2009/07/25

Eros and Thanatos

Thanatos, Ephesos
I've reached a stage of life where I think about mortality almost as often as about sex.

Well, maybe not that often, but still, more than I used to. As Dr. Johnson noted, an unappealable deadline concentrates the mind wonderfully.

According to the I.R.S.'s life expectancy tables (for calculating minimum yearly distributions from your IRAs), mine could be 30 years from now. (I'm 68.) A man could do a lot of damage in 30 years. Or a lot of good. But that assumes maintaining the physical vigor and mental acuity to do one or the other. And this is one reason I've so eagerly read Elkhonon Goldberg, The wisdom paradox: how your mind can grow stronger as your brain grows older. New York: Gotham Books, 2005. Twice! Because I wanted to be sure I got it all, including the summaries of experimental results and the technical language. Goldberg was a student of the great Soviet neuropsychologist Aleksandr Luria (1902-1977), who practically founded the discipline (combining knowledge of psychology with examinations of brain anatomy and processes), and is now doing some very creative work of his own at New York University. This book, and maybe some reflections on my earlier readings of Luria and Vygotsky, deserve another blog essay. But in short -- very short -- there is good reason to think that, with good mental exercise, we can keep our brains active and alert for a very long time.

My friend and mentor Walter James Miller is now 91, and still continuing his prolific writing and lecturing career.* I think I know how he does it -- he keeps reading new and challenging things, writing analyses, and exchanging ideas with students and other authors. Terrific brain exercises.
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* Walter died on 20 June 2010, about a year after I'd written this. Check out his Wikipedia page in the link above.

But I'm going to plan more conservatively, to try to get everything important done much sooner. In the next ten years. Some writing projects, both fiction and sociological, two languages I want to learn better and some others I'll have to learn from scratch, and in the shorter run, to learn to play the Albéniz' "Asturias" (transcribed for guitar).

And of course to enjoy as much sex as possible before wingèd Thanatos comes to whisk me off. That's also good for maintaining vigor. And it's such fun.

*Illus.: Winged youth with a sword, probably Thanatos, personification of death. Detail of a sculptured marble column drum from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, ca. 325-300 BC. Found at the south-west corner of the temple. British Museum. Source: Wikipedia

6 comments:

Dirk van Nouhuys said...

Robert Musil, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Musil) The author of the great Austrian novel The Man Without Qualities, an engineer, before embarking on that massive tomb (a fine way to exercise you mind by the way) considered whether he would have time to finish it. He calculated his life expectancy, mostly on the basis of the death ages of his forbearers, and decided he had plenty of of time. Unfortunately for him he died at age 61 of a heart attack while lifting weights and left the book unfinished.

The book was left with the bulk in having been published, and drafts of the later part raging from a volume that published and withdrawn to fragments and sketchy hints at various conclusions. Many of his admirers lament his early demise as people lament the early demise of Beethoven, but writer that I am, I rather like the book the way it is. Instead of a conventional ending it flows out into many possible conclusions, like the multiplicity of mouths of a great river. Like these deltas, they are a special realm where you can loose yourself in contemplation. And, frankly, without giving away a spoiler, I think he had given himself a Plot Question that he was unable to solve, thus accounting for the diversity of sketched endings.

gef said...

Thanks! I'll read it (if I should live so long). Lifting weights? Iron man irony. Eugen Sandow (who was not much of a writer but a considerable showman) went in sort of similar way. Meanwhile, if you should live so long and haven't got to it yet, or even if you have, I urge you to frolic in Howard Nemerov's poem "The Novelists" (relevant to unsolvable Plot Questions).

RD said...
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RD said...

When I received a pace maker, I was very surprised. Because I'm so active both physically and mentally, I don't think of myself as very old. I do think people must push past lethargy and strain both mind and body. My mentor Lee Roddy writes and involves his friends and colleagues in his daily thoughts. He is always look for new ideas. A light for the rest of us.

RD said...

Well, now that you have had a birthday you are again ahead of me. Not only that you called yourself an elder. I am so glad I know you, have read your work and saw how you see life. I know I am a better person for knowing you. The pain of the 60's faded into the business of the 70's with little kids and the 80;s began my writing career, and then the 90's have mellowed me, although I send out just as many political emails as ever. Now it is the post-millennium decade and we are in agreement to continue to still to press on all levels. Thank you for your wise birthday words.

gef said...

What a lovely tribute, RD. I take that as another birthday gift, and I thank you.