The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Thematic: The Evening of Life

Being There

Wilfred M. McClay

A Spanish Chestnut Tree Struck by Lightning (detail), nineteenth century, by John Sell Cotman (1782–1842); © Agnew’s London/ Bridgeman Images.

Rethink your first impressions the next time you sit next to a Little Old Lady.

The compulsive jokiness with which so many modern Americans deflect the subject of aging can get pretty tiresome. But perhaps it’s not the worst way to handle the matter. At least one avoids the undignified excesses of self-pity and despair by making light of an admittedly unwelcome condition, even while implicitly confessing one’s susceptibility to an all-too-human vanity. That was the approach taken by the great comedian Jack Benny, whose trademark shtick included the comic pretense that he was perpetually thirty-nine. There was irony built into the joke, a self-mockery that was at least honest enough to acknowledge itself. Laughing at Jack Benny, we were also laughing at ourselves; he was so much like us, merely offering up a silly and exaggerated version of what so many of us are tempted to do.

But even great comedy has its limits. A jokey evasion is still an evasion, one that tries not only to hide a great deal of anxiety but also to distract us from seeking the deeper meanings in our experience. A joke may be a civilized way of coping, but it is not an answer to much of anything, and it may even be a veiled way of confessing to the dread that there are no answers to be had. “I’m not afraid of death,” said Woody Allen, “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” A very funny line, but what makes it so funny is the way it confirms the overwhelming force of the very fear it claims to deny.

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