“I age, therefore I am not”
12 January 2022
The Birthday Ceremony, Sophie Calle: Image credit: The New York Times.
This brief, largely autobiographical text is an old man’s reflection on old age, mental old age in particular. For intellectuals, intellectual vitality is crucial, and the prospect of losing it is devastating. All the more so because if you lose your intellectual vitality, you do not realise you have lost it. You hope it will be someone else (perhaps someone as old as you) who will say to you “Be quiet, you’re senile!” But what if this other person is a senile one too?
Unawareness of your mental degradation opens up logical paradoxes the full gravity of which the author illustrates. Because not recognising one’s mediocrity is a problem that goes far beyond the decay of old age; it is a universal double bind in every human and social relationship.
When one enters the eighth decade of one’s life–as the person writing has–one is finally free to dwell on the miseries of old age. It would be incorrect for a young person to do so.
Old people are free to say what they want. Above all, they are free to speak nonsense–the young will not dare react indignantly, not out of respect for senectus as one might believe, but out of pity. “Poor thing, he’s not with it anymore...,” people say with a tone that is half mocking and half contrite. It’s true that many people, once old–with nothing to lose, not even their old-age pension–finally feel liberated to voice the stupidities they have always deep down thought, even when they were young, except they didn’t dare say them before in public. When young, we are careful not to provoke the common sense of modesty, we know that certain things can be said only with circumlocution for which few understand. Old age, on the contrary, gives license to audacity. This is what happened to a famous Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, a genius who, with age, left to drain his scientifically racist beliefs, to the embarrassment and horror of colleagues and admirers. However, I am convinced that this Nobel winner had always entertained those racist ideas in the private courtyard of his own mind.
So let me say something unpleasant about the old, sorry, the elderly, as one must euphemise. If I don’t say it now, I will never be able to say it later.
(If I say “an old man like myself...”, the imbecile one who is with me usually responds “Old? No, you’re not old...” Which makes me think: if he says this, it’s because there are so many old fools who need to be told “you’re a senior, but you’re not elderly!” People desperately need flattery, even if it is insincere, and if you don’t play along, you’re not a philanthropist. One is stupid because, in the end, so are your neighbours. La bêtise, c’est les autres).
Who is writing here is–or better considers himself – an intellectual. This does not necessarily imply–as many intellectuals mistakenly think–that he is also intelligent. However, for him the brain is like the hands for a pianist or the legs for a dancer: without it, he is nothing. As he gets older, he finds himself correcting Woody Allen’s famous line (“My brain? That’s my second favourite organ”) to bitterly admit that it is his first. For someone who has spent his whole life immersed in thought, no longer being able to think–or worse, thinking banal thoughts, which is a way of no longer thinking while believing one still is–is worse than what losing his virility is for a man, or what no longer being desired is for a woman. Clearly Alzheimer’s and senile dementia are the spectres that haunt intellectuals. But they’re not the worst that could happen. The worst, I think, escapes many “old people”.
The worst, for an aging intellectual, is to go gaga without realizing it. To believe that one is still intellectually lively, that one can blatantly express his or her opinion in front of fresher minds, without realizing–and here is where the horror lies: in not realizing–that what he or she is saying is no longer of interest. Or, while naive people, admirers, or family and friends still listen to him because they love him, he certainly doesn’t hold interest for the people he or she admires and esteems. All of which creates an angry reaction in him, and is why old intellectuals often become irascible and sensitive, because they realize they are no longer recognized, and this lack of recognition is intolerable. With age, one tends to become dogmatic, in the sense that one tends to become one’s own dogma. For this intellectual, it is still tolerable to realize that he remembers almost nothing of recent events; that he remembers a film seen 40 years ago but not one seen two days ago; that he always asks the same question to the same person (“remind me of your name”, “what do you do for a living?”, “what neighbourhood do you live in?”...); and that certain logical-mathematical reasoning he used to be able to follow has now become difficult. Yet all of this remains tolerable, because he or she still realizes it.
The real point of no return, the pillars of Hercules of mental old age, is when you believe you are still thinking in an interesting way when you aren’t. Because this is an illusion that cannot be mended: there is no psychoanalysis or neurological treatment that can reverse the course of the river flowing towards the sea of imbecility, indeed, there is no remedy. But the horror lies in not realizing that there is no remedy. It’s worse than death, because one can die lucid and aware of dying, while the demented don’t know they’re demented. And this is the worst imaginable fear for an intellectual, to see his own pink face of self-awareness slashed.
Of course, one also fears this senile self-infatuation because one sees it in others. The saddest thing about aging is that one has observed and continues to observe others grow old, and not just physically. Sad because, in effect, one must reluctantly acknowledge a very simple fact: that when people age, they rarely improve as persons. They usually deteriorate, especially from a moral point of view. There are happy exceptions, but then we realize that these exceptional people have improved with age simply because they were better people to begin with. To quote Pindar, as old people we become what we are. Once the smooth skin of youth is torn, the pocked skin of defects emerges.
But if old age strips away one’s mask, then what do I mean when I say that with aging things get worse? Because our face, contrary to what a certain popular philosophy of authenticity claims, is generally worse than our mask. A naked face, if we listen to Freud, reveals a lustful pervert, an aggressive bully, a bigot, or all these things together.
When I look at my most recent writings, I mostly think they are better than what I wrote when I was young. “I’ve matured,” I say self-satisfied. But then someone says they prefer what I wrote when I was young... And if I too, like most aging people, were also deteriorating? The extreme illusion of old people is to think that they are getting better with age, that in short, they are going against the biological trend, and herein lies the true deterioration.
Many intellectuals also like to feed themselves the tale that losing some of their sexual desire over time means that they have more energy and time to dedicate to intellectual work—in short, they think less about genitals and more about truth. But this is not true, because sexual desire and intellectual ardour go hand in hand: as the former fades, so does the latter. Young people are productive precisely because they experience in full the heart-wrenching dilemma described by Woody Allen about which of the two favourite organs they should give precedence to. Once this conflict over priority ends, intellectual decline has already begun.
We might say of a friend whom we’ve known since childhood, “what a pity, he’s aging so badly!”. But suddenly a terrible doubt arises: “What if others are thinking the same thing about me, that I’m aging badly?” I can see, perhaps in the mirror, my physical ailments as everyone else can; but for mental ailments there are no mirrors. In fact, I know some more or less senile persons who tell me, “My daughter, my son, no longer seem to listen to me. It’s like I’m talking to a wall. How strange and grumpy these young people today have become!”
Of course, we know many old people who die lucid in their beds—who have no illusions that their pancreatic cancer is “different” than usual pancreatic cancers and that they’ll get better. We can hope for a similar end. But the possibility that one can delude oneself about dying lucid in one’s own bed—while for the lucid people around us it is not at all the case—introduces a metaphysical abyss that intellectuals cannot face squarely, because this abyss penetrates and unravels them. It shatters every apparent certainty, it is the icy tearless despair of not knowing that one no longer knows. Because intellectuals will not stop there, and will say: “If I see that brilliant people become stupid as they age, or that they are still confident about what they think, while what they say would make even chickens laugh, even Icould just believe I’m brilliant.” (Intelligent people who are not intellectuals might not know this, but all true intellectuals are convinced they are geniuses, even when they are not intelligent at all. This is the delusion that keeps them going, day after day. If they didn’t think they were geniuses, they wouldn’t be intellectuals, but only disciples of intellectuals. Few intellectuals believe to discover that they are not delirious, simply because the world recognizes them as geniuses. They believe to discover this, so to speak, because they’ve been lucky.)
We all find that what we sustain is evident, and the fact that others don’t find it evident doesn’t really bother us because we say to ourselves that “they’re stupid, deluded, ignorant... or crazy.” I once met an intellectual who believed in UFOs, and when I told him that I didn’t, and tried to explain why, I saw him look at me with a mixed expression of contempt and compassion, and grasped that he was thinking: “Poor guy! He’s so stupid he doesn’t even believe in UFOs!” We all tend to be like this “intellectual”: we have the unquestionable perception that our way of thinking is right. Of course, if we also enjoy some social recognition–if we teach in a university, if our books are successful, if we have many followers–this confirms our belief, and gives us proof that we are not the only ones in the world who esteem us. But then we see that many university professors whose books are successful, and who have many followers... are full of themselves and incapable of thinking. And so the doubt arises again, like a phoenix...
I don’t believe it is a coincidence that Descartes didn’t include the loss of mental ability in old age among the various examples of experiences that render our knowledge uncertain. He stated that, if the senses can sometimes deceive us, then they can always deceive us. The dream is the most touching example: I dream, but I don’t know I’m dreaming, I think I’m really experiencing what I dream. So how do we know, as Pindar once again said, that our whole life is not just the dream of a shadow? We all recall the triumphant solution that Descartes finally came up with: cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”. It is enough to think that I think, and thus I hold something certain in my hands, my thinking being. Descartes believed that the empire of knowledge could be built on this rock–indeed something more akin to a small stone.
But how would Descartes have fared if he had considered the possibility of imbecility which, by definition, is unaware of being such? Even an imbecile can confidently say, “I think therefore I am,” which will not make him any less foolish. His dementia, on the contrary, will infect his “I think therefore I am” beyond remedy. (We might even suspect that reaching such a bizarre conclusion is a sign of dementia.) Old age, like stupidity in general (because all this does not erase the fact that, obviously, many young people are absolute idiots), demolishes the entire Cartesian construction. Old age allows nihilism to triumph. Perhaps this is its only real triumph: “I age, therefore I am not.” Nothing assures us that we are not delirious, even if we are René Descartes.
And obviously nothing can guarantee that what I’ve written so far is not foolish. To fear becoming stupid does not prevent this fear from being, in itself, stupid. A mise en abyme is looming here. The abyss that separates us, always, from others–and, in old age, even from ourselves.
Sergio Benvenuto, born in 1948