By Steven G. Kellman


The Montréal Review, February 2024


Basilica Philosophica (1618) by Johann Daniel Mylius


Birth activates an inexorable timing mechanism. According to demographers, the buzzer for a child born in the United States today will go off in 78.5 years. That is a significantly longer interval than for Neanderthals, who clocked out at 22.9 years, so that, according to the Constitution, no Neanderthal could legally serve as president of the United States. But a contemporary American has barely enough time to walk the Appalachian Trail, master the oboe, or learn Norwegian before everything comes to a crashing halt. Longevity is of course more complicated than one simple number; it varies by region, race, income, sex, and education. Wars, mass shootings, and pandemics can skew statistical predictions. So, some say, can fasting, practicing yoga, and quaffing one’s own urine.

Life insurance is an actuarial gamble. It would have been an injudicious bet for Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) to pay premiums on a policy no beneficiary could collect from before she died at 122 years 164 days. All men – and women – are, sooner or later, mortal, even Methuselah, whose pull date is listed in Genesis as 969 years. Even Galapagos tortoises eventually expire, after 175 years. But Greek gods and their consorts are another matter. When Eos, the goddess of dawn, pleaded with Zeus to grant her lover Tithonus, a prince of Troy, eternal life, she neglected to request exemption from aging. So, like the struldbruggs that Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver encounters on the island of Luggnagg, Tithonus lives on and on and on, but he wastes away until Eos takes pity and transforms him into a cicada. Perhaps a more accurate translation would be cockroach, the pest that never dies. Who would want to pad on years of pain and misery?

In English-speaking countries, the term of art for studying longevity is “life expectancy.” The German, Lebenserwartung, is roughly the same. However, in countries in which Romance languages are spoken, the interval between birth and death is more a matter of aspiration than anticipation. The French call it “Espérance de vie humaine,” the Italians “Speranza de vida,” and the Spanish “Esperanza de vida” – all signifying hope, not expectation, for life. Caught between espérance and expectancy, a stoic hopes for the best while expecting the worst.

In The Arabian Nights, Aladdin rubs a lamp, freeing a genie who grants him three wishes. In the many versions of the tale, rarely does Aladdin ask for long life, rather than more immediate and practical things. In the 1992 Disney version, Aladdin’s three wishes are: to be a prince, to be saved from drowning, and to free the genie from his lamp. Rarely do we direct our hopes and expectations toward longevity. It is more natural to hope for fame, fortune, love, happiness, and wisdom than to live 122 years 164 days. It is also natural to expect failure in seeking any of those.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1965 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Doris Day sits down at a piano and belts out what became her signature song: “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).” “Will I be pretty” she asks. “Will I be rich?” She expresses no curiosity about the length of her life. The refrain replies – in bungled Spanish – with the fatalistic response: “Que sera, sera./ Whatever will be, will be./ The future’s not ours to see./ Que sera, sera./ What will be, will be.” The flat refusal to prognosticate begs many epistemological questions, but it is notable that the sorts of expectations it singles out to discourage are matters of appearance and affluence. Longevity is ignored. “Blessed is he who expects nothing for he shall never be disappointed,” observed Alexander Pope in a letter to John Gay. But since expectation is the engine of enterprise, a life totally devoid of anticipation is a comatose vegetation.

As the eldest son of Queen Victoria, Edward II grew up expecting to become King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Dominions and Emperor of India. What he could not have expected was the fact that his mother would reign for an unprecedented sixty-three years, allowing him only nine years on the throne before his own death. But the expectation of becoming the monarch, like the expectation of becoming a shepherd or a shrimper, shapes the entire life. So does wishing to become a movie star or an astronaut. Espérance is what we dream of; expectation is what we will settle for.

The World Health Organization publishes global rankings of life expectancy from birth, and it surely enhances Japanese national pride to know that Japan is currently at the top, with an average of 84.3 years. An epidemic of gun violence and obesity places the United States far down on the list, at number 40 – below its neighbor Canada, at number 15, though not quite as far as Lesotho, which, at number 183, averages 50.7 years. However, transnational comparisons are somewhat misleading, since infant mortality is factored into the averages, and babies tend to die at higher rates in less industrialized nations. A pregnant woman is said to be expecting, but in many poorer societies stillbirth or early death has often been a common expectation. Nevertheless, a child who manages to survive the first five years in Ghana, where an average of 46.2 children out of 1,000 do not make it to six, might live almost as long as someone in Belgium, where the child mortality rate is 3.4 out of 1,000.

The same consideration applies to cross-historical comparisons. The life expectancy from birth in ancient Rome is usually estimated at 30 years. However, though there are no centenarians among the most eminent Romans, many died at ages not uncommon among modern citizens of prosperous democracies. Cicero would have lived beyond his 63 years if he had not been murdered, while Augustus lived to 75, Livy to 74, Quintilian to 65, and Seneca the Elder to 92.

The Latin term for life expectancy, vitae probabilitas, expresses a statistical conception, as if quantitative measurements define life. Might we either expect or hope for some quality of life beyond mere duration? “A long life without wisdom is worse than a short life with it,” proclaimed medieval poet Moses ibn Ezra. But the greatest wisdom might be a recognition of one’s own ignorance. Living well is more desirable than bare endurance, though just what it means to live well is a question that has vexed the lives of philosophers, theologians, physicians, nutritionists, and accountants. Benjamin Franklin advised prudent sleeping patterns as the recipe for becoming “happy, healthy, and wise,” as if insomniacs and slugabeds were disqualified from any state of beatitude. René Descartes invented analytic geometry and much of modern philosophy, but, since he would regularly faire la grasse matinée (make the fat morning), rising from bed after noon, he was apparently not wise enough for Franklin. The Declaration of Independence posits “the pursuit of happiness” as an unalienable right, but the frenetic chasing after happiness guarantees misery. “Call no man happy till he is dead,” warned Aeschylus, though it is doubtful that corpses are happy either.

Termination is probably unavoidable, but the expiration date might be flexible. The humorist Evan Esar, who lived to 96, was mistaken when he advised: “You can’t do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth.” Diet, exercise, and environment surely have some effect on the length of life, and we can do something about them. Dylan Thomas did not have to drink himself into an early grave, at 39. Medical advances in organ transplantation and genetic engineering have boosted expectations about delaying death, perhaps even indefinitely. Researchers have doubled the lives of earthworms by manipulating their genes, holding out hope, if not expectations, for human beings. Could we outlive the ocean quahog scientists named Ming, a clam that, at its death in 2006, at age 507, set the Guinness World Record as the oldest animal in the world?

Shakespeare’s Macbeth likens life not only to “a tale told by an idiot” but also “a brief candle,” and if the flame does not expire, the wax will surely deliquesce. In Sonnet 73, after insisting upon the imminence of his demise, the poet turns to his beloved with the consolation that: “This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” It is the fragility, transience, and scantiness of our lives that makes us cherish them. If we could expect lives measured not in years or even decades but in centuries, would it all seem boring and banal? The exhortation to seize the day is much less compelling on days that never seem to end. “Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,” wrote Omar Khayyám, “Before we too into the Dust descend.” Dust lacks either hope or expectation, which might be the clearest evidence that we are, instead, animate clay, for an undetermined span of time.


Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he has taught since 1976. He is the author of The Restless Ilan Stavans: Outsider on the Inside, The Translingual Imagination, Loving Reading: Erotics of the Text, and Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, which received the New York Society Library Award for Biography, as well as hundreds of essays and more than a thousand reviews. Among his other honors are the Gemini Ink Literary Excellence Award and the San Antonio Public Library Foundation’s Arts and Letters Award. He lives in San Antonio.



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