Losing It: In Which an Aging Professor Laments his Shrinking Brain...
Laurie Taylor revels in the shock of recognition as a scholar laments the dying of the light
For me, old age, not unlike leprosy or colonic irrigation, was always going to be something that happened to other people. Indeed, so secure did I feel about my eternal middle age that I made a speciality of retailing jokes and anecdotes about the absurdities of elderly academics. Did you hear the one about the senior professor who rang to check the details of his forthcoming visit to give a staff-graduate seminar? After the train times and location of the taxi rank had been extensively discussed, the departmental secretary turned to the professor's presentation, and asked him if he would be requiring any audio-visual aids. "No thank you," barked the aged one, "I can still see and hear perfectly well."
I hardly had to work hard to get my laughs. Children's comics, seaside postcards and end-of-the-pier comedians had long recognised the humorous potential of the ancient professor, with stooped back, fading memory, rolled trousers and lopsided mortar board. It was, I suppose, a mild form of public revenge. "Look darling, that's what happens to you when you're too clever by half."
It was the dreadful prospect of conforming to this comic stereotype that made dons band together to deny even the slightest sign of fading faculties. If one of us couldn't remember the name of the Italian theorist who reckoned that history went in recurring cycles, or the third of Max Weber's four types of rationality, there was no rush to supply the missing information. Best to keep quiet. It could easily be our turn to forget tomorrow.
In much the same spirit, we blamed each other's inability to read mark sheets on the late afternoon lighting, agreed that the stairs up to the second floor of the library were quite unnecessarily steep, and collectively moaned about the general inaudibility of the latest bunch of undergraduates.
Students always posed a particular threat to this fight against ageing. Unless we took care, they could readily expose the outdatedness of our references, our failure to mention important new work, our reliance upon ancient examples. Somehow we had to place ourselves above such possibilities.
William Ian Miller knows more about this than most. In his delicious 2003 exploration of inauthenticity, Faking It, he described his own techniques for seeing off inquisitive students.
"It happened again today," wrote Miller. "I was bluffing my way through some material in my Property class about which I knew no more than what the teaching manual told me, it being the extent of my researches on the topic. On such occasions I present the subject in the pompous style in which professional banalities are often uttered, meaning thereby to prevent student questions by elevating myself to the regions of the unquestionable. God forbid one of them should start thinking deeply about the stuff and expose the limits of my knowledge."
Miller's hilarious account of the little self-deceptions and vanities that help us stumble through life owes a great deal to sociologist Erving Goffman's lifelong obsession with the micro-government of everyday life, the form of government that in Herbert Spencer's words "has ever had, and continues to have, the largest share in regulating men's lives".
In his wonderful new book, Losing It, Miller deals with the micro-government of ageing: the various ways in which our interactional competence is undermined by growing old and the strategies we then employ in order to still "pass" (Goffman's term) as fully functioning members of the human race.
Here is Miller, tackling with customary subtlety and humour the value of dealing with ageing by openly admitting to its ravages: "By claiming more decay than may have actually set in, I hope to ward off more, and perhaps reclaim some common ground already lost. The gods will reward my self-flagellation, the modest stripes of blood on my back, for not presuming on their beneficence. By counting chickens of negative value before they hatch, you expect to trick the gods into treating you better than it is certain they would had you counted unhatched chickens of positive value, in which case you can rest assured they would take a hostile interest in your presumption and kill the chicks or smash the eggs."
This is not the sort of mordant humour that is going to sit readily alongside the idea that growing old brings unexpected benefits. Here is how Miller sets about one American academic, Laura Carstensen, who has written about the "paradox of ageing", the survey evidence that old people suffer significant loss with age but experience life more positively.
"Paradox?" asks Miller. "There is no paradox here at all, even if we grant for the nonce that her surveys showing old-age upbeatness are reliable, ignoring that her subjects may well be on higher doses of Zoloft and Paxil than I am. These oldsters have lost the very means to make the critical judgements."
If these old people say they are contented, argues Miller, now running at full throttle, "they are probably being merely polite, not wishing to complain, or more darkly, they are contented in the minimalist sense...The contentment is of the sort that I felt as I lay vomiting on the track after having run a four-hundred-meter race; relieved it was over." And then he delivers his coup de grâce. "Did she interview any old Jews?"
This vigorous pessimism is strangely liberating. It dissolved all the hesitation I had about reading a book that promised to chronicle the losses of old age in exhaustive detail. At times Miller's determined miserabilism gets it so right that all one can do is sit back, revel in the shock of recognition, and laugh aloud.
He writes: "Why shouldn't the old be peevish, irascible, morose, irritable, given their aches and pains, their loss of mental acuity, their not mattering anymore. I find, for instance, that arthritic knees, hips and big left toe, the increasingly common morning experience of discovering I have somehow injured myself while sleeping - that is if I had the fortune to fall asleep in the first place - do wonders for the natural sweetness of my disposition."
This readiness to face the horrors of ageing doesn't mean that Miller subscribes to a heroic view of death, a Dylan Thomas-inspired readiness to rage against its arrival. He'd like to go out in style, but what would that mean for an academic? "Keep writing books, ever weaker, but just keep at it, whether they be published or not? Give it all up and become a suicide bomber at some cultural studies conference? Drink myself to death?"
The best he can hope for is to die with "sufficient wits" to appreciate the experience in the presence of his family. All that he'd then need to do would be to "make a few ironical remarks, to prove I have not lost it all, and then draw up my feet and breathe my last".
I should also tell you that Miller finds time in between his beautifully nuanced accounts of ageing to find consoling and illustrative analogies in the lives of a vast range of historical and literary figures. But then Miller, apart from being a hugely accomplished social analyst, is also a distinguished professor of law and an expert on medieval history and Icelandic sagas.
He is also, worryingly, only in his mid-sixties. This means that, however much I admire his work, I will never be able to tell him so in person. I am, after all, still resolutely following the age-defying advice given by Ronnie Scott. "The only way to stay looking young", he opined drily, "is to hang around with older people."
William Ian Miller, who has been Thomas G. Long professor of law at the University of Michigan since 1998, recently received the title of honorary professor of history from the University of St Andrews.
As pleased as he is with such recognition, if he were able to do anything in a fantasy life, he says he would be the musician Ray Davies for a year, the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers or a guitar player with the skills of Blind Blake or Blind Willie Johnson.
Having always lived in the US, Miller is, he says, as American as apple pie, though he admits to spending a year in Paris in 1967 "staying clear of the Vietnam War" and to seven months working on a kibbutz in Israel when he was 18 - "outside of the nutty USA, Israel is the least boring country. There's an energy, and a lack of civility that is so over the top it becomes kind of entertaining."
In his spare time, Miller likes being out on his 1800cc motorcycle and, when not riding, enjoying real ale, which "helps me stop worrying why I am not spending the time it takes to drink the ale on researching and writing".
Losing It: In Which an Aging Professor Laments his Shrinking Brain...
By William Ian Miller
Yale University Press
Published 17 November 2011
Laurie Taylor is a fellow of Birkbeck, University of London, and wears his trousers rolled.