Travels with Epicurus

Philip Roth recently announced at age seventy-nine his retirement from writing. In his early seventies, the entertaining Daniel Klein is just getting started publishing serious books: the realistic novel The History of Now in 2009 and recently the philosophical excursion Travels with Epicurus. In his “youth,” Klein co-authored with Thomas Cathcart the bestselling Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, an introduction to philosophical ideas through jokes, and Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, a humorous miscellany of philosophers’ thoughts on death. Way back in the earlier days of his long career, Klein wrote Elvis Presley mysteries, thrillers, and television comedy.

Presumably echoing Travels with Charley, which a seriously ill John Steinbeck published at sixty, Travels with Epicurus begins with Klein’s visit to a dentist, who tells him he can choose between expensive implants or an unanchored plate, which Klein associates with old men. He chooses the plate and, at seventy-three, decides to return to the Greek island of Hydra, where he spent a year in his twenties, to learn how to best be an old man before he descends into “old old age” in a nursing home.

Steinbeck took along his poodle, to which he could articulate his thoughts. Klein packs the writings of Epicurus, the third century B.C. Greek philosopher from the island of Samos, and books such as James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, and Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Steinbeck traveled the United States in a camper, talked to assorted natives, and delivered many judgments on the state of American culture. Klein walks the paths of Hydra, where there are no cars; talks to Dimitri, a former sailor and now a taverna owner, and to Tasso, a retired judge; and has little to say about Hydra, where, he believes, old people are satisfied with their lives.

Klein reports so few contacts with island life that I suspected that this memoir might be a fiction relying on his early experiences. I became more suspicious when I realized that Dimitri and Tasso are the names Klein gave his philosophical straight men in Plato and a Platypus. Oh well, I thought, recent research on Steinbeck says that he invented much of Travels with Charley. If Travels with Epicurus can show me at age sixty-eight how to live a “Fulfilled Life” in the near future, I don’t care if it’s a novel ghostwritten by Klein’s wife.

In most chapters Klein begins with a brief conversation in or passing observation on Hydra, offers several pages of quotes and summaries from Epicurus that are suggested by the island stimulus, provides one- or two-page commentaries by other thinkers on the subject at hand, and supplements with memories, song lyrics, jokes, anecdotes, and other odds and ends from his own life. Chapter One moves from describing elderly card players in a taverna to a lucid explanation of why Epicurus praised old age as “the pinnacle of life.”  It was the point at which a person was freed from commercial activities and politics and could enjoy the pleasures of true companionship, as the card players seem to.

The best example of Klein’s combinatory method — the most thoughtful and affecting — occurs in Chapter Two, where he works from the inescapable pedestrian pace on Hydra to address the feeling of emptiness that following Epicurus’ praise of slowing down might bring. Klein quotes from Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Boredom and uses Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens to show how slow time can encourage a rewarding capacity for play. Then come relevant low comedy — when Klein describes lying down and rolling over and over in play with his dog — and near transcendence when Klein remembers seeing a group of old Greek men companionably and joyfully dancing with each other.

Klein’s primary pursuit is an old age of “authenticity,” a value that he believes the natives of Hydra manifest and a value that he opposes to the falsity of coevals who use testosterone patches and breast implants to stay “forever young.” On authenticity Epicurus is less useful as a guide than the existential philosophers important to Klein in his earlier compendia. For Heidegger, authentic existence meant living with one’s death in mind. Klein says Epicurus offers an early example of this mortal awareness, for he argued, basically, that when you were dead you were no longer you, so you need not fear thinking about death. For Sartre, authenticity was choosing one’s being in the face of essentializing others. Klein again finds Epicurus anticipating the Existentialists because he valued deliberative individual happiness above responsible citizenship, which got Epicurus in trouble with his contemporaries.

Throughout Travels with Epicurus Klein illustrates the ancient philosopher’s position that mental pleasures are superior to physical pleasures (a position often distorted in the English usage of epicurean), for Klein spends most of his text discussing abstract ideas rather than observing concrete behavior. Epicurus said mental life should not be filled with worry about the gods, as they had better things to do than worry about humans.  Klein doesn’t believe in the Olympian deities, but near the book’s end he does describe an Orthodox Easter festival and list several temptations to believe in immortality, which he admirably resists in the name of existential authenticity. The closest Klein comes to the spiritual, he says, is listening to great music — and watching old men dance.

Despite the heavy tomes occasionally quoted by Klein, Travels with Epicurus is a light book, the kind — seven inches by five inches, 164 pages — one can carry in a small purse or coat pocket, the kind one sees with other wisdom texts up front near the cash registers at bookstores. In Klein’s presentation, Epicurus and other thinkers are philosophy lite, very brief digests that Klein often ends up further reducing by stamping them with a cliché or folk saying.

Greece’s famous light suffuses Klein’s pages, but he seems blinded to actualities, the contemporary economic conditions that afflict pensioners, turning his presumed fulfilled Epicureans into grim Stoics or suicides. As a longtime part-time resident of Athens — and frequent visitor to Hydra — I learned more about Greeks and old age by reading a recent New York Times Magazine article on the long-lived natives of Icaria than I did reading Klein’s month-long dip into the Aegean.

To Klein’s credit, the autobiographical element of Travels with Epicurus is attractively lighthearted. I don’t mean just the “corny old joke” or two that Klein throws in but the lightness of being that percolates through the book. When the “anticipatory depression” of old old age looms in a late chapter, Klein doesn’t surrender to it. He thinks about depression, thinks through it, and his thinking keeps this heavy-footed man ever so slightly lightheaded. Sitting in a sunny taverna, drinking a glass of retsina, Klein has a Heideggerian “shiver of assent”:

For an instant, I feel something like relief or even gratitude that being is. I even experience tinges of something that feels a wee bit like awe — awe that miraculously being has somehow triumphed over nothing. And that, astonishingly, I have been a part of that triumph: I have had the privilege of participating in being and of being conscious of that fact.

For the Klein that reveals himself in this book, this assent seems right — abstract, courageous, authentic.

Although Travels with Epicurus was sent to me, it wasn’t, unfortunately, meant for me. I think it’s for baby boomers who don’t usually read books but might finish this one if it were a gift from a daughter or son anxious about their parents’ retirement. Or it’s for television-watching golden-agers in Florida and Arizona who have found golf or tennis less than fulfilling. Klein indirectly alludes to Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which won awards and sold thousands by tracing the modern influence of Epicurus through the Roman poet Lucretius. Now, there was a book for readers like me, but perhaps Travels with Epicurus is ultimately no less serious. Not because of Klein’s weighty references but because, despite his book’s limitations, Klein is like Wordsworth’s poet: “A man speaking to men.” And like Epicurus, who was criticized for inviting women to his Athenian garden, a man speaking to women.