Cover image for Narcissus leaves the pool : familiar essays
Narcissus leaves the pool : familiar essays
Epstein, Joseph, 1937-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999.
Physical Description:
x, 321 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Essays originally published in The American scholar, The New Yorker, and The Hudson review.
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PS3555.P6527 N37 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Joseph Epstein's sixth collection of personal pieces winningly and brilliantly rounds off his twenty-three-year tenure as editor of The American Scholar. "The trick with these essays," he recently wrote, "is to take what seems a small or mildly amusing subject and open it up, allow it to exfoliate, so that by the end something arises that might be larger and more intricate than anyone -- including the author -- had expected." Among the things that arise here are naps, Gershwin, aging, name-dropping, long books, pet peeves, talent vs. genius, Anglophilia, and surgery -- the head and the heart.

Author Notes

Joseph Epstein was born and educated in Chicago, where, since 1974, he has been a lecturer in English and writing at North-western University. From 1975 to 1997 he was the editor of The American Scholar. Three of the essays in this volume were chosen for The Anchor Essay Annual and The Best American Essays, where his work has frequently appeared. "The modern essay," as Karl Shapiro has written, "has regained a good deal of its literary status in our time, much to the credit of Joseph Epstein."

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Demonstrating the continuing relevance and joys of the well-crafted essay, Epstein's thoughtful excursions explore a range of subjects from the profound (mortality) to the pedantic (language abuses) and the popular (the music of the 1940s). But they are always deeply personal. Without sacrificing his own unique viewpoint, Epstein (Life Sentences), for 23 years the editor of The American Scholar, always engages his reader, providing access to his knowledge instead of merely lecturing. For example, when expounding upon the delights of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he makes the reader with no knowledge of Gibbon feel as if she, too, might pick up the volumes and breeze through them. Many of the essays are powerful: using himself as an example, Epstein charts his growing fears of aging and death to painful and provocative effect, and his descriptions of the human body are wrenching. His elegantly turned sentences reveal quirks and cultural musings with a comic touch that is light, but never flippant. The best essays achieve classical balance in a completely modern voice. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

Epstein is one of the premier contemporary American essayists, and his status is reaffirmed in his latest collection, which, as the title indicates, is about himself. But there is nothing wrong with such egotism, because he happens to be an interesting fellow. What is so remarkable about Epstein as an essay writer is that he'll begin a discussion at some personal place--say, thinking of himself as "a man who has mastered, in all its delicate intricacy, the art of the nap" --and end up in another place relevant to us all. That's why he can write about himself and get away with it: without fuss or filigree, only with a clear sense of direction, his discussions always arrive at a universal point to which we can all relate. Anything from heart bypass surgery to his naked body to mispronunciation of certain words can fall under his watchful eye and abiding love of communication: he enjoys making language work, not making it jump through hoops for show. --Brad Hooper

Library Journal Review

What do you get when you take 16 personal essays, add literary knowledge and self-revelation, include well-turned phrases and polished paragraphs, temper with a candid, colloquial style, and suffuse with a great deal of wit and amusing observation? You get a new collectionÄhis sixthÄby the former editor of the American Scholar. Epstein (Life Sentences, LJ 9/15/97) focuses mainly on ordinary subjects: aging, napping, reading, name-dropping, and being an addicted sports spectator. He speculates that the fanatic pursuit of youthfulness through exercise allows one to "be in near perfect shape just in time for death." And on the subject of pronunciation he wonders, "Why does it feel so foolish, so ketchup on one's white shirtfront, so absolutely fly open at the senior prom, to know one has been mispronouncing a word?" These essays were first published in the American Scholar, The New Yorker, and the Hudson Review; it's nice to have them together under one cover. Recommended for literature collections in both academic and public libraries.ÄIlse Heidmann, San Marcos, TX (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Narcissus Leaves the Pool Emerging from the shower, I stand naked in front of my bathroom mirror. This, let the truth be told, is not an altogether enrapturing sight. (Had he grown well into middle age, Narcissus himself would surely have spent a lot less time gazing into the pool.) Contemplating myself, I feel a brief wave of pity for my wife who, night after night, has to sleep next to this body; I, more fortunate soul, have only to sleep in it. The bathroom has good light and a mirror extending nearly its full length; there is a soft rug, muted wallpaper, and ample blocks and slabs of cool, cream-colored marble. To paraphrase Bishop Heber on Ceylon, this bathroom is a place where every prospect pleases and only I am vile.     I note that my body seems slightly out of proportion to my head, which is a size 7 3/8. My shoulders are not wide -- they are, more precisely, sloped -- and my posture, a good deal less than perfect, has caused a slight humpiness where my neck runs into my back. Only the muscles in my calves and forearms could pass for youthful. My stomach is flat just now, but any weight I gain usually goes, like the blows of the late, punishing welterweight Carmen Basilio, straight to the midsection. The skin at my throat has begun to sag. I have old-guy elbows whose skin is dry, wrinkled, and reddish. If I lift my arms out to the side, the skin here, too, is loose, anticipating old age. My buttocks, I do believe, have begun to droop -- not an inspiriting sight, drooping buttocks. The hair has long since disappeared from my shins, transferred perhaps to the backs of my shoulders, where I have only recently begun to notice it. My ankles, owing to what must be hundreds of broken capillaries, are purplish and descend into small, rather duckishly wide feet.     In the mirror before me, then, is an assemblage of hair, veins, and flesh that bears little more than what might be called a species resemblance to either Michelangelo's or Donatello's David. About Praxiteles' Hermes I wish not even to speak. And this, you understand, is the result of fairly clean living. What if I had lived with the throttle full-out, drinking heavily, smoking steadily, keeping late hours, eating with the happy gluttony of which I am capable? I have to conclude that, as protection against the ravages of age, a quiet life, a careful diet, plenty of fresh air, and regular flossing may not be all they are cracked up to be.     My favorite physical feature is my hands, and over the years I have spent a fair amount of time staring at them. My fingers are longish and shapely; the backs of my hands and my knuckles are still covered by dark hair; turquoise veins stand out in high relief; the knuckles at mid-finger are large; the nails are strong and cut straight across -- the whole presenting (to me at least) a pleasing complication. A woman once told me that I had sexy wrists, an odd compliment that, unfortunately, came too late to be useful. Had I known earlier, when I was a bachelor and still engaged in the sex wars, I might have gone with this strength and taken to wearing gaudy watches, gold identification bracelets, and extravagant cuff links.     My most notable physical attribute is my ears, which are large and stand well out from my head. Caricaturists quickly pick this up. They haven't yet picked up on the hair that is beginning to grow ever so lightly on the rims of these ears. The hair on my head is now more gray than brown, and I note that my eyebrows have begun to turn white. Below my eyes rest substantial bags, two-suiters distinctly not by Louis Vuitton. My skin color is high, somewhat tan in all seasons, and this, combined with the darkness of my whiskers and the manifold wrinkles and creases of my skin, works well to camouflage my face's various blemishes and mottlings. When I go out in the evening, I frequently have to shave a second time because my five o'clock shadow, owing to my being an early riser, sets in around three in the afternoon.     Henry James, in an essay with the very Jamesian title "The Question of the Possibilities," refers to the American businessman of his day as "seamed all over with the scars of the marketplace." I think often about how lucky I am to have been spared all such scars, both metaphorical and real, of the marketplace and of the medical office. I suppose the chief scar of our day is that left by heart surgery, from simple to quintuple bypass. Lifesaving though this operation has proved to be, I am pleased to have avoided it and want ardently to depart the planet without its particular rococo medical tattoo. Hence my blasted careful diet.     How little, really, has been exacted from this body over nearly six decades traipsing the earth! Apart from some rudimentary athletic training as a boy, and a few long marches and moderately strenuous calisthenics in the army, my body has never been truly tested. As for how easy my physical life has been, let me count the ways: I have never been tortured; I have never been shot or stabbed; I have never, after the age of ten, been in a serious fight; I have never fallen from a horse; I have never been hungry or thirsty for more than a few hours. Perhaps only an American in the twentieth century can make such a happy claim, but in the physical realm I have known almost nothing of pain, deprivation, or humiliation.     In the sixteenth century, certainly, no one would have been so privileged. The great Montaigne is full of talk of the body: of impotence, flatulence, smells, rheums, fluxions of gout, coronary palpitations, migraines, and gallstones (which "monstrously unlecher me"). He informs readers of the foods he likes ("I am not over-fond of salads nor of any fruit except melons"), of the rhythm of his defecations, of the kind of bed he prefers to sleep in (hard, with rather too many covers, and he likes to sleep alone). He tells of the time he was thrown from his horse, when he lost consciousness and had his first premonition of death.     Death, the closing down of the body, and old age, the beginning of that process, are perpetually on Montaigne's mind: "God shows mercy to those from whom he takes away life a little at a time: this is the sole advantage of growing old; the last death which you die will be all the less total and painful: it will only be killing off half a man, or a quarter." Montaigne thought long about defeating the fear of death, which he seems to have achieved. His own taste ran to a death among strangers, so that he wouldn't have to expend his last breaths consoling others about his dying. Owing to his gallstones, a condition that also killed his father, Montaigne, from his forty-fifth year on, lived with great, sometimes unbearable, pain. This pain, which never let him for long forget his body, helped make him a thinker more thoroughly grounded in reality, even though he seemed to deny it. "What does it matter," he asks, "if our arms flay about as long as our thoughts do not?"     While I feel fortunate to have lived in a century in which pain has in many quarters been muted, if not defeated, I feel, at the same time, ever so mildly deprived that my body has not been placed in danger. Like every male, I wonder how I would have acted in battle with bullets whizzing by, bombs dropping around me, in hand-to-hand combat. Would I have kept my courage and won through? Every boy bred on World War II movies has wondered how much torture he could have stood without giving up military secrets that would have betrayed his comrades and his country. As a man now much too old for military service, I still wonder, when reading about the Nazi death camps or the Soviet slave-labor camps, how much, under pressure that was at bottom physical, I could have taken in the way of such punishment.     A boy lives in his body with an intensity and completeness that perhaps only professional athletes know as adults. His physical qualities count for nearly everything. Imperfections -- plumpness, a big nose, poor skin, unruly hair -- can bring him endless cruel teasing. How fast he can run, how far throw, how high jump, how artfully dodge, how willing to accept dares -- these are the only questions that seem to matter in boyhood, or at least they did in mine. I grew up with many otherwise quite witless boys who were held in the highest regard because they could unfailingly field a grounder, throw a football fifty yards, or smash a tennis ball with a nicely controlled fury.     As a boy, I accepted without scruple the sovereignty of the physical -- which meant the supremacy of athletic ability -- as a guide to human quality. I was a respectable athlete myself, at any rate through grade school. Because I was small, my hope was to be a stylish athlete, an athlete with finesse, one who could make the quick, the smooth, the elegant move: to be the punch hitter, the agile dribbler with the deadly long shot, the smooth stroker. My talent was for pastiche; like many another boy, I was able to put together a fairly convincing hodgepodge imitation of the older boys and the professional athletes I had seen.     All this I brought off fairly well, at least for a while, but I lacked proper aggression. By proper aggression I really mean physical courage. Physical courage is probably an unteachable quality, and while I greatly admired it, I didn't have it in great abundance. In a clutch situation, I don't recall ever chickening out, but I was not ready on a regular basis to sacrifice my body, except when not to do so meant clear public disgrace.     A boy I grew up with who was always ready to sacrifice his body was Marty Summerfield. Not much bigger than I, Marty would run into a wall to catch a ball; stand unflinching at home plate to tag out a base runner thirty or forty pounds heavier than he who was about to steamroll him; catapult his body, kamikaze-like, into a defensive line to score a touchdown from two yards out. Marty lived on different terms with his body than did I or most of the other kids with whom we played. I considered the proposition of pain and quickly concluded that, on balance and where possible, it was best avoided; Marty never, as we should say nowadays, "factored in" pain. He just blazed ahead. Most of us were not cowards, but Marty was absolutely fearless. He had had a number of concussions and other interesting injuries. He had a generously chipped front tooth that I envied. That chipped tooth seemed the boyhood equivalent of a dueling scar, a bit of shrapnel in the hip, a Purple Heart.     The one gift bestowed upon my boyish body was excellent coordination. I don't recall ever feeling awkward. My body could do almost anything I wanted it to do: turn, twist, leap, calculate perfectly the arrival of a football in my hands, a baseball in my glove, and a tennis ball on my racket. What I couldn't do with my body was get it to grow taller.     The comic books that I read passionately as a kid regularly ran two ads on their back covers that were aimed at boys like me. These ads held out the promise of building up our bodies. In one, a man whose muscles were oiled and tensed offered to make us Commando Tough!, exclamation mark and all. In an even more popular ad, the famous bodybuilder Charles Atlas promised to convey the secrets of a muscle-building program he called "Dynamic Tension." Atlas's ad asked if one was tired of being a ninety-eight-pound weakling and showed cartoon drawings of such a weakling on the beach getting sand kicked in his face and losing his girlfriend to a bully.     At age nine, I was a good deal less than ninety-eight pounds when I sent away for the free sepia-colored pamphlet that Atlas pledged would change my life. Among the photographs it contained was one of a man stopping a railroad train in its progress with his bare arms: just the lightest touch of photo-hyperbole, perhaps. The deal was that I should send away, at no insubstantial cost, for a continuing series of pamphlets that would teach me how to build up my various muscle groups. To acquire the entire set, a couple of hundred bucks was required -- no small sum for a boy of nine. When I asked my father for financial help, he replied, while turning the pages of the Chicago Daily News and not bothering to look up, "Whaddaya, kiddin' me?"     I had never been more serious. Yet "Dynamic Tension" would not have done the job, for it entailed a regular round of exercises, and it was the boring regularity of exercise of which I was incapable. Besides, I really didn't want to have the bulky, thickly veined muscles of the weight lifter. I wanted instead to have the smooth, long muscles of the graceful athlete. (Weight lifting was then thought to destroy athletic coordination. Today every collegiate athletic program has its weight room, and weight training is suggested even for baseball and tennis players.)     In the realm of the physical, the first rule is to feel discontent with what one has. I note that no woman, no matter how beautiful, is ever quite satisfied with her looks; and the better looking she is, the more troubling are her minor flaws. "She was pretty," says a flapper in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned, "except that she had big ankles." And in the realm of the physical, too, nothing is ever quite satisfactorily repairable -- at least not exactly in the way one had hoped. Cosmetic surgeons, I am told, ask to be paid their entire fee in advance for the sensible reason that almost no one is ever entirely satisfied with their work.     In adolescence, my body controlled me. Along with every other boy of my age I knew, I became, in spirit if not (alas) in actuality, a complete, if also completely unfulfilled, sex fiend. I must have thought about other things during this time but none with the same pure concentration as I thought about sex. Adolescent boys, to speak plainly, are beasts. I don't care how well they do on the SATs, how nicely they conduct themselves around the house, or how great their pretensions to be interested in science, sports, music, their computers, or good causes -- they are never to be trusted and are probably better assigned to a road gang until the age of twenty-five.     One of the many divisions of humankind is that between those who live in their bodies and those who live outside them. Here social class often enters in. In My Ántonia, Willa Cather has her young hero, Jim Burden, compare the immigrant country girls to the richer town girls. He says that outdoor work had given the former "a vigour which, when they got over their first shyness on coming to town, developed into a positive carriage and freedom of movement," whereas the town girls, though jolly and pretty, had "bodies [that] never moved inside their clothes" and "muscles [that] seemed to ask but one thing -- not to be disturbed."     I thought of this passage the other day when I saw a famous professor from the university where I teach carrying hand weights as he walked home. He was doing it in such a herky-jerky fashion that I could read into his every step a boy who had never known physical grace. At chamber music concerts, too, most of the people in the audience look as if they have not used their bodies very much. Someone I knew who grew up in the working class, when asked in later life about the difference between the working and the middle classes, remarked that almost everyone in the latter seemed to have retained ten fingers. This made me recall noticing, when I worked in a discount store in downtown Chicago, how many farmers and factory workers had lost fingers in accidents with farm machinery or on the assembly line. With some exceptions (F. Scott Fitzgerald's first description of the wealthy Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby: his "was a body capable of enormous leverage -- a cruel body"), to be of the working class is to live in greater dependence on one's body.     My own adolescent body was efficient enough, but, it almost goes without saying, it was far from everything I wanted it to be. I wished, among other things, for larger arms, especially at the biceps. To help bring this about, I once bought two ten-pound dumbbells and began doing the weight-lifting exercise known as curls, which, out of boredom, I soon gave up. For bodybuilding, I should have much preferred a summer construction job of the kind much admired in my high school days. In such a job you labored at heavy work in the blazing sun for relatively high wages, ate an Italian sausage sandwich and washed it down with a quart of beer for lunch, leered at passing girls, belched grandly, swore profusely among fellow workers, and got a great tan. Or so I idealized such work, which I was never able to get. The closest I came to doing physical labor was unloading trucks in the receiving room of a phonograph needle factory; not enough trucks came in, though, to give me the kind of exercise that would have built me up.     I wished also for the growth of facial hair that would allow me to shave regularly, but it didn't come until I was eighteen or nineteen. I associated the end of boyhood with the beginning of regular shaving. Although I was already taller than my father, I hoped to cheat genetics and to grow a good deal taller still. People in those days talked about boys "shooting up," and it seemed that the time for shooting up was summer. At fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, or even eighteen, boys could suddenly achieve another four or five inches in height. I waited, hopefully, for mine. They never arrived.     It is not all that easy for people with small bodies to imagine living in large bodies, or for large people to imagine living in small bodies. When T. S. Eliot first met Igor Stravinsky, he told him that he expected a taller man: Stravinsky was 5 feet 3 inches and weighed 120 pounds. Stravinsky, in return, had expected that Eliot would have "less imposing proportions; his big, somewhat stolid and cumbrous frame seemed an unnecessarily large refuge even for such over-endowed shyness and modesty as his." I don't know exactly how large Eliot was, but for a man so large he was very adroit at deploying semicolons. Edmund Wilson reports in his journals that Stephen Spender, an immense man, claimed that "he lacked energy on account of being so tall." Aldous Huxley, another tall man, apparently once told Spender that neither of them qualified as geniuses "because when you are tall, your head is too far from your solar plexus." A friend of mine thinks that it is a mistake of a fundamental kind to be over six feet tall and not a good basketball player -- "wasted height," he calls it. Dragging my own rather abbreviated carcass around on certain logy days, I feel grateful that I am not a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier.     At some point in life, not long after adolescence, one has to become reconciled to one's body, to play the cards one was dealt, to say, in effect, this is it, this is the skin I was intended to travel in, and so I shall. And thus, historically, people have done. But not quite any longer. The current belief, widely held, is that we can do a lot to change things: lose weight, tone things up, somehow or other cheat the dealer. We can, I suppose, for a while. I have tried to cheat him myself -- I am still at it, puffing away on my NordicTrack WalkFit four or five mornings a week, trudging off, I must somehow believe, into life everlasting.     But finally, as they say in Vegas, you can't hope to beat the House. The House will trip you up in ways you don't expect. For an illness, I once took a drug whose side effect caused something called avascular necrosis, which meant for me a loss of tissue in my hip. So stiffened up was my right leg that I needed, for a few months, to use a cane. Though I was never in great pain, this provided a small lesson in how any minor physical malfunction can upset one's life. One of the wretched things about carrying a cane is that you lose the use of the hand in which you hold the damn thing. I found myself standing at my front door, cane in one hand, two plastic bags of groceries in the other, and no hand free to take the keys from my pants pocket. Or when I needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, I first had to locate my cane. A hundred other little inconveniences resulted from the medically caused jiggeroo that prevented my right hipbone from fitting smoothly into its socket.     But this was bush-league stuff. Imagine how desolating it would be to walk around nauseated all the time or to be unable to use your hands or to hear. Imagine being hostage to some devastating debilitating disease such as lupus or multiple sclerosis. Even temporarily unpleasant physical conditions are not all that easily imagined: great thirst, for example, or a horrendous sensation of itching. Dan Jacobson, writing about going down into a Zambian copper mine in his South African travel book, The Electronic Elephant, notes that the experience "left me with a thoroughgoing scepticism about the power of the written word ever to convey the inward nature of any extreme physical experience: of war, say, or polar exploration, or even severe illness." Not even the effects of a cold are easily described. Which is partly why The Magic Mountain, with its concentrated and sustained description of the effects, physical and mental, of tuberculosis, and Cancer Ward, in which Solzhenitsyn does the same thing for cancer, are such impressive works.     In literature the great connoisseurs of the body seem to be the French. The tradition began even before Montaigne with Rabelais, who viewed the body as a magnificent fleshly vessel for containing vast quantities of wine and food (and oh so useful for energetic fornication). Rabelais, with his tales of comic defecation, vomiting, uncontrollable micturation, and other temporary maladies and permanent human indignities, is always reminding us how body-bound we are. "Without health life is not life," wrote Rabelais, "life is not livable.... Without health life is nothing but languor; life is but the simulacrum of death."     But, then, Rabelais was a physician, and, as the narrator of Marguerite Yourcenar's great novel Memoirs of Hadrian reminds us, "it is difficult to remain an emperor in the presence of a physician, and difficult even to keep one's essential quality as a man." I have always thought the problem might be quite as difficult the other way around -- that it is difficult to keep one's essential quality as a man when one is a physician. A part of me much admires physicians, but as great a part is repelled by their work of picking and probing in the big muddy that is the human body. I speak, though, as someone who is quite squeamish. I don't, for example, like to contemplate much of what goes on in my body beneath the skin. I don't even like to think that I possess kidneys, a liver, a spleen, a pancreas, and the rest of it. An old joke has it that a psychoanalyst is a Jewish boy who can't stand the sight of blood. A writer, at least this writer, may be a Jewish boy who not only can't stand the sight of blood but doesn't wish to spend all that much time listening to other people's problems.     While respecting what they do and realizing the need for them, I have tried, to the best of my ability, to steer clear of physicians. I find that, given a chance, they discover things I would rather not know about. But as I get older, I find myself calling upon them more often. I have finally reached the age when I call my physicians by their first names, for I am now older than the various doctors and dentists on, so to speak, my staff. This should be a good thing. Being younger, they are likely to survive me -- to be there, as the English say, to see me out.     My internist is, I think, a penetrating diagnostician and a very nice guy: sensible, good-natured, likable in every way. Yet I cannot say I enjoy his searches upon my body for lumps, bumps, protuberances, dangerous distensions, little bubbles on major veins and arteries. One day, of course, he will find that for which he has been looking. He will call me into his office and tell me -- nothing positive of course, nothing for me to worry about yet -- that he would like to run further tests. I shall respond stoically, with good humor on my face and terror in my heart, joking with him yet knowing that this is it, ball game . My body has had enough. Bored with its occupant or repaying old if minor abuses, it has determined to devour itself -- and me with it -- in disease.     I often envision that day. I am no hypochondriac; only your normal thanatophobe. With death at the door -- the Ruffian on the Stair, the poet W. E. Henley called it -- I hope to have a little time to cut loose. From my physician's office, I shall betake myself to an ice cream shop for a banana split, after which I shall stop off for a large packet of a candy I have always been partial to known as Spearmint Leaves. I may pick up a pack of cigarettes. A restaurant known as Chicago Joe's, a steak joint with a specialty in cheesecake and key lime pie, will, in the time remaining, get to see a lot of me. I shall cease flossing.     My guess is that I am not alone in thinking such thoughts, playing out the scenario of being told by a physician that there is little time left; for we all live in anticipation of that moment nowadays. I don't think I go too far when I say that many of us organize our diets and our daily lives so that we can put off that moment for as long as possible. Despite lots of cheating, I try to eat foods that will help me escape colon cancer or a heart attack. Worse to report: when I have eaten carefully through the day, I feel as though I am one up on the Ruffian on the Stair. I assume that he's going to be discouraged and depart because I have had a fruit salad for lunch and salmon and two vegetables for dinner. Foolish of me. He has plenty of patience, the Ruffian.     A few years ago I purchased an exercise bicycle on which, for twenty-five or so minutes every morning, I would ride off into imaginary sunsets listening to Louis Prima and reading magazines. I have now graduated, as I mentioned earlier, to a NordicTrack WalkFit treadmill. Both of these modern torture racks exist chiefly to help the user lose weight and stay slim -- which will in turn, presumably, help the user avoid a heart attack. The true meaning behind all this careful eating and joyless exercise is that I, and countless others like me, have begun to live, at least on the physical level, defensively. The Ruffian on the Stair must smile at our hopeless contrivances to outwit him, knowing that, even if our plan works for a while, his old pal Senile Dementia awaits.     Working out is, as T. S. Eliot described poetry, a mug's game. It is so because one cannot finally win at it. All muscles, after all, eventually break down. The New York Times not long ago ran an article on the need for the very old to work out. "Even among the very old, it is never too late to benefit from getting in shape," the article happily begins. It then goes on to cite the results of a study about to be published in that good news/bad news journal of our day, the New England Journal of Medicine . Half the people in the study, the article reports, were demented. Even when you are out of your mind, exercise is apparently good for you. How the Ruffian must be giggling!     My own relationship with my body has changed gradually over the years. I used to think it an agreeable companion that yielded me great pleasure on many fronts. Today I look at it somewhat paranoically, chiefly for signs of betrayal, for ways it might let me down. The least change or irregularity is worrisome, indicating some (probably) fatal disease. ("Anyone who is afraid of suffering," writes Montaigne, "suffers already of being afraid.") The obituary pages are filled with the deaths of people younger than I. Serious breakdown, while not necessarily imminent, now has to be considered a distinct possibility.     Until four or five years ago, I was a gamesman -- I played games to give my body a workout. My last game was racquetball. Racket and paddle games have always been my favorite sports because they don't call for great size but they do put my good coordination to felicitous use. Ping-Pong, badminton, tennis -- I was a more than respectable player in all these games. But I think I may have been best of all at racquetball, a four-wall court game that enjoyed a great flurry of popularity in the 1970s and has all but fizzled out today.     I don't want to overrate my ability -- when Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe divorced, Oscar Levant said that he supposed no man could excel at two national pastimes -- but I think I was fairly good at racquetball. The game held an aesthetic excitement for me that seems to have been inseparable from every pleasure I have known in games through a long and mediocre athletic career: the clean pickup of a grounder, the sweet swish of the basketball net, the clear pock of an overhead smash.     Racquetball gave me the most intense physical pleasure of all. I loved racing back to take a shot off the back wall and send the ball careening off the front wall for a winner. I loved crushing a return of the other player's service down the backhand side. The game had various "kill shots," of which my own favorite involved standing near the service line, waiting until the very last moment before the ball hit the floor for the second time, and whacking the ball -- whap! -- into the right-hand corner for an unreturnable shot. Sometimes, just before falling asleep at night, I would rehearse that shot -- whap! whap! whap! -- and it gave me delight even to think about it. While playing racquetball my body was on automatic pilot; the horse, so to speak, knew the way. My hip injury put an end to all that.     The other day, a bright Wednesday afternoon, a generous friend took me out to hit some tennis balls, something I had not done for more than a decade. With my hip now healed, I harbored a new fantasy, and I wished to try it out. The fantasy was that I would play a businesslike, middle-aged game of tennis, without any of the old competitiveness of youth, any of the anger directed at myself for errors of judgment and prowess. I thought I might hire a young pro to rally with me, to smooth over those things in my game that had become too rough. Maturity, late to arrive though it may have been, would at last be in the saddle. Mild-mannered, middle-aged tennis would be the ass on which into Jerusalem I would ride, in white shorts, shirt, and shoes, graphite racket in hand, the very picture of cool and natural elegance, playing this happily controlled tennis game.     It didn't work out as I had planned. Not only did I fail to hit many balls well -- my forehand was particularly atrocious; my backhand, a more grooved stroke, was still intact -- but even those balls I did hit well gave me, as René Lacoste might have put it, non frisson . Or, as the telephone answering machine of Will "the Thrill" Clark, the first baseman of the Texas Rangers, is reported to announce, the thrill is gone. The magic wasn't there; the fantasy refused to take wing. Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver needn't worry; neither is likely to be knocked out of the early rounds of a seniors tournament by an amiable, unseeded, altogether unknown midwesterner with red elbows, purple ankles, and slightly drooping buttocks.     I have decided to put off my comeback as a tennis player because, without the physical pleasure, it all seems pointless. Hitting a service ace, a crisp volley, a crosscourt winner -- the prospect of these acts no longer lights my fire. A new and distinctly different set of fantasies is required. So, too, is a new relationship with that now old companion, my body, or, as the kids say, me bod. My mother lived to the age of eighty-one; my father is still alive at ninety-one. With luck and enough boringly safe meals, I might be walking the planet for another twenty-five or so years.     Little as I wish to own up to it, I have begun thinking about my body less and less as a receiving room for pleasure and a hall for physical delights. It won't do any longer to think myself Fred Astaire or Jim Thorpe, let alone Casanova. Shocking to confess, I am a man who stares furtively (I hope) at beautiful women. But I remind myself that my interest in such matters is now not even theoretical but entirely museological. Similarly, when I lose my temper over poor service or a breach of etiquette, I have to understand, more poignantly than ever before, that the notion of a physical threat behind my loss of temper is quite pathetic. ("What else could I do?" I imagine the service manager at my car dealership patiently explain over beers with a friend about his stormy dealings with me. "I had no choice. I punched the old guy out.") The time has come when I really have to take seriously the dictum to act my age.     I have been reading Sherwin B. Nuland's best-selling book How We Die . A book not excessively loaded with jokes, Dr. Nuland's. I don't think I shall be giving away the plot when I report that the answer to the question posed in his title is that we die too quickly or all too slowly, drearily, painfully, sloppily, undignifiedly, horrendously, but -- and here is the genuinely bad news -- inevitably. "We rarely go gently into that good night," he writes. He reports that "our own bodies are simultaneously and subtly undergoing the same inexorable process that will lead eventually to senescence and death." Dr. Nuland has enough grim material well in hand not to have to bring up the little unpractical jokes the body likes to play, such as giving an abscessed tooth to a man who is fighting leukemia. He is especially strong on what the brain loses in functioning power after the age of fifty. I would pass some of this information along to you, but, being sixty-one myself, I don't remember most of what he wrote.     Sometimes I see my reflection in a store window or in a restaurant mirror, and I am a little shocked. Who is this grayish, rather sour-faced fellow? It takes me a second to remember and then another few moments to remind myself to get used to him. He and I have to come to terms. So many people I know in their eighties have told me that, in their minds, they feel forty or fifty years younger. In my own early sixties, I still think of myself as in my thirties. It won't do. My body daily gives testimony that it won't.     The body is the reality in which each of us is grounded. The world surely looks different to a man of 350 pounds than it does to a man of 130 pounds. Not only do we obtain much of our information about the world through our senses -- which is to say, through our bodies -- but, as all philosophers of good standing can convincingly argue, our senses enjoy almost nothing so much as deceiving us. The limitations of knowledge are best exhibited in the lack of control we have over our physique. Mind will go only so far over matter. Did their logic, asks Montaigne, console Varro and Aristotle for their gout? Does having read Proust twice all the way through make having stomach flu any easier? It's a serious mistake to forget for a moment that we are held hostage by these fleshly prison cells, our bodies.     All things considered, the one assigned to me hasn't been a lemon. Despite its compactness, it is sufficiently commodious. It has chugged along pretty well and required relatively little servicing. Since by now it is long out of warranty, I hesitate to take sharp corners with it or to put it to endurance tests of any impressive kind. With so much mileage on it, breakdowns oughtn't come as a surprise. Replacement parts, they say, are possible to obtain, but about this I remain a bit dubious. A new body, clearly, is called for, but what dealer would take mine as a trade-in?     Thrift and prudence may, with luck, make one wealthy. Thoughtfulness and learning may, with even more luck, make one wise. But there stands the body to mock both wealth and wisdom and every other kind of accumulation. The body exists to demonstrate, if demonstration is needed, that progress has its limitations. "Every day in every way I get better and better" is a notion that the body refutes. Beyond a certain point one ceases to grow stronger, more beautiful, more desirable. Neither all the king's personal trainers nor all the king's cosmetic surgeons can put any of us together again. The body reminds us that we are in the swim only for a short, however glorious, while. Then, no matter what one's station in life, or what one's natural endowments, the whistle blows and it's everybody but everybody out of the pool, and that includes you -- which is to say me -- Narcissus, baby. Copyright © 1999 Joseph Epstein. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Author's Notep. ix
Narcissus Leaves the Poolp. 1
An Extremely Well Informed SOBp. 21
I Like a Gershwin Tunep. 40
The Art of the Napp. 60
A Nice Little Knack for Name-Droppingp. 80
So to Speakp. 99
A Real Page-Turnerp. 118
Ticked to the Minp. 137
Trivial Pursuitsp. 155
What's in It for the Talent?p. 175
The Pleasures of Readingp. 194
Will You Still Feed Me?p. 216
Anglophilia, American Stylep. 234
Taking the Bypassp. 254
Grow Up, Why Dontcha?p. 269
My Friend Edwardp. 287