Reviewed by Victoria Best
Cultural theorist Giorgio Agamben has some very interesting things to say on the topic of old age – the subject of Daniel Klein’s gentle, ruminative trundle through classical and existential philosophy. Agamben suggests that the whole concept has changed fundamentally since Descartes and the Enlightenment. Up until then, we assigned most significance to experience, hence the eldest in a tribe were its leaders. To have experienced something was to become a person of authority on the matter; experience was understood as a privileged form of knowledge and it made for a very different perspective on death. Death could be seen as the final pinnacle in a full life; if a person had felt the ravages of suffering and pain as well as joy and celebration, if he had watched children grow, or worked hard for a community, if she had seen beauty and known love, then that life could be considered complete, full and perfect in itself. Death could be experienced as a timely end.
According to Agamben, the modern view on life is radically different. Ever since the Enlightenment and the increasing importance we have given to science, experience has lost its value. To have authority on a topic nowadays means to have objective knowledge. In the scientific view of life, a full life is one in which we know everything, and so inevitably death is now always untimely, always premature. We can add to that the loss of belief in an afterlife that a scientific approach to existence has brought with it; no comforting thoughts of celestial immortality now buffer that final step into the unknown.
So it’s understandable that as a culture we put maximum effort into human longevity. And yet at the same time, our culture only really celebrates and respects youth. The result is what Daniel Klein calls an obsession with ‘youth implants’. For him, it took a trip to the dentist’s chair to get wise to the spectre he was chasing. As a 73-year-old man, his jawbone was atrophying and he was told he’d need a series of dental implants. Initially he agreed, but when he looked at the schedule – a long year of arduous trips for expensive work that would inevitably bring pain – he wondered if this was really how he wanted to spend one of his precious years of leisured life. He realised that a covert ideology was at work, one that insisted pensioners were still ‘in their prime’ and that they should not ‘give in’ to old age. But he felt uneasy about such pressures on his behavioural choices.
‘I suspect that if I were to take this popularly accepted route, I would miss out on something deeply significant: I would deny myself a unique and invaluable stage of life. I have deep-seated qualms about going directly from a protracted prime of life to old old age – the now-attenuated period of senility and extreme infirmity that precedes death. I am seriously concerned that on that route I would miss for eternity ever simply being authentically and contentedly old.’
Klein wanted an alternative to the high-octane lifestyle favoured in the USA, and so he put his favourite tomes of philosophy in a backpack and headed out to the Greek island of Hydra, a place he had been visiting since his 20s and whose old folk ‘struck me as uncommonly content with their stage in life.’ In the relaxed atmosphere of Greek island living, he watches old friends serenely playing cards and chatting, walks the rocky paths that require careful, slow navigation and spends many hours reading up on his favourite philosophers, notably Epicurus, who put personal pleasure as life’s highest goal. That pleasure was not about excess, richness or sensualism. He preferred a bowl of plain boiled lentils to a traditional dish of slow-roasted pheasant, Klein notes with, he says, a small pang of disappointment. This is a philosophy concerned with extracting the most pleasure out of the simplest, readily available things. In other words, the sort of philosophy that is radically at odds with our materialist, ambitious capitalist world. And the sort of philosophy that harks back to those pre-Enlightenment days when experience itself was the hallmark of a life well lived.
Daniel Klein weaves his own experience into his overview of philosophy, brief glances back at his feckless youth, his pointless love affairs, his pleasure in smoking (‘Hey, I’m too old to die young.’), his time spent being taught by Erik Erikson; and more recent experiences, conversations with elderly friends, the feeling of inhabiting his body at this age in his life, the silly rolling-on-the-floor games he plays with his dog now he no longer cares what other people think of him. This is the most gentle, effortless kind of philosophizing, one that blends seamlessly into the business of existence and reflects on it in wise maxims.
Epicurus isn’t the only philosopher invoked here. Sartre, Heidegger, Erikson, Husserl, Kierkegaard and Frank Sinatra all make an appearance along with many others, though it doesn’t feel at all demanding to read. And whilst the mood is essentially positive and optimistic, Klein doesn’t pull his punches. He admits that old old age is a pretty bleak prospect and one he doesn’t face with joy. All the more reason, then, to get the most out of his lucid, capable and contented years, and to enjoy them precisely as a time without unnecessary pressures and demands, a time in which he can reflect over the fullness of a life lived because if not now, then when? I found this to be an endearing book, charming and encouraging. I know I’d rather be allowed to grow old gracefully than chase the evanescent dream of a youth that would at best be a concoction of expensive and time-consuming artifice. Authenticity is Klein’s cry and that’s an old age I stand a good chance of inhabiting.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Daniel Klein, Travels with Epicurus; Meditations from a Greek Island on the Pleasures of Old Age (Oneworld, April 2014) 978-1780744124, 176 pages, paperback original.