The World is Behind Me, Time is in Me: Jean Amery on Aging, World, and Time


As we get older, our understanding of time and space change.  The world is not the same.  And while time doesn’t matter as much when we are young, the older we get the more time matters and affects us in a bodily and a psychological sense.   In contrast, the world becomes less pressing.   What I love about literature and memoir is the fact that they have the capability of providing the reader with an acute sense of time passing and the world receding, on the one hand, or, on the other, a sense of eternity and a world that is alive and open.    Contrasting Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten to Jean Amery’s book-slash-memoir of aging, On Aging, has given me a lot to think about regarding the relationship of time and space to aging and youth.

While reading Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, I was astonished by how the main character, Jakob, a young man, was obsessed with the question of how or even whether to enter the world.  He equates entering the world with becoming a servant (the school he went to, the Benjamenta Institute, trained students to become servants) and getting a job.  But in the novel, his middle aged Principal has a mid-life crisis, breaks down, dismantles the school, and asks Jakob to come along with him on a Quixotic journey. But the journey, as Walser underscores, is not into “the world” but into “wilderness.”

The journey into the wilderness seems to transform both Jakob and the Principal into Sancho Panza and Don Quixote who, in their journey, don’t experience the passing of time so much as the endless movement into space.   However, Walser wants the reader to take note about how, whenever Jakob “thinks,” his movement is thwarted.  Thought, for Walser, makes one feel like one cannot work or be in the world let alone venture into it.  Thought suspends motion.   Thought only makes him feel small, like a “zero,” and incapable of living in the world.  The only alternative, posited at the very end of the novel, is to move and stop thinking.    The presumption is that the journey into the “wilderness” with the Principal will take the sting out of “time” and will displace the “world”.

Jean Amery’s book On Aging takes a much different stance on time, space, aging, and the world.  Amery would say that Jakob and the Principal are totally different beings; while one puts the world behind him, so to speak, the other has the world in front of him.  While the one has a sense of time, the other has none whatsoever:

The young say of themselves that they have time before them.  But what really lies before them is the world, which they absorb and by which they let themselves at the same time be branded.   The idea is that the old have a life behind them, but this life that is no longer actually lived is nothing but time gathered up, lived, passed away. The less time we think we have before us, since our body and statistic do not hide anything, the more time there is in us.  (14)

For the young, “time becomes an impatient expectation for what is coming to them and is properly due to them”(14).  The “world is open to him.”   In contrast, the aging person doesn’t see the world as open to him and doesn’t expect anything from the world:

The old or aging person…experiences the future daily as the negation of the spatial and thereby of what is really going on.  The future…is not time, but it is the world and space….But for those who have noting or just a little or only something inessential to expect, who climb down into  the past with its deep well, they stay quietly in their place.  (15)

In other words, Amery suggests, like Kafka and even Walser, that those who no longer look to the world, do not move.  They become time; they don’t venture into space with any expectations.  They have time in their bodies:

They sit there sunken into themselves, assume an embryonic position in bed, close their eyes in order to search themselves, in useless labors of love, for what used to be life, what once was world, was space, but not is only just time.  To be old or even just to feel oneself aging means to have time in one’s body and in what we call, for short, one’s soul.   (15)

In contrast, Amery tells us that “to be young is to throw one’s body out into a time that is no time at all, but life, world, and space”(15).  Walser and Kafka often contrast time and space in a similar manner.  Aging, as they both note, is also connected to the inability to develop.   For this reason, Kafka and Walser often have characters who are old and young; characters who desperately want to move but can’t or move so much as to disclose a kind of fear or desperation about their failure to be-in-the-world.   They are, in many ways, worldless.  As Hannah Arendt claims, the condition of worldlessness is something we often find with the schlemiel character.    But, as Arendt points out, this has much to do with the fact that the character is closer to nature than to culture and society.  For Walser, this means that he doesn’t think.  Yet, at the same time, Walser acknowledges that thought also keeps from being in the world.  Either way, the worldless character, for Amery, is different because, quite simply, he is aging and the “world is behind him.”  When one ages, one loses world…and becomes acutely aware of time.   But what happens to other people?  Aren’t they a part of the world?  Don’t they exist in space…in front of me?  Is it impossible for someone to reach the other when one is older?  Will one be trapped by time?

I’ll end with a movie trailer from a new film – Max Rose (2016) – starring Jerry Lewis and Mort Sahl. It can give us a sense of how the struggle between time and world persists…into old age.  In order to move and live on, one can’t just put the world behind them.


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