Sunday, January 09, 2022

'How to Live Out One’s Days'

Joseph Epstein finds himself in interesting if not always flattering company. Sharing January 9 as a birthday with him are Simone de Beauvoir, Richard Nixon and Joan Baez. Our leading man of letters (not that there’s a lot of competition) today turns eighty-five.

Fifteen years ago he published “Kid Turns 70, Nobody Cheers,” which later served as the introduction to In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage (2007). In it he writes:

“Seventy poses the problem of how to live out one’s days. To reach 70 and not recognize that one is no longer living (as if one ever were) on an unlimited temporal budget is beyond allowable stupidity. The first unanswerable question at 70 is how many days, roughly, are left in what one does best to think of as one’s reprieve.”

I'm nine months from turning seventy, so I'm listening. It's a fair sample of what we might call Epstein’s amused sense of stoicism. When I ask people, for the sake of greasing the wheels of sociability, how they are doing, a common reply is: “Can’t complain. No one listens anyway.” That’s true on occasion, but more likely they listen, grow bored and only then stop listening. Epstein understands that “entertaining” is not a dirty word when it comes to writing. After Clive James died in 2019, a blogger wrote that James was not an important writer because he never stopped wanting to be an entertainer. That kind of dreariness is probably academic in origin and there’s no known cure. Epstein’s sense of irony is chromosome-deep. He can't help but be entertaining. No wonder he loves Max Beerbohm.

In an essay on the essay published almost forty years ago in The New Criterion, Epstein writes:

“[T]he essay as a form is in the happy condition of having no avant-garde tradition. I say happy condition because, great though the benefits of the avant-garde tradition have been in poetry and fiction, this same avant-garde tradition—and I trust no one will think the juxtaposition of avant-garde and tradition is oxymoronic—can exert a tyrannous pull to keep changing, to do it as no one has done it before, to make it, perpetually and (as it sometimes seems) depressingly, new. The essay is under no such tyranny. The idea of an avant-garde essayist, far from being oxymoronic, is merely moronic.”

Ever himself, Epstein in everything he writes is the embodiment of what his forebears gave us. That’s what the best writers do.

Happy Birthday, Joe.


Brian said...

Nice tribute to a swell guy. Anyone who thinks wokeness and cancel culture are recent phenomena should review Epstein's firing from his long time editorship of The American Scholar. I was reading his account of friendship with Edward Shils just last night - a delight.

Baceseras said...

Speaking of replies to "How ya doing?" -- Christopher Ricks somewhere reports that he once heard at a funeral, one mourner to another, reply, "Surviving." And was moved to wonder was it grim humor for the occasion, or just an automatic word.

I seem to have painted myself into a corner, but: Hurray! for Epstein Surviving.

Tim Guirl said...

My entry essay to Joseph Epstein was "E.B. White, Dark & Lite", published in 1986. I like his personal essays best, and continue to be pleasantly surprised at how consistently entertaining his writing is. I did not need to wait until turning 70 to figure out how to live my days. Returning from the Vietnam War unscathed, physically and mentally, granted me a reprieve that I am daily grateful for, and I've gone through life as a tourist ever since.

-Z. said...

Joe Epstein remains my favourite living writer; he even outranks many of the beloved dead. May his reprieve continue and be an amusing and pleasant one. (After having read his worried op-ed in the WSJ this evening, I hope it may also be free of carjackings.)