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Deal With It

Losing It
By William Ian Miller
(Yale University Press, 328 pp., $27)

ONE OF THE blessedly few statistics in Losing It, William Ian Miller’s book about his experience of aging, and a tour-de force of hypochondriacal free association, informs his readers that “more than half the people between the ages of sixty-five and seventy-four surveyed in a National Council on Aging study in 2002 thought of themselves as middle aged or young, as did a third of those over seventy-five.” But the datum representing Miller himself is not to be found resting smugly within the large fraction of the self-deluding. Quite the contrary: not for him the transparent popular pap that seventy is the new fifty, or the flattering reassurance that, at sixty-five, he is less functionally fragile and structurally sagging than his co-equal forebears of the previous generation; and certainlynot the disingenuous hook-baiting of the needy anglers who fish for compliments from the young.

Rather than succumb to the blathering statistical salesmanship of the new-speakers who proclaim categories of age and aging to be merely “socially constructed” artifacts, he stands his stubborn ground and demands to be recognized as the specimen of senectus that he claims to see clearly in his shaving mirror each morning. And should an objective observer’s impression not suffice to confirm his own, he takes care to claim even more dodder than he actually feels.

To those of us whose memory of a sixty-fifth birthday has long been lost in the clutter of all the years that followed it, there seems a certain calculated madness in such an unyielding insistence on having, at that age, already reached the precipice over the edge of which lies the yawning pit of infirmity. But like the madness of Hamlet—one of the figures brought vividly to life in the pages of this bookMiller’s has a method, to which he twice confesses. His method is to exaggerate his growing infirmities, for rhetorical and philosophical effect.

But both his admissions, slipped deftly and almost unobtrusively into the text at only the beginning of the book and quickly again in the ultimate sentence of its penultimate paragraph, seem mere murmurs compared with the whines and kvetches to be found spread through the intervening pages. By so overstating the extent of his valetudinarianism, he tells us somewhat unconvincingly early on, “I hope to ward off more, and perhaps reclaim some ground already lost.” And not until the very end does he return to the confession, albeit briefly, of how much he has exaggerated the evidence of his creeping senility. But this time he puts the words into the mouths of fictional gods, who threateningly whisper in his ear the terrifying thought, “How about we make every exaggerated statement you’ve made about yourself in this book TRUE?”

The claims of “losing it” begin as early as the book’s dust jacket, before a reader has had a chance to see a single word of Miller’s text. The archaically cadenced oy veys are laid out in a kind of eighteenth-century type, replete with the irregularities, partial fading, and capitalized nouns characteristic of the printing of that era and earlier. Pulling the volume from a bookstore shelf in order to look at its cover, the potential buyer finds himself confronted with:

in which an aging professor
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  

The whole thing is there to see: a caveat emptor that leaves little to the imagination. Bracing for the worst, though, the reader is somewhat unprepared for all that lies between the covers of the book—unprepared, that is, unless he is acquainted with the previous works of an intellectual oddball of a most unusual type, unusual even for an oddball. Miller is a Professor of Law—and a scholar of Olde English—at the Law School of the University of Michigan, where he uses Icelandic and other medieval sagas to teach property law to students who almost certainly have no idea how lucky they are.

As it is for so many of us who have drunk deeply at the academic spring, the subject of Miller’s scholarly work and instruction may be an outgrowth of the considerable roiling and turmoil in his unconscious mind. He chooses to remind his readers repeatedly of his physical decay and lack of courage (“With a soul like mine, I would have fared poorly in a saga, even more poorly in modern battle—either going mad for lack of sleep or getting shot for running away”), most often between pages describing the heroic feats of his ancient protagonists. And he seems unaware that what appears on the surface to be his quavering preoccupation with emotional fragility leads him to face most realistically and even courageously the indubitable lies and deceptions that characterize most men’s illusory escape from the many moral and behavioral compromises we perpetrate in order to make our lives tolerable.

UNFORTUNATELY FOR the image of worsening physical brittleness and incipient feeble mentality that he would like us to accept, Miller has, before so much as the second chapter of his book, amply disproved his contention that he is at all “losing it.” Not only that, but he has confirmed the current gerontological teaching that no cerebral or somatic significance of the baleful kind is attached to the middle moment of the seventh decade. To put the fact as directly as possible: Miller has written an extravaganza of a book that could only have been produced by a remarkably adroit mind functioning at the very topmost top of its form. If he has lost nearly as much cortical circuitry as he asserts, there is no evidence of it here. Had our neuroscientists not already provided ample evidence of the brain’s plasticity at any age; and its ability to increase transmitters and receptors and in general strengthen synapses; and the availability of adult stem cells to become functioning neurons—in other words, its several ways of making the most of an ever-shrinking volume— we would have the evidence in Miller’s wonderful pages.

Whether through imagined neurasthenia, or pessimism, or as the result of watching too many televised Packers football games (to which he also admits), Miller has abnegated the reality of his obviously uncompromised mentation, at least consciously and for the purposes of this book. Even as he is claiming the onrush of debility, the graceful sound of his prose and its sly, wry insights betray him with an abundance of wit, wisdom, and erudition. I suspect that he wants it both ways: “See how I’m losing it, but see also how brilliant I continue to be.” Well, he most emphatically cannot have it both ways, so he’d better settle on the brilliant—a certainty to which his readers will surely attest.

Having revealed the basis of his book’s title, Miller demonstrates, with examples pulled from his copious literary and historical bag, the ways in which an assortment of characters from long ago have dealt with the burdens of those losses presenting themselves as a consequence of growing older or facing death. The familiar names from various sources—Jacob, Joseph, David, Beowulf, Hamlet, Lear—adorn Miller’s pages in the same fascinating way as do those rarely or never before heard, drawn from the author’s vast knowledge of Norse and Old English legend—Kveld-Ulf, who rose from the bed of grief and age in order to avenge the death of his son, Thorolf; Egil Skallagrimsson, Kveld-Ulf’s grandson, who also took to his bed in sorrow though only in middle age, and then lifted himself up to write a great epic poem; St. Anskar, the martyrdom-seeking apostle of the North; Bersi the dueler, “moaning and groaning about old age” like Miller, although “he was not sick unto death in the least; he was exaggerating,” also like Miller. Each story, whether new or familiar to the reader, is a gem of narration polished to a high sheen by exemplary literary style.

STILL, THE LESSONS to be learned from Losing It are not, in fact, to be found primarily in the Norse sagas, as colorful and well-told as they are. And even the twice-told Biblical and literary tales teach less than does Miller himself in his musings on aspects of what we nowadays call “the human condition.” Rather, the tales from earlier times serve more as a skeletal structure on which to attach the real musculature of this meaty book, made up of observations and reflections on mankind’s shared weaknesses, often with Miller himself as the template.

Consisting in the main of the equivalent of mini-essays, most of Miller’s briefly limned topics can be listed as though in a table of contents: vanity; the uses of despair; humiliation; purported wisdom; complaining (natch); the tendency to nostalgia; curmudgeons; our obligations to the dead; the transience of commitments, and even of the significance of events; styles of dying. Do I dare say that Miller makes me think of a less optimistic, less content, less rambling, and more skeptical Montaigne? Going modern, do I dare say that he makes me think of a fellow Midwestern essayist who exploits his Jewishness to explain away a certain cynicism and solipsistic turn of mind, specifically Joseph Epstein? No, Miller has none of Epstein’s mean-spirited resentment, none of his vengefulness. In making such a comparison of contemporary writers, I am probably allowing myself to be overly influenced by the choice each has made of targets at which to tilt their respective lances, as indicated by the titles of their own books: for Miller of Green Bay, Wisconsin, such as The Anatomy of Disgust; Eye for an Eye; Faking It; Humiliation;for Epstein of Chicago, Illinois, such as Snobbery; Gossip; Friendship, an Exposé; Ambition. You see what I mean, and also see how easily the taste of acid may be differentiated from a delicious tartness, and certainly from sweet. For Montaigne, the sweet; for Miller, the tart; for Epstein, the acid.

I have earlier accused—or at least suspected—Miller of a hypochondriasis that inflates his few real evidences of aging into proportions well beyond their actual significance. His pre-emptive defense against such a charge is mounted in a typically perspicacious chapter of his book called “Defying Augury,” in which he treats of suggestive indications and signs, including those possibly foretelling the approach of death.

There is, to be sure, sometimes only a small difference between being alert to possible danger and allowing oneself to become terrified to the point of paralysis by seeming or imagined portents. Though worldly men and women no longer search for clues to the imminent future in the viscera of slaughtered domestic animals, or in astrological events like the passage of comets and shooting stars, or in such celestial configurations as a confluence of Mars and Venus, none of us would be wise to ignore those that come from within—an unaccustomed pain or a sudden irregularity of the heartbeat. Here is Miller on the contrasts between divination and physical self-awareness:

If I have countenanced more magical thinking in this book than is seemly for a reasonably educated person to indulge, I must add that I find myself, like many an ancient, checking for omens, reading the portents. The omens and the portents, however, are not to be found in the sky. Comets, eclipses, or the flights of birds mean nothing. I do not cast a die, and if I knew what urim and thummim looked like, I would not consult them either. Entrails? The livers and kidneys, the hearts and spleens of sheep, goats, and chickens are mute. Not so, however, my own entrails. These I consult regularly. They burst forth with significant omens and portents, if only I could read them correctly, for study them I do. Each new pain, each untoward change in what used to be the unattended baseline of what it meant to feel embodied, carries ominous purport. Call it hypochondria if you want to humiliate me; I call it augury....

Augury, however, is still necessary. Though it must be defied, it gives notice as to when you have to put your readiness into high alert. “Readiness is all” sets an impossible standard if it requires constant vigilance, sleeping with one eye open for a lifetime, because of the remote chance death might catch you at any second. You would end up darting nervously about like a chipmunk that can barely get a bite in to nourish himself before dashing for cover. Though chipmunks can tolerate, it seems, a high false-alarm rate, humans who are that jittery are sorry cases, surely not worthy of tragedy or epic. They might end up mad but not in a way worthy of song. You must budget how often you can go into a readiness-is-all mode. You restrict total readiness to those occasions when something is pretty clearly up or when you have already embarked knowingly on high-risk action. Augury tells you when you have to get ready. Defying its unpropitious prediction is one powerful way of making a commitment.

Miller is most emphatically not a sorry case, and despite his protestations he is not a chipmunk. Struggle mightily though he may to be perceived as one, his clear judgment and his refusal to surrender to obsessional thinking are the qualities guaranteeing that he will not succumb to the jitteriness that he portrays as his natural condition. His good sense and his analytic clarity of thought will see him through, just as using himself as a template—though a deliberately exaggerated one—will do good service to his readers, of whom there should be many.

Sherwin B. Nuland, the author of How We Die, is clinical professor of surgery at Yale University and a member of the Executive Committee of The Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics. This article appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of the magazine.