What It Means to Turn Forty


by Justin E. H. Smith

Before beginning in earnest, a preliminary point about birthdays: I am convinced that one of the crucial moments in the emergence of the modern world was the transition from the celebration of saint days to the fêting of our own anniversaries. We scoff at cultures that believe in reincarnation, but the acknowledgment of saint days that dominated until the 18th century or so (and that still rivals birthdays in parts of Eastern Europe), in fact amounted substantially to just this: to bear the name ‘George’ for example is to participate in the transmissible essence/soul of St. George, to be one of the iterations of George. It doesn’t make much of a difference, either, whether the metaphysics behind the onomastics is grounded in saint worship or a supposedly more simple ancestor worship. When an Inuit grandmother dies, and a girl is born and given the same name as the deceased, she will be referred to by the nickname ‘little mother’. It is not that the same individual grandmother, with the same life history, the same original birthdate, the same Canadian social-insurance number, etc., has been reborn, but only that the name-soul has been transmitted. One can expect to see similar character traits appear in the girl as in the grandmother, but if they don’t this is not proof of non-identity, since the identity in question was one rooted in shared name-essence, and not in the sort that, say, John Locke or Derek Parfit is ready to examine.

I still conflate my grandfather, John Peterson, with George Washington. I cannot look at a US quarter without thinking that I am looking at a likeness of my mother’s father, who was born in 1912 and who died in 1986. No matter how much I learn about the historical-biographical difference between the two persons, there is a sense in which I still believe, deep down, that they are identical, or again, that the one is an iteration of the other. The reason is simple: from an early age, I was presented with the figure of two grey, morally upright, much-praised male authority figures, and I placed them in the same part of my imagination. There are examples of much looser groupings that can only be explained by a private synaesthesia: e.g., October, Kentucky, Thursday, and the color brown all go together for me. The grandfather-George Washington cluster is not like these. It makes natural sense, in the same way, I think, that the system of saint names, and of their endless iterations, makes sense. As for the John/George difference, I believed early on (and in a deep sense still believe) that these are variations on the same name, much as I was expected to learn early on, but could not, in re President Kennedy (whom I never respected as a morally upright authority figure, but always considered a proper salop), that ‘Jack’ is interchangeable with ‘John’.

It seems to me that this de facto system of reincarnation was effectively stamped out when the primary responsibility for registration of vital statistics transferred from the church to the state. In this transfer a new metaphysics of the individual was finally instaured, as the individual person came to be rigidly anchored to his or her bio-historical data, of which the birthdate is surely one of the most important.

Under the reign of this metaphysics, today is a very important day for me: it is my fortieth birthday. The Department of Vital Statistics of Washoe County, Nevada, can confirm that I was born on July 30, 1972. Saint Justin had little to do with it.

Why is this marker so important? It is an artifact not just of a particular metaphysics, but also of a base-ten arithmetic: years constitute natural units, this much is determined by the passage of the earth around the sun; decades do not. But still, we work the natural meanings of aging into the artificial framework of time-measurement that we have, and whether or not something significant is happening today precisely, it is anyhow clear that something significant is happening.

Adults, however much power they wield in the world, are really only the ghosts of children. Tomas Tranströmer describes life as a comet: with childhood the blazing head, and senescence the dim straggling tail. What causes childhood to blaze like this is surely, in the end, a neurochemical state: we do what we can to keep kids off drugs, but what this misses is that they are always on drugs, drugs that are being produced by their brains themselves. These drugs induce a constant, ecstatic effervescence, and a strong feeling of immortality. They start to wear off at different times for different people. In my case, their potency dropped off around the age of 27, when I had what might be called my Ivan Il’ich moment, and it finally dawned on me where this process of getting older was ultimately headed.

Ex-jocks, who had their glory days in high school, complain of the comet’s fizzling in terms of their declining hormone levels, their receding hairlines, and so on. And they are right to complain, for there is something of value that is in the course of being lost. But even if the body did not perceptibly decline, the arc of the comet would be no less certain, and aging would require no less readjustment of the thinking mortal in the face of his or her impending death. The way I experience aging (besides the trivial stuff of vanity, like obsessing over my hairline) is as a sort of growing pressure to facilitate a proper shift, to speak with Aristotle, from potentiality to actuality. That is, I experience the age I am now as an age at which I must ensure that I already am what I insist or believe I am going to be.

This is not a very pleasant situation to be in. I miss being able to ride on youthful potentiality, on the promise that I’m going to do something great someday. Few things in this life terrify me more than the prospect of transforming into an older man who has not successfully made the shift, who tires people out with his ever-unrealized plans, who has been able to create no audience for his big ideas, and who writes letters to editors of local newspapers that are destined at the outset for rejection (or anyhow this is how I used to conceive the man I did not want to become; these days he can circumvent the editor by posting incoherent blog comments).

The receding hairline and the rest are perceptible markers of the absurdity of certain forms of behavior. They are not themselves the problem, but only reminders that there is a problem: namely, that at a certain point one would do much better to start preparing for death, and that the time for big dreams is past. What I am saying of course goes entirely against the modern liberal understanding of youth and aging, according to which it is ‘never too late’, and which would have us believe that the best way to spend one’s final years is in checking off items from some ‘bucket list’: things like skydiving, jet-skiing, and other pursuits positively designed for the passing thrill of the unwise. But this is the same understanding that euphemizes death itself beyond recognition, that focuses obsessively on health and ‘wellness’ as if the full attainment of these made the slightest dent in the indifferent panzer of mortality. This understanding is utterly wrong: people get old and die, and the best spent life is the one that conforms itself to this arc.

Anyhow, I’m fairly at peace. I have not totally failed in making the shift from potentiality to actuality. One thing that weighs fairly heavily is that I have not done that other thing described by Aristotle so beautifully: I have not approximated to eternity by cycling back upon myself in kind (if not in number). To put this differently, I have not reproduced, and over the past ten years this has grown from a trivial and contingent fact into one that defines my very being. I am one of those childless adults. I try to weigh the real importance of this fact against the bourgeois chatter about how important it is (I also don’t own a set of golf clubs, and thoroughly don’t give a shit about that), and the truth is I find this hard to do. I am not terribly comforted by the reassurance so often heard, that I am a man and so have plenty of time, since I do not feel that I have plenty of time to do anything, and a fortiori not something, like raising children, that unfolds over so many years.

But otherwise, you know, I write books and stuff. I give headbirths. I have hardly been able to keep secret that what I imagine myself to be doing in this world is, principally, writing, and not writing in my capacity as an academic either. I am an academic almost by mistake; I wanted all along to know a lot, and to write about what I know, but I always imagined this would be more in the direction of literary non-fiction than of heavily footnoted scholarship. In this respect, I have not shifted to actuality in quite the way I had intended, and this is the source of a great deal of regret and frustration for me. Part of the weightiness of a milestone like today’s arises from the need that it seems to impose of rethinking this fundamental aspiration, of accepting the actuality (that I am a competent scholar and an occasional blogger) rather than continuing to bank on the potentiality (that I am a ‘writer’). (I add that every year since 2009 I have made more money than the previous year from literary non-fiction contributions, and I expect this trend to continue. Last year the figure was around $5000. It will be a long time, at this rate, before I can quit my day job.)

In his generally execrable novel, Le Plateforme, Michel Houellebecq tells the story of a 40-year-old man who stretches a Radiohead t-shirt over his gut while on vacation in Southeast Asia, quickly realizes it’s hopeless to try to keep looking youthful, and plunges to the depths of gross male abjectness, of the sort for which European men in Southeast Asia are well known. The initial gesture, it seems to me in retrospect, tells the whole story: cut the crap about having favorite bands and stuff. You’re forty now, and therefore disgusting. From here on out, I’m thinking today, simply managing to not be disgusting becomes a sort of artform. To accept the diminishing ratio of one’s becoming to one’s being, to accept that the fates have already largely wrapped up their work with you, and that accordingly some ways of being that once made natural sense are now closed off, or at least can only be accessed if one does not mind appearing ridiculous: this is what it means to turn forty.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website