Review by Leon Horton
Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.
By Kieran Setiya
(Princeton University Press, $15.73 or £18.95)
A midlife crisis is no laughing matter, as this reviewer can readily attest. It creeps up on you when you’re busy being young. One minute you’re all present tense and in the moment, living it large and partying hard – the next you’re looking over your shoulder into a mirror, crick in your neck, wondering how the hell that reflection got there.
And that, dear reader, is when you find yourself hanging round with people half your age, taking drugs you’ve never heard of, and reapplying for university at the age of 46.
At least, ahem, that’s what I’m told.
But if you suffer from this most sneak-thief of maladies, take heart. The midlife crisis, first diagnosed by psychoanalysts sometime in the early 1960s, is a most suitable case for treatment. So says author Kieran Setiya, philosopher at the Massachusets Institute of Technology.
And he should know. In Midlife: A Philosophical Guide he freely admits, at the age of 41, to finding himself caught at a crossroads of “loss and regret, success and failure, mortality and finitude” where “fast cars and wild affairs” are never the answer, cannot possibly compensate.
But Setiya is eager to show us that philosophy can help, and for every neurosis we associate with growing older – living with irreparable mistakes, watching the doors of opportunity close – he offers a therapeutic response. The problem, he points out, is “irreversibility of time”, nothing you can do about that; but you can, if you choose, “embrace your losses as fair payment for the surplus of being alive” and learn to “live in the halo of the present.”
All that might sound like kooky advice from yet another self-help book that only helps the bank balance of the author, but Midlife: A Philosophical Guide is a “takes one to know one” kind of book, written with self-deprecating humour and not afraid to enlist and celebrate such midlife miserablists as Philip Larkin, Virginia Woolf and – would you believe – Reggie Perrin, that fine comedy creation played with such bathos by Leonard Rossiter. Perrin, if you recall, sick of his existence, faked his own suicide in order to reinvent himself – only to recreate the same mistakes he made in his former life.
Well, if you don’t laugh…
As a piece of good-humoured philosophy, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide reminds us middle-aged lightweights that while we might sometimes be in mourning for what our lives could have been, we need to let go and remember: things that have happened aren’t always bad.
As a somewhat wry self-help book, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide probably won’t stop you from putting down a deposit on that sports car, or pretending to be down with the kids – but read it, and the next time you bulldoze yourself into that two sizes two small shirt and catch yourself in a mirror… you might just see a knowing smile above your chins.