Self-destruction has its charms, especially if you’re not the one doing the destructing. Let me clarify. I’m not referring to alcoholism or drug addiction, subsumed under the clinical label “substance abuse,” which evokes a vision of someone flogging an ingot of molybdenum. Exhibit A is A.J. Liebling and his lifelong over-indulgence in food. Had it stopped there, we wouldn’t be wasting our time. Food is not an inherently interesting subject. The much-ballyhooed works of M.F.K. Fisher, for instance, are almost unreadable. Food – procuring, preparing, consuming -- invites a comic treatment, and that was Liebling’s abiding gift. He is the wittiest of writers, and his masterpiece is Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962). It may be the book I have read most often as an adult.
I’ve returned to it after rereading Joseph Epstein’s “An Older Dude” in Once More Around the Block: Familiar Essays (1987). The occasion of Epstein’s essay is his fiftieth birthday (in 1987 – earlier this month he turned eighty-one). As you would expect, his tone is weighty but light. Epstein takes his subject but not himself seriously. He is amusing but not joking: “While I remain as youthful and beautiful as always, why, I cannot help ask, have so many of my contemporaries grown to look so old?” Then he gets to the heart of it: “It is not always easy to distinguish between the love of life and the fear of death.” Which move him to think of friends who are “slowly but rather systematically eliminating life’s little physical pleasures: cutting out tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, red meat, cholesterol-laden food, all sugar. Soon their meals will be reduced to three dandelions and a nice cup of boiled water.” Such anxiety-driven behavior, Epstein says, seems like “greed for life, as opposed to love of life.” Ascetics, especially self-advertising ascetics, make me nervous, too. Enter Liebling, via Epstein:
“When I think of the distinction between love of life and the greed for duration, I think of the writer A.J. Liebling. With the aid of his fork, Liebling had early joined the ranks of the obese, an army he was never to leave.”
Liebling possessed the grace of the guiltless. He seldom seriously agonized over what he was doing to himself. Years ago, Tony Hiss told me he remembered walking as a young reporter beside Liebling, and barely having enough room on the sidewalk. Yet he was happy to be taking the budding writer to lunch. Here is where Epstein rises to the occasion:
“Doubtless he would have lived longer [Liebling died at fifty-eight] had he lived more carefully. But had he lived more carefully – eaten less, drunk less – he would not have been A.J. Liebling . . . My own preference would be to live like Liebling and last until age ninety-seven. There is a contradiction here, I realize, but then, fortunately, the law of contradiction is not enforced, lest the jails overflow.”