I've been having a go at Jim Holt's popular book "Why does the world exist? An existential detective story." After three chapters of fascinating quotes from famous ancient and modern philosophers and scientists I skipped to the epilogue, and found a striking account given by the author of attending a small party at the Collège de France in celebration of the ninetieth birthday of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss was asked to give a little speech to the group, and begins with:
"Montaigne said that aging diminishes us each day in a way that, when death finally arrives, it takes away only a quarter or half the man. But Montaigne only lived to be fifty-nine, so he could have no idea of the extreme old age I find myself in today" - which, he adds, was one of the "most curious surprises of my existence." He says he feels like a "shattered hologram" that has lost its unity but that still retains an image of the whole self.
Lévi-Strauss goes on to talk about the "dialogue" between the eroded self he has become - le moi réel - and the ideal self that coexists with it - le moi métronymique. The latter, planning ambitious new intellectual projects, says to the former, "You must continue." But the former replies, "That's your business - only you can see things whole." Levi-Strauss then thanks those of us assembled for helping him silence this futile dialogue and allowing his two selves of "coincide" again for a moment - "although," he adds, "I am well aware that le moi réel will continue to sink toward its ultimate dissolution."What an incredible description of what we experience as we continually loose our brain cells during aging: a receding shadow of the richness of the world once integrated by their antecedent and larger ensemble.
The final lines of Holt's epilogue, and the book:
Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.
-AMBROSE BIERCE, The Devil's Dictionary