Jean Améry was the pseudonym of Hanns Mayer, an Austrian Jew whose intellectual formation took place in pre-war Vienna, but who was profoundly affected by his wartime experiences of torture and imprisonment. 'On Aging' (published in German in 1968) translates the second of the three books that made the author's name in the German-speaking world as a respected writer on the extremes of human experience. The first, and best-known, deals with torture and the life of the camps: the third looks at suicide as the definitive guarantor of human freedom.
Améry emerged from the war a displaced and in some ways broken man who nonetheless made a living as a journalist and essayist. The essays that comprise 'On Aging' were originally delivered as radio broadcasts. The result is a relatively short book divided into five dense, compressed chapters of roughly twenty-five pages each.
As in his other writings, Améry pulls no punches in his consideration of the experience of aging. He refuses to sugar-coat the pill of steady physical and mental deterioration, and expands his view to encompass the disconcerting ways in which we find our aging mirrored in the gaze of the other as well as our own. Améry is remorseless in his logical dissection of our evasive thinking about aging, illness and death. For him, aging is an outrage: there is nothing 'natural' about it; he experiences it as a form of assault from within that threatens to alienate him from himself.
Améry was an admirer of the young Jean-Paul Sartre, and although these essays were written in German they bear the mark of French existentialist thinking as well as the earlier phenomenology of Husserl and Bergson on the subjective experience of time. As a result they are not always easy reading. Readers familiar with the Continental tradition in philosophy will have fewer difficulties; others should persist. Améry was as serious a thinker as Primo Lévi, and in this book he never leaves the ordinary reader thinking "this has nothing to do with me: I have no point of contact with these matters". The experience of aging is the common lot, and Améry has much to say about it, particularly for readers without the consolation of religious belief. As literature and as a guide to Améry's intellectual world, 'On Aging' is independent of, but profits from being read alongside, 'At The Mind's Limits' and 'On Suicide' by the same author.
[Introduction and Prefaces, xxiii pages; text, 128 pages. Endnotes, 4 pages. No index.]