The Monuments of Unaging Intellect

by Professor Jack

Ezekiel Emmanuel is a doctor, and one of President Obama’s chief advisors concerning the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare. Mr. Emmanuel thinks that when we turn 75, our options for further thriving should run out. If we can make it on our own, fine, but if we need public medical assistance, sorry. Can anyone say: “death panels?”

Mr. Emmanuel is, I believe, about 58, so his take on all of this is, I suspect, somewhat academic. I’ll turn 73 in about two weeks, and I have a mean dog in this fight. I’m not too worried that Mr. Emmanuel’s kind of passive euthanasia will come about soon, but the fact that some people are thinking about it makes me nervous.

The nineteenth-century poet Walter Savage Landor wrote on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday: “I strove with none, for none was worth my strife. / Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art: / I warm’d both hands before the fire of life; / It sinks, and I am ready to depart.” He lived nearly another fifteen years, dying at 89. His friend the writer Algernon Swinburne wrote of his final days: “The last fruit of a genius which after a life of eighty-eight years had lost nothing of its majestic and pathetic power, its exquisite and exalted expression.” Landor may have been ready to depart at 75, but some of his greatest dramatic masterpieces would have gone to the grave with him.

Oh, to be 58 again, like Mr. Emmanuel! I hit my stride only in my 50s, and to some extent I’m still going strong. Seventy-five is rapidly becoming the new 65, and if American healthcare can escape the worst ravages of progressive tampering, we might all look forward to vigor into our 90s and beyond. How will Mr. Emmanuel feel when he turns 75, surrounded by his grandchildren, and the actuarial table strongly in his favor, yet a victim to his own principles? Sure, longevity has a social cost, and we don’t yet know what all of that means to Social Security and Medicare, but there’s not a healthy 75-year-old around who would not look forward to another decade or two.

It used to be that old age was venerated, but with the recent advent of the Age of Resentment nobody who has anything more than his neighbor, even if only a few years of happy dotage, is safe.

Vladimir Horowitz played his last, great piano concert at the age of 85. President Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly thereafter. He lived to the age of 87. Jacques Barzun, the staggeringly brilliant cultural historian, wrote his magnum opus From Dawn to Decadence at age 92. He lived for another nine years. Composer Elliott Carter, who died two years ago, wrote his final piece at age 104. Katherine Anne Porter wrote her novel Ship of Fools in her seventies, and she lived to 90, writing to nearly the end of her days.

We all have or had a favorite ancient aunt or uncle, grandfather or grandmother, whose hoary wisdom and wit have enlivened our holidays. When Shakespeare asked, “Why so large cost, having so short a lease, / Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?” the answer is, I Am Not Done! As I wrote in my wedding vows to Marilyn my wife: “But we are here, cupped in each other’s hands, / At home at last, the day still early morn, / The winter past, and seasons still to run, / Love giving life, and life by love reborn.” If man knows not his time, neither does he know his span.

True, old age should rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas), but it should rage even more against the snuffing of the light.

Utopian socialists always equate old age with superannuation, and hence expendability. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, in the sad annals of the twentieth century. The fact is that with the extended adolescence now so common among those of Dr. Emmanuel’s generation, it is just possible that they haven’t grown up yet. Give them a few more years, and they will sing a different tune.