Nothing to Laugh About: On Jean Amery’s Phenomenology of Aging and Louis CK’s

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In an era which endlessly celebrates youth and beauty, aging oftentimes provokes shame, revulsion, and denial. For this reason, celebrities do their utmost to look and seem young when they are old and why the elderly often feel worthless and unappreciated.   Think, for instance, of Joan Rivers or the bevy of celebrities who turn to botox and plastic surgery to cover up the wrinkles and signs of age or the fact that we see little of old people on our information feeds.   In addition, people often choose to send their parents to homes or away than, as was in the past, to take care of them in their homes. “We” need to stay happy and youthful.   Such images of aging (or the actual presence of aging) can only prompt “us” to stop in our tracks and make us morose. (I put we and us in “scare quotes” because there is exclusion at work and that we doesn’t include the aging.)

By looking age square in the face, one becomes serious. There is nothing funny about getting old. Or is there? While comedians like Sara Silverman (think of her latest film, I Smile Back), Ben Stiller (think of his performance in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010) and While We’re Young (2014), or Gretta Gerwig (think of her latest film, Mistress America) have taken on more serious roles as they have grown older, Louis CK takes (and has taken, for at least ten years) a more comical – though very dark – approach to aging in his show Louie and in his stand-up routine.

In this clip, Louis CK emblematizes a struggle with lost youth through his attempt to get the “eyes” of the doll back into its head.   The loss of eyes, for Freud, is associated with castration and shame. His attempt to make his daughter happy by finding and replacing the eyes of the doll is an utter failure. With the music, camera angles, and desperate facial contortions made by Louis CK, it comes across as horrific.

To be sure, the doll is a great figure for many a horror story or horror film and it works well to bring out the desperation of aging, failure, and shame before his daughter and an audience that sees him in the same way.   Even so, the attempts to get the eyes or repair the doll – because they are so exaggerated – come across as comical.

Compared to Louis CK’s struggle with aging, Jean Amery, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, journalist, and thinker – who has given us some of the most powerful philosophical meditations on the Holocaust and the fate of post-Holocaust humanism – gives his readers an unforgiving and utterly serious reflection on aging and otherness.   In the spirit of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, he attempts what can be called a phenomenology of aging. His descriptions of aging bring us close to its dark, existential kernel.   The descriptions are nothing to laugh about. They are sober and painful to read…or accept.   Amery sees the phenomenological inquiry into aging as the key to understanding what it means to have a temporal (time oriented) consciousness.

In his book On Aging: Revolt and Resignation, Jean Amery begins his book with a meditation on time.   He contrasts the way a physicist reads time to the way a phenomenologist reads time. One sees time as something external while the latter as something internal (“time is the inner sense, the form through which we perceive ourselves and our condition” p.8).   While the physicist would see the phenomenologist as playing a “mental game,” the phenomenologist sees his description of aging, from the angle of consciousness, as of the utmost urgency.   His question: what does aging mean? The answer to this question discloses a temporal consciousness that is extremely alienated and pained.

According to the phenomenologist, the physicist speaks “idle talk” since he is avoiding the more meaningful inquiry into aging and time. To measure time and what happens to the body in space, we avoid the more authentic engagement with aging and that engagement, for Amery, is necessarily painful.

As Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt taught, one appears in the world and before others. But according to Amery, the “world ‘an-nihilates’ aging human being and makes them invisible”(68).   Amery, here, equates the “world” with “young people” because he sees the world that we live in as a world that is created by and for the young.   In this world, when one ages one slowly becomes “invisible” and irrelevant, one is “an-nihilated.”   On this note Amery makes a suggestion:

It is good for the aging to realize that society, regardless of how it arranges the demographics of its age pyramid, accepts the annihilating judgment of the young and the most recent. (69)

Amery laments that even the aging look at other aging people from this angle and visit the “annihilating judgment” on other aging people. In doing so, “they deny the solidarity to their comrades in destiny, try to maintain their distance from the signs of the negation of existence that they read on their features”(69).

And as a result of this “denial of solidary,” these aging people live in desperate attempt to “cling” to the young when they are aging. They also deny that they are envious and this troubles Amery:

That is not to say that they love the young, only that they cling to them in an absurd longing and with an envy that they cannot admit to themselves. (69)

Drawing on Sartre, Amery calls these denials “bad faith.” To negate this “bad faith,” Amery suggests that those who age face the fact that the world they were young in is gone and that the world that now exists rejects them: “the world they understand no longer exists”(78).   For Amery, the acceptance of the future generations, in a progressive sense, is difficult if it is to be taken in good (rather than bad) faith.

The phenomenologist of age must address a few questions:

  • How does one accept the fact that “society ascribes a social age to us”?
  • Can one accept the fact that, for society, “old people can’t become” (can’t change or grow but…die)?
  • Can one accept that one’s world is “dated”?
  • Can one, most importantly, accept that, in aging, one becomes invisible?

Amery’s questions resonate with the existential concerns of Kierkegaard and many modern writers and artists because, as Nietzsche well knew, in the wake of Napoleon one could be “someone” who is recognized in the world.   On the other hand, one may be a nobody. Although one can ponder this question at any age, the process of aging, for Amery, makes it clear that a decision has already been made.   The acceptance of aging, for Amery, is tied to the acceptance of death. Once the world rejects you, there is nothing left for you, save death.

The fact that one can no longer appear to the world is a frightening prospect. And the Louis CK’s clip brings out the desperation of this loss. He desperately tries to find the dolls eyes. Without them, he can’t be seen as a good parent.   The irony is that we still see him. In his mockery of aging, Louis CK is still a celebrity. Despite the fact that he is aging, he can still be accepted by the world. But he gets this pass only because he mocks aging. And that is exactly what Amery says is part and parcel of the world we live in. By mocking aging, we, together with Louis CK, assent to the “fact” that the world we live in belongs to the young and that “society ascribes a social age to us.”

One wonders what Jean Amery would think of Louie in general and this clip in particular.   Is the comical performance of the desperate battle with aging a challenge to bad faith? Does Louis CK fight against becoming invisible and meaningless? Isn’t that what the whole show is about?

These questions suggest that Amery’s phenomenology of aging needs to take into consideration what it means to wage a comic battle with aging and invisibility.   The predominance of the comedic performances of age – from Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, and Judd Apatow to Sara Silverman and Louis CK – should prompt us to think about how comedy addresses the questions raised by the phenomenology of aging. This is an urgent issue since the question of what is or is not to be “seen” in our visual culture can be given greater scope by those who we love seeing most: not ourselves but celebrities.

In seeing the other in this or that film or TV episode, perhaps we can better see ourselves. Jean Amery was aware of this since he dedicates several pages to how he saw his hero of youth, Jean-Paul Sartre, go from a celebrity to an old man. And in seeing this he saw himself fade into invisibility.   He realizes that his world, which he shared with Sartre, is gone.

Today, we don’t have the same kind of intellectual celebrities but, even so, watching celebrities like Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Sara Silverman, or Seth Rogen age, on screen, can prompt us to reflect more on what aging means in a world that, as Amery says, “an-nihilates” it.

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