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· On Aging — De Facto  and De Jure  Style ·

If you've failed to find me lately, please chalk it up to aging — intermittent retardation, senior moment syndrome, misplaced intentionality, and such. It's a product partly of contrastive pedagogical emulation, the result of an old teacher's miming the odd literary lapses of students. For I've been dealing so much with the gaps, omissions, and non sequiturs of their work that displaced "energies" have quite sapped my own. You know the work.

So I have thought to trade up some today. Happily, my chance comes on my son Suave's birthday, his thirtieth. You may remember Suave from Standing Firm on Ceremony and A Lonerganian Précis — when he married Dr. Saavy — and from Valentine's Day Music and Space and Transcendence in Bach's Fantasia in G — when he was more musical. Nowadays Suave is a law student.

I'm the one aging now, and he wisely explaining — and agreeably so.

What I've in mind is Suave's LSAT essay, which I found last week on my desk. What luck, I thought — ready to reach for a bottle of Geritol, I have found much better "literary medicine." Though I've read thousands of such essays (but only at the pre-freshman level), to find one at the graduate level is welcome relief indeed.

Here's what Suave faced in a key moment of his twenty-somethingness. What do you think you'd write in reply?

THE PROMPT: From a newsletter about the biology of aging:

Aging is not inevitable. If nothing whatsoever influences the processes of aging, how do we explain the millions of people around the world living longer and healthier extended life spans. Demographers predict that the number of people aged 100 or more will increase fifteen-fold, from approximately 145,000 in 1999 to 2.2 million by 2050. Societies of physicians and scientists endorsing anti-aging technologies now exist throughout the world, but the traditional medical establishment continues to argue that there are no methods proven to stop or reverse aging. This is reminiscent of medical pioneers from the past whose innovations and foresight were trivialized or ignored, only to ultimately become accepted.


The argument that "aging is not inevitable" relies on an intriguing yet not fully relevant analogy. While great medical innovations have indeed been accepted only after some delay, those innovations have always concerned specific ailments or conditions, never a process so general and universal as aging. This difference in the scope of the analogized situations is not a minor one, and it proves the critical flaw in the newsletter's argument.

It should first be noted that the predicted numbers of those who will live to or past 100 are wholly irrelevant: the delay of the inevitable is not the removal of its inevitability.

Likewise, the fact that certain scientists and physicians are now endorsing anti-aging technologies carries as much in the current argument as that baldness will soon cease to occur.

The argument, then, rests on the analogy presented, and we see its weakness without difficulty.

The key insight counters the dummy premise that "nothing whatsoever influences the process of aging." The argument correctly suggests that this premise is false: our aging is affected by external and/or internal influences. While some of those influences may, indeed, be overcome by new innovations, the existence of innumerable external and internal influences is inescapable.

Why? Because we must live in the world, and we have bodies.

These two basic truths reveal the differences in scope mentioned above which is the critical flaw in the argument. Medicine may be capable of profound insights and innovations into how to heal ailments and lengthen lives. But it cannot remove us from our world of influences and make unnecessary our bodies, which are its subject.

Therefore, the newsletter is wrong: We must inevitably age.

Clear relief, acceptance, understanding, bald wit, and even stylish insight. Agreed?

So, to all you freshmen, Back to the Future!*

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· Scholarly, Critical, Theoretical Academic Librarianship, Leon Howard Style ·

I've been packing books lately since I've moved into a new Trope Topic College building. The move has had the effect of putting me in mind of academic librarianship, literally the care and keeping of books. It has had the effect, too, of putting in hand a valued text from the past, an academic biography I studied forty years ago now, Leon Howard's Herman Melville (1951). You should know that Howard was my Doktor Vater, and as I had not seen his work in years, I took a brief peek.

Howard was a fine scholar trained in the German style at Johns Hopkins — one writing the nineteenth dissertation in American literature ("of which there are no extant copies," he happily joked). His long career at Northwestern, UCLA, and New Mexico was highlighted by New Mexico's naming a small library for him in 1983. I thought that fitting, since as Moby-Dick readers may recall, "librianship" is a key theme in Melville's novel.

My own work in that service (getting students into the library and weaning a few from the net) is modest enough, but since books are all helpful, getting folks to read, and even beyond that to "think" about literature, is still more so. You may recall my Whose Words These Are I Think I Know, a January 2005 post centered on finding abstraction, figuration, and organization in books. Today I thought to add a fresh take on still more academic work — work stretching over the entire course of the past century.

Howard's biography can help us in defining it — at least at the boundaries. · Leon Howard, Scholar ·

As I tell students, twentieth-century literary academics fall broadly into three kinds, scholars, critics, and theorists. All have played one-upsmanship games over time, the older looking down on the younger, and vice versa, of course. Though I am quite non-sectarian, in aging I have grown to appreciate the work of the older scholars like Leon Howard.

Here's how he stakes his claim on "critical" study in his brief "Preface":

To those critics who insist that a work of literature makes its most admirable appearance an an independent object of aesthetic experience, I can only suggest that the arts which we call the humanities are, as a matter of fact, unavoidably human. Of them, literature is the most comprehensive and illuminating in its humanity; and, for my part, the knowledge of human beings, in all their complex relationships, which can be gained from literary study is one of the greatest incentives to its pursuit. I cannot, in short, share the apparently widespread feeling that a rereadable book is so delicate a plant that it needs to be removed from its natural environment before it can attract the imagination. Leon Howard, Herman Melville: A Biography, Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1951, 1967, viii.

Those perfect adverbial phrases, "as a matter of fact," "for my part," and "in short," catch Howard's concern: some gathered "facts," "personally" acquired, and all "briefly" shown are, indeed, his point. So, naturally, his conclusion ("Recollection and Renown") drives it home more stylishly.

Critics whose impulse has been to worship Art have found in Melville's works a challenge to their ceremonial ingenuity in rationalizing impressions. So satisfactory has been his reflection of their subtleties that typographical errors in cheap editions of his books and mistranscriptions of his difficult handwriting have inspired them to intellectual gyrations of ectasy. The omission of a comma in modern versions of a sentence addressed to Bulkington in Moby Dick has transformed that character from one of Melville's forgotten men into one of his most "significant" heroes. The error which changed a "coiled fish of the sea" into a "soiled fish" in some editions of White Jacket has been the basis for a lyrical tribute to the author's unique genius in imagery. The probable misreading of Melville's original spelling of the word "visible" as a reference to a "usable truth" in a letter to Hawthorne has provoked discourse on the "usable truth" of both men and inspired a meditation on the "usable past." Leon Howard, Herman Melville: A Biography, Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1951, 1967, 341.

What more can I say?

Lots, of course, but any real "usable truth" in this "blog post" cannot sustain — even theoretically — a more "usable past" in his book.

And, less so, that in the Leon Howard Memorial Library.

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