'Losing It'

December 7, 2011

Say what you will about academe, at least it isn't Hollywood. Faculty members may not welcome their deepening frown lines and graying hair, but in the ivory tower such markers of departed youth are nuisances rather than career-killers; the archetypical professor has achieved at least middle age.

But, for those who've chosen the life of the mind, getting older is accompanied by another, perhaps more unsettling host of fears: Didn't I use to know more about this subject? Is my best work behind me? Do my students think I'm just a "cute old man"?

In his new book Losing It: In which an Aging Professor laments his shrinking Brain...   (Yale University Press), William Ian Miller tackles these and a host of other questions pertinent to the aging academic. ("Will anyone show up for your retirement dinner? Will you? Will your memory still be good enough to recall everyone who did not show up, so that you can even the score? But how will you manage the revenge except by fantasy? Will you be able to come up with their names, should you manage to recall their faces?")

Miller (age "65 and two-thirds") thinks little of the notion that wisdom and contentment come with age, arguing instead that if older people are happier, it is because they have lost the discernment to know any better. But despite his own "clearly decaying scholarly capacities," Miller, who is Thomas G. Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, addresses his topic in typical scholar's fashion, combing through the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, and a variety of ancient Icelandic sagas, among other literary works, to find what wisdom he can.

Inside Higher Ed managed to conduct a brief e-mail interview with Miller before he ordered this 25-year-old reporter off his lawn. (His parting words: "You have five more years before the slow downward slide begins.")

Q: What was your goal in writing Losing It? What do you hope readers will get from it?

A: The book grew out of an informal talk I gave to my faculty on taking to bed in despair, evidence for which I drew from medieval Icelandic and Old English sources. This bed-taking had the look of a ritual, in fact a retirement ritual. One needs to be plausibly old man, and I mean “man,” to perform it. (I discuss the ritual in chapters 10 and 11 of the book.) These guys were retiring from the duty to avenge a murdered son. They no longer felt up to its demands: physically, emotionally, or mentally. Even young men found the burden to avenge a kinsman difficult, as witness Hamlet. It drove him half crazy. Age has worn these men down, and they are frustrated that their son’s killers wouldn’t get their comeuppance. These cases, I thought, rather sharply raised the question of when it is time to hang it up. When do you take yourself out of the game? When have you lost too much of whatever it takes to matter anymore? How do you know for sure? Can you read when your time is up in other people’s eyes? Were they sending hints your way? The talk I gave took on a life of its own, as I began to wonder about my own failing abilities. Not physical abilities such as they were, but mental ones, loss of ability to focus, to remember, to handle matters that a decade earlier were not a problem at all.

Because we no longer have mandatory retirement, we, like those old saga men, must take ourselves out of the game; we have to figure out when we no longer are up to it, no longer worth our salary, no longer wanted, no longer really count for much. How can you rightly read where you stand when your ability to think is decaying at an accelerating pace? It is always hard to know how good or bad you are, what with self-interest, wishful thinking, looking on the bright side, and other mechanisms of distortion, working to assist you in screwing up the call so that you end up an embarrassment to others, and too dim to realize that you are also one to yourself. Sounds like a glum book, but in fact it turns out to be an occasion for rather grim comedy. People tell me I make them laugh, which I hope does not mean they are laughing at me, but because I am still able to control when I mean to make others laugh. More wishful thinking?

As for readers: I hope they enjoy the ride, mostly because of the good examples the ancient and medieval people provide, but also because I think my claims and arguments will strike a chord with most, even young people. As for those annoyingly upbeat souls given over totally to looking on the bright side, to thinking the odds are always in their favor, to unashamedly cultivating flattering illusions of their own specialness, these people will no doubt dismiss me and the book, or advise me to see a positive psychologist to get cured, but most readers should actually end up laughing at their own grim future.
Q: What are some of the book's central ideas?
A: The book has six parts. The first deals with mental decay, not just mine, and is the part that figured in the piece I did for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The second takes on wisdom and casts a fairly jaundiced eye in that direction. What wisdom is to be expected from people whose brains are shrinking, who cannot remember much very well, and who tediously repeat stories, or in the manner of Polonius, give advice the young find boring and manifestly ignorable? I discuss the content of proverbial wisdom, its fairly dour look at the world, its being mostly about how to avoid getting whacked or looking like the fool you most likely are. For every wise old person, there is one who is already demented and another ten who are simply fools, as in "no fool like an old fool."

What with Cialis or Viagra hawked incessantly every old geezer is told that he now can actually deliver, even get an erection that lasts more than four days, for which the advertisement warns him to get his behind to the emergency room quick, where a sledge hammer will be taken to it. Now, that is aging with dignity, is it not? Oh what disgusting fools these mortals be.

The third part deals with complaining, the various styles of complaint, such as pissing and moaning, kvetching, lamenting, whining, etc. Everyone complains: it is what it means to be human. Newborns are graded on how well they rail against entering the world by their Apgar score. But complaining oldsters differ from complaining adolescents and adults, in that old people’s complaints are about being old. We complain about our location in the life cycle.

The fourth is about retirements from revenge; it is the medieval stuff that got me going on this project. Take my addled brain’s word for it: this is good stuff. Medieval people were smarter both psychologically and sociologically than we are: they had the good fortune to live before positive psychology undid their critical sensibility.

The fifth part has me dealing with going soft, no not in that way, but in the sentiments of looking back and reflecting; it is mostly about owing the dead and how to repay debts to them. Oh sure, I also think about taking it with me, and how I can take revenge from the grave, but mostly I am considerably less curmudgeonly in this section.

And last: how to go out in style, which is something taken away from us if we outlive ourselves by becoming demented. There you have it, all in a nutshell, and now you can claim you have read the book to the very few people who will have done so.

Q: One of the book's recurrent themes is your disdain for "positive psychology," particularly (but not exclusively) as it pertains to aging; you even call out one researcher by name, deeming her work "snake oil bearing the Stanford label." Can you discuss the reasons for this disdain?
A: I do not know where to start. I am constantly dismayed that the cult of positivity has not yet been laughed off the face of the earth. The book takes a few jabs at the happy oldster school of psychology, at those questionable studies that claim to show old people are happy than they ever were. To the extent the claimed research shows old people rating themselves high on their sense of well-being, I suspect that the oldster interviewed was merely being reticent or polite and did not want to complain to a stranger about his constipation, aching knees, hips, and other arthritic joints, his forgetfulness, or his having handed over the family fortune in response to a moving Nigerian email. My suspicion is that if there is in fact happiness, it is a symptom of the brain shrinkage that comes with old age, of no longer being able to think very precisely. That happiness, if there, is a sign of nothing more than losing it. Or rather the researcher is misinterpreting the statements of contentment, for what it really is: a statement of relief. Or of defeat, as in Shylock’s: “I am content.”
Q: A number of the book's plentiful barbs are aimed at your own career: your unusual position as "a law prof to historians, a historian to law profs"; the difficulty of justifying your own salary; and your realization that some of the scholarly works you most loathe are your own. To what extent are you truly dissatisfied with your overall career -- and why?
A: Figuring out how much you mean your own statements of self-deprecation is a fraught experience. Some of the modesty is false, but much of it is false false modesty. I mean what I say, discounted by some percentage I cannot determine, but not all that high a discount either. How much I mean the worst things I say about myself or others depends on my mood. Unlike those positive people I am not good enough at lying to myself so as to convince myself that the crap I sometimes produce merits an A.

Q: "Tenure and age-discrimination laws let [professors] keep working, which somehow does not seem the right word," you write. "Never mind that my keep would fund four entry-level scholars in history or anthropology who are now unemployed." What is your opinion of tenure, and how is it informed by your view of "losing it"?
I benefited greatly from the tenure system. It gave me the freedom to range into areas that those who offered me my position hardly anticipated. I was hired to do my Icelandic stuff because it looked like legal history. But then I wrote books on disgust, courage, faking it, humiliation, that I am not sure I would have dared writing without the security tenure provided. To tell the truth, my deans and colleagues figured that these frolics and detours were no less bizarre than having hired someone to do 13th-century Icelandic sagas in the first place. Those sagas pretty much licensed me to follow my interests wherever they took me.

My statement about “working” not seeming the right word to describe what I do, only meant that I find the term “work” not quite appropriate for getting to do exactly what I would be doing if I were independently wealthy.

The book is not all dour and darkly comic. As I indicated, in the fifth part of the book I register sincere (I think) gratefulness for having lucked into a pretty good life, and for the kindnesses done me by teachers and others. How many people have a job that is a dream come true? And I say that after having just this moment returned from a faculty meeting, a more trying experience than most people have to face in any job outside of coal mining.

Q: Frankly, I can't always tell which parts of the book are intended to be facetious, and which represent your own genuine, unvarnished view on "losing it," i.e., aging. Any guidance for the irony-challenged reader?

Do you really want me to give the game away by explaining jokes? The irony-challenged should perhaps stay away from this book. The book is dead serious and ironical, both. Irony and seriousness make very good bedfellows, and neither needs Viagra to consummate the union. And now that I got back to beds, I will take to mine and go to bed at noon.

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