Once one is well beyond the three-quarters of a century mark, the question becomes, Am I still required to continue ageing gracefully? Or am I permitted some crankiness, minor rants, and small temper tantrums that scatter onlookers or leave them muttering, “Crazy old man”?
Permitted or not, I now fall into rages. It started in the usual, mild, incremental way, with curses at recalcitrant packages (pill bottles or a plastic container of soy sauce whose narrow ledge I can’t get my fingernails under in order to open it) or a vocalised protest at the TV screen because the reporter from the Washington Post, who’s on the panel, is talking too fast or swallowing the ends of her words (no, of course not! it’s not my hearing! no way! ya think?).
But these complaints about the diminishment of physical dexterity are to be expected. And shouting an obscenity at the ceiling or an electronic screen once in a while is not the end of the world (or even of my world). Increasingly, however, I’m angry about thoughts, ideas, issues, utterances, even entire Worldviews, and not just shrinking capacities. Already today – or was it a couple of days ago? — I’ve gotten enraged over Milan Kundera not winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, about the Ontario provincial election in Canada, about not being able to find Jean Amery’s book about ageing on my bookshelves, and about the Indonesian tourist agency using Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” as the background music for their travel ad on CNN, and the sun is not even over the yardarm yet. I’d better explain.
So, for example, sometime shortly after dawn, first cup of coffee at hand (it now clatters when I set it down on the desk – slight tremor), I was re-reading Milan Kundera’s book-length essay The Art of the Novel (1986, tr. 1988). Kundera, in case you haven’t heard of or only vaguely remember him, is the Czech-born French writer, 89 years old and still alive (at least according to Wikipedia), the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) and a half-dozen other terrific books.
He’s the one who said, “There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age at only exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless.”
Well, one thought led to another, and then suddenly I realized — accompanied simultaneously by a brain-chemical spurt of rage — that the nearly nonagenarian still living Monsieur Kundera has never won the Nobel Prize for Literature (and then a bunch of exclamation marks of rage appeared in my head!!!!). How is that possible, I wondered (plus more enraged exclamation marks)? If anyone deserved the NPfL, it’s gotta be Kundera, one of the great writers of the past half-century. Which led to two splitting thought-paths: a) the list of other writers unjustly ignored by the Swedish Academy, which has monopoly rights to award this award, and b) the Swedish Academy itself. A) is kind of obvious: Philip Roth, now retired from novel writing, and apparently still ambling about the Upper West Side of New York without having won the Nobel, despite his shelfful of some of the best American novels of his generation, heads the list. Before I could get to the rest of the list, I realize that I haven’t even gotten over the long-dead Thomas Bernhard of Austria not having gotten the Nobel, despite being almost as great as Samuel Beckett, and that starts a whole separate thread of rage. (You notice that I’m skipping the exclamation marks that go after each sentence in order to avoid working myself up into a rage all over again.)
Then there’s b), the Swedish Academy itself. The whole awarding of the Nobel literary prize is pretty nutty. It’s decided by a secretive institution, the Swedish Academy, which consists of – wait a sec, I’d better check Wikiwhatever — 18 members elected for life, except this year the Academy got caught up in a “Me, Too” sexual harassment scandal (the details of which are too complicated to explicate here – look it up if you’re interested) which resulted in several members resigning even though there’s no provision for resigning, followed by a klunky decision to postpone awarding the 2018 Nobel for Lit, and putting it off to 2019 when both the 2018 and 2019 awards will be awarded, assuming that the Academy has got its act together again and is once more sitting around its Ikea boardroom table (if they can figure out how to assemble it).
But the question enraging me (apart from all the minor Swedish Academy-related questions merely annoying me) is, So why hasn’t Kundera been awarded the effing Nobel Prize by the effing Swedish Academy, now temporarily shut down for effing moral offenses??!!! (Once I’ve reached the rage-stage, I become as potty-mouthed as all the other swearing, cursing people and bots on Facebook and other unsocial media.) The actual answer is further enraging (and something similar likely applies to Philip Roth too) – which is that about 10 years ago, c. 2008, Kundera was accused by some malevolent Czechs of having finked on someone in 1950 when he was a 21-year-old Communist Party member in a Communist Party-run country – 60 years previously!! – the case is thoroughly murky and technically unproven – but that was probably it for the super-politically-correct-stick-up-its-ass Effing Swedish Academy. (With Roth it probably had something to do with his portrayal of women in his books which pisses off some feminists. On second thought, maybe that’s the reason applied to Kundera as well, since his representations of women are also widely criticised.) Of course I have no idea whether these speculations about motive are true since the Effing Swedish Academy is so effing secretive, which is further enraging, but what else can it be?
By which point, I’ve slid over from my reading desk to my writing desk, and in no time I’m reading some earnest or angry discussion on Facebook about the Ontario provincial election in Canada, several thousand kilometers away from where I’m sitting in Berlin. There, they’re (whoever “they” is) threatening to elect a Donald Trump-like loudmouthed populist right-winger who I think of as “Dopey Doug,” who was the brother of the former notorious, now-deceased, cocaine-snorting, thug-like mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, whose main purpose on the local and world political stage seemed to be to totally embarrass the otherwise mild-mannered, sensible, rule-of-law abiding nation whose passport I bear. In fact, I realize I’m still pissed off that the citizens of Toronto – my fellow Canadian countrymen – ever elected such an imbecile, and now it looks like they’re going to do it all over again.
I realize that I’m already – even though the election is still weeks away – blaming “Ontarians” for culpable political stupidity. How could you do it, how is it possible, I silently rage at them, even though I know perfectly well it’s not all Ontarians (certainly not the dozens and dozens of friends and acquaintances of mine dwelling there, to say nothing of all my FB “friends” and total strangers whose Internet Protocol (IP) address is traceable to some Ontario-located device), but I’m already blaming all Ontarians, and especially blaming my friends, who are supposedly smarter than the idiots (about 40 per cent of the electorate) who are going to elect Dopey Doug. How could you let this happen?, I’m telepathically yelling at my pals. How come you couldn’t figure out how to avoid this catastrophe?
As I realize that I’ve fallen into another spell of mostly irrational anger, I start wondering just how much of this is old-age related impotent rage and how much of this is just me. Maybe I should take another look at what’s-his-name’s perfectly sane book about getting old which is somewhere on my shelves. Jean Amery, that’s his name, and his book is called, appropriately enough, On Aging (1968; tr. 1990). What else would you call a book on ageing?, I snap at some invisible being. So, I go over to the alphabetized part of my bookshelves.
Amery (1912-1978), in case you haven’t heard of him (which is quite possible, since he’s barely known outside of Europe), was a Vienna, Austria-born, Brussels, Belgium-residing, sort-of-French existentionalist philosopher-writer. He had survived Gestapo torture and incarceration in Auschwitz and other concentration camps during World War II, and then spent the following decades as an obscure Brussels-based journalist writing for Swiss publications, until in 1966 he wrote and published a book (translated into English only some thirty years later under the title), At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities. This was followed a couple of years later by On Aging: Revolt and Resignation, and then, completing a sort of trilogy, On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death. A few years later, Amery took an overdose of sleeping pills in a hotel room in Salzburg, Austria and died at age 65.
So, I go over to the “A’s,” and while Adonis, Adorno, Agamben (maybe the latter two should be moved to the “Philosophy” shelves), Akhmatova, Algren and even Amis are all there, there’s no Amery. Nor is he, on an outside chance, in the “M’s” – he was born Hans Mayer and later took the French version of his first name and made an anagram of his last name into Amery. Now, mildly annoyed at people who have never heard of Jean Amery, but mainly annoyed by my own disorderly shelving order, I think, maybe he’s on the Philosophy shelves, which are in the bedroom, but wouldn’t you know it, while there’s (more) Adorno, Arendt, Marcus Aurelius and A.J. Ayer, no Amery, and of course it’s not there “just when you need it.”
As a last ditch move, I go back into my reading-and-writing room, because there are a half-dozen or so unalphabetized shelves containing books I’ve removed from the piles of books on my reading desk (what I call “current reading” – piles which I’ve also hastily gone through, to no avail) and stuck in no particular order on these shelves with the vague intention of getting around to either reading them or shelving them alphabetically (although I’ve done neither). Fer chrissakes, I’m now steaming to myself, enraged this time at me, as I crane my neck and pick through the titles, finding lots of worthy books, but no Amery. I have to abandon the search in mid-rage, still certain that there’s something in the Amery book I need to be reminded of, but that I’m not going to find it. It’s not even noon, and there are other things to do, to track, to think about.
Then it’s the next morning. Creature of habit that I am, I’m at my reading desk with my first cup of coffee in hand, reading something (an essay about Philip Roth, non-recipient of the Nobel Prize), when I absently glance over to the three piles of books on the far right-hand side of the desk, and in the furthest pile I spot something (familiar? or that sparks an unconscious intuition?), a little pamphlet about Buchenwald concentration camp, and reaching across the book stacks, I duly note, right under the pamphlet, there’s a thin volume, and on the cover there’s a photo of a very melancholy man wearing a topcoat and gloves, sitting on a partially frosted, deeply worn wooden park bench (and is that snow on the ground below and behind him?) in Brussels maybe, or somewhere else in Europe. It’s Jean Amery, on the cover of Jean Amery’s book, On Aging, in which he discusses “existence and the passage of time” for the old, on how the aging are alienated from themselves (and their bodies), on the “look” of others or about how the others look “through” the elderly, and the gradual cultural alienation of not being able “to understand the world anymore,” and finally, “to live with dying.”
Amery invites his readers to think about “something that was revealed to me only while I was writing it down… as I felt my way forward step by step, I had to give up the hopes always evoked by the aging; I had to invalidate consolation. Whatever there is in consolation that is recommended to the aging – how to come to terms with one’s decline and fall, even if possible to be able to gain assets from it, nobility of resignation, evening wisdom, late tranquility – it all stood before me as a vile dupery, against which I had to charge myself to protest with every line.”
But that’s the next day, during an interlude of relative sanity. Meanwhile, on the day before, taking a glance at the mid-afternoon TV “news,” I’m just in time for a commercial by the Indonesian Tourist Bureau and overhead shots of the lush green archipelago of islands and tranquil sea that is “Wonderful Indonesia” (the Tourist Bureau’s current advertising slogan). Now, a day (or maybe some days) later, I’m not so sure if I actually saw the ad or was simply angrily thinking of it while watching some other travel enticement or vignette from CNN Travel (for some African game park, or hellish Iceland, or the beaches of the Dominican Republic, all places I wouldn’t want to go to, anyway). Doesn’t matter. It’s Indonesia and its semi-autonomous sharia-law-governed Aceh province scraping through my mind.
There’s the aforementioned drone-taken overhead shot of lush, thickly forested Wayas Island in a pellucid sea, followed by a montage of steaming Ijem crater on East Java, half-second frames of urban shoppers and diners, then a woman in a tranquil wading pool with Kiu Kelep waterfall shimmering down a cliff face, and holding the images together is a soundtrack with a lilting, familiar, gravelly voice that says, “I see trees of green” (island shot) / “red roses too” (diners at terrace restaurant) … / “and I think to myself / What a wonderful world” (waterfall). There’s also the little shock of recognition, if you happen to have any aural memories of him at all, that the voice you’re hearing is that of the late, great jazz musician Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), one of whose signature songs has been franchised to Indonesia Tourist Bureau or its ad agency to provide a mellow musical backdrop to the paradisal images of “Wonderful Indonesia.”
But the image in my mind from Indonesia – a newspaper photo from a year ago – of two men, early 20s, seen from the back, on a platform, who had been arrested in bed together by the Aceh sharia-law-enforcing constabulary, and who are being publicly whipped before a mixed crowd of religious enthusiasts, passersby, and even some tourists, those very tourists the Indonesia Tourist Bureau is trying to lure to its splendid archipelago. And as the rattan cane whistles against their flesh, I hear Louis Armstrong intoning “It’s a wonderful world” on behalf of Wonderful Indonesia. (When I googled for an update on the situation, I learned that last month Indonesia had banned public floggings of overly-affectionate heterosexual couples, prostitutes, and gays, and moved them indoors to prison courtyards, so that this unsightly barbarism would not be inflicted on unsuspecting tourists.)
But I can leave the day’s accumulation of rage behind and relax with the newscast, where the screen splits in two. On the left side is a clutch of shiny, coiffed millionaires from Trump’s White House opening the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem as their contribution to further inflaming the volatile Israeli-Palestinian quagmire, accompaned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu practically drooling with joy over history’s latest turn. While on the right side of the split screen is a dusty, not very descript landscape about 75 kilometers away. That’s where 40,000 or so Palestians in Gaza, a territory run by the extremist and bloodthirsty Hamas wing of the Palestinian political assemblage, are marking the 70th anniversary of the catastrophe that drove them from their traditional dwelling places with a so-called March of Return toward and along the sealed-off Gaza-Israeli border. These mostly civilian, mostly unarmed demonstrators are being targeted with live ammunition by Israeli Defense Force (IDF) snipers from the far side of the fence, amid drone-delivered clouds of tear gas. Some 60 Gazans killed, more than 1,500 wounded.
And yet, as many conservative defenders of Israel rush to point out, the split-screen not only makes for “bad optics” (for Trump and the Israelis) but distorts and over-simplifies the intractable complications of the conflict. True enough, but as columnist Nick Cohen (somewhere in my Facebook “feed”) notes the day after, “… Israeli forces slaughtered Gazans at the border, and yes, thank you, I know Hamas sent them and it is an Islamo-fascist organisation, but if a man with a gun shoots an unarmed demonstrator, he carries the moral responsibility…” (– that’s one of the few ethically semi-clear moments in what will be another chapter of interminable debate for the next several days). Yes, as the poet Yeats has it, “As upon a lighted screen / No single story would they find…” Indeed, as Yeats asks in the poem’s title, “Why should not old men be mad?”