to long for them too much. On his own he had felt for a while that the missing component would somehow return to make him inviolable once again and reaffirm his mastery, that the entitlement mistakenly severed would be restored and he could resume where he’d left off only a few years before. But now it appeared that like any number of the elderly, he was in the process of becoming less and less and would have to see his aimless days through to the end as no more than what he was—the aimless days and uncertain nights and the impotently putting up with the physical deterioration and the terminal sadness and the waiting and waiting for nothing. This is how it works out.”

Much of what Roth says is consistent with current medical research on aging. Atul Gawande summarizes this work in an article he wrote for the New Yorker in 2007. Gawande says, “The idea that living things shut down and not just wear down has received substantial support in the past decade.” Gawande continues, “…one too many joints are damaged, one too many arties calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore. We just fall apart.” Echoing Morton in the passage at the start of this post, Gawande says that human beings are in a way like freaks who are living well beyond their appointed time.

Roth is now 75 and has been through some rough times recently. I am getting close and am not as fit as I once was either. So his tales of growing old, while depressing and grim, do confirm much of what I am either experiencing or surely about to experience. How bleak the prospect, how sad the inevitable.

Nor surprisingly, aging was one of the most frequent themes in the study that I undertook a few years ago of my Commonplace Book. Below are a few of the passages I collected in the books I had been reading up until the time of my review.

From now on, little by little, you must prepare yourself to face death. If you devote all of your future energy to living, you will not be able to dwell. You must begin to shift gears, a little at a time. Living and dying are, in a sense, things of equal value.
Haruki Murakami

For the first time he has a taste of what it will be like to be an old man, tired to the bone, without hopes, without desires, indifferent to the future.
J. M. Coetzee Disgrace

As he eased himself out of bed he reflected that survival was a mixed blessing. It involved surrendering that once young self to time, and time taught harsh lessons.
Anita Brookner Making Things Better

he didn’t mind death so much as dying.
Joseph Epstein Fabulous Small Jews

She’s probably no older than me. In fact, she’s my future—the wart, the walker, the wheelchair. As she came closer, he heard her mumbling.
Irving Yalom The Schopenhauer Cure