Joseph Epstein on “Old Age and Other Laughs”

In his latest anthology of essays, The Ideal of Culture, Joseph Epstein devotes a chapter to “old age and other laughs.” He was 75 when he wrote the essay in 2012 for Commentary magazine. He and I are among the 47.8 million people in the United States (as of 2015) who are 65 or older. I can identify with many of the situations that evoked these observations: vain

o “Nostalgia — ‘the rust of memory’ Robert Nisbet called it — began to set in around 60.”

o “Viagra and other aids have helped solve this problem [of diminished sexual drive], but pharmacology has yet to come up with a pill to make one physically appealing.”

o “Women are not without their own problems in this realm [of vain self-delusion]. I once heard a women roughly my age tell a female friend that her bra size was now 34 inches long.”

o “Proust says that to believe in modern medicine is insane. and that the only thing more insane is not to believe it.”

o “One awaits the results of ‘blood work’ like a prisoner on death row awaits a governor reprieve.”

o “Fatal illnesses often strike older people without clear — make that any — reason…It’s a minefield out there, with deadly darts falling from the sky.”

o “As there is no fool like an old fool, neither is there any bore quite as tiresome as an old bore.”

o “Henry James once said that when one reaches the age of 50, someone one knows seems to die every week.”

o When a friend of Epstein’s, age 90, was asked what was the best thing about old age, he replied “It doesn’t last long.”

o “The best death in a secular society is one in which one expires in one’s sleep — in other words, a death, next to birth the major element in one’s life, that one isn’t around to witness.”

o “F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that the sensible state for the older man was mild depression.”

o According to LaRochefoucauld, “Old people like to give good advice as a consolation for the fact that they can no longer set bad examples.”

o “Do I need here to confess that I rather like my old age? I, of course, recognize, pace Yeats, that this is ‘no country for old men’; none, after all, is.”

o “At 75, I feel like I am playing with house money — the rest of my life, as people used to say before the worry about cholesterol set in, is gravy. Lovely it would be to stay in the game for another ten years ago, and I hope to be able to do so.”

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Joseph Epstein is the author of the best-selling Snobbery and of Friendship, as well as the short story collections The Goldin Boys and Fabulous Small Jews, among other books, and was formerly editor of the American Scholar. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, The Standard, Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, Commentary, and other magazines.


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