Readings — From the April 2016 issue

Certain Age

Dialogue

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From a conversation between Ottessa Moshfegh, a novelist, and Kristine McKenna, a critic, in late January.

kristine mckenna: I once interviewed Joni Mitchell and asked her about aging. She said, “Nobody likes to have less than they had before. If you’ve been a pretty woman, you feel a sense of loss, and the more attractiveness you had, the greater the sense of loss you’ll feel as it declines. If you’re used to a certain kind of attention based on your appearance, then your transition is going to be that much more difficult. If you haven’t set up that appetite for one reason or another, either through character or lack of beauty in the first place, perhaps the transition isn’t so difficult.” What do you think about that?

ottessa moshfegh: I don’t think that the struggle she’s describing is superficial, but it’s something that I don’t — I almost don’t want to acknowledge it, because it gives it so much power. Because it’s not real, you know? Unless you’re a celebrity and your career rests on it. The pressure is totally delusional within a certain range of beauty. I spent so much of my youth looking like shit because I didn’t take care of myself. I think I look better now than I did when I was twenty.

mckenna: Well, you’re still in your early thirties. I don’t think you’ve really experienced this struggle, though you may feel you have. I had friends growing up who were great beauties; that was the part that they played. That was their power in the world. It wasn’t just vanity, it was a way of getting through life — men would marry them and take care of them and they’d have divorces where they got a lot of money. For that kind of woman, to lose her beauty is really to lose something. Last night, I was talking to a friend of mine who’s Italian, and she told me about seeing this woman on the street who was in her sixties, maybe even older, and extraordinarily beautiful; she was very pure and simple, clearly hadn’t had any plastic surgery. When my friend told me this, I said, “I bet she was wealthy.” In some cultures, when you’re older, style and character can give you a certain authority. But if you’re a middle-class person in America, forget it. It’s very cruel.

moshfegh: Do you think everybody feels oppressed by the need to be attractive? I’ve been in New Hampshire for the past two months, and occasionally I’ll walk into town and look at people and wonder what their lives are like. I don’t see people stressing out about being beautiful. I don’t fit in here, I don’t know where I fit in, but I’m a lot happier not being surrounded by people who are obsessed with the superficial layer of their identity. Last week, I had my picture taken by Brigitte Lacombe in New York, and it took me about a week to recover from the delusion that I had totally failed as a person. Because, I don’t know, I wasn’t tall, a tall model. Somehow, having my photo taken, I almost felt apologetic.

mckenna: I know the feeling.

moshfegh: Like, “It must be so depressing for you to take a picture of me.”

mckenna: What aspect of aging, as you envision it, is most alarming to you?

moshfegh: The fact that certain bodily processes start breaking down. If you’ve ever felt your heart skip a beat a couple times, you get the sense that the body is this kind of machine that is not going to keep working indefinitely.

mckenna: Is the body breaking down more alarming to you than the way you’re viewed in society? This friend of mine, who’s seventy, had a stroke. He’s brilliant, he’s done amazing things in his life, but there’s nobody around to take care of him. He wasn’t sick enough to be in a hospital and not well enough to be home alone, so he was warehoused in a horrendous nursing home. He’s been stripped of his dignity and his identity. He’s in an environment with people who have no knowledge of or interest in who he was or what he’d achieved in life. That was more alarming to me than the physical problems he was having.

moshfegh: How do you feel about it? The inevitable — I mean, neither of us has children who are going to take care of us.

mckenna: It’s very worrying to me because I’m much older than you. The other day I thought, I’ve never wanted to live to be too old. I find life too exhausting. I’ve almost had enough already. I was thinking I would rather be dead than be in my friend’s situation. I’m a very proud and independent person, as are you, and the thought of being in a position where you have to be helped is difficult to make peace with.

moshfegh: I understand that. I don’t like feeling vulnerable at all. Part of the reason I can still function even though I’m preoccupied with death is that I also have this — I can’t explain where it comes from, but I have an unflappable belief that my future is bright and that I’m blessed and that even having to be in some nursing facility would be a beautiful experience for me, because it would mean that I was learning how to accept care, which is something that I’m not good at, and how to slow down, which is something that I never want to do. It’s probably extremely humbling to be elderly and in that position, and I’m rarely humbled. I’m a complete asshole most of the time, you know, at thirty-four.

mckenna: So the thought of being forced to learn all of those very difficult lessons doesn’t give you pause? It’s interesting that you’re so essentially optimistic. I’m the opposite. You’re very lucky. You’re lucky that you feel that way. But your life very much seems that way. It seems like you’ve gone from triumph to triumph. Your future has been bright. It’s bright right now.

moshfegh: I’m curious how you feel about yourself as a woman now, as a grown woman.

mckenna: I was talking to a friend of mine about a week ago. This woman is in her late fifties and she’s a rock star. She fronts a band, she’s famous. She said, “Kristine, no man is ever going to be interested in us again, you have to accept that. We’re invisible. We’ve reached the age where we’re invisible. Nobody is going to notice us or care.” Which I found depressing to hear from a rock star, but I think she’s right. I mean, men prefer younger women. That’s all there is to it. I’ll read you another quote. Iggy Pop was asked how he envisioned himself in fifteen years. He said, “Probably playing music and hanging out with a chick a lot younger than me. I’m an American guy, so I prefer young pussy.” My question to him was, “Why is young pussy better?” He gave me not a very good answer, the upshot of which was that he doesn’t know. Actually, the answer he gave was that young women have less going on in their heads, so it’s not as complicated.

moshfegh: I think somebody who talks about young pussy doesn’t have respect for his own sexuality. He isn’t interested in real intimacy. He’s probably somebody who has a surface life, who drank the Kool-Aid way too many times, who’s a complete narcissist.

mckenna: Well, he’s a famous musician. I’ve interviewed him quite a few times, and he’s intelligent and deep. But he’s a person who, for decades, has been getting positive feedback for being an extraordinary physical specimen. He also said, “The longer a person lives, the more useless he becomes.” Do you think there’s any truth to that?

moshfegh: Maybe if you’re working on a farm. Let’s see . . . No. I think that’s stupid.

mckenna: Do you think there is anything good about getting old?

moshfegh: I think I’m more and more excited to be alive the older I get. I feel like the older I get, the better friends I am with myself. Honestly, talk to me in thirty years. This complaint about men only wanting younger women — I just don’t give a shit. I’m really not interested in men. I have a lot of really good male friends. I would be so disgusted with them if I found they only liked me because I was thirty-four and not fifty.

mckenna: You don’t need to feel that they find you attractive?

moshfegh: No.

mckenna: You’re lucky.

moshfegh: I’m telling you, I don’t care. I more than don’t care. I resent that that’s even a concern about anybody. It’s so degrading. I have so much respect for myself as, you know, a person with talent and interests. For me to be like, “Oh, that douchebag in the corner doesn’t think I’m cute enough to fuck” — well, good. Because I don’t feel like letting him touch me.

mckenna: Well, you’re an unusual person. You’re not afflicted with a lot of the same ego needs that other people have. I asked Leonard Cohen, “What’s your idea of an important achievement?” and his answer was, “There is only one achievement in life, and that’s the acceptance of your lot.”

moshfegh: I don’t think it’s the only achievement. I mean, I don’t know, I want to be amazing. I feel like, if I can’t be as amazing as I imagined, I mean in my work, if I can’t do it, I’m going to die. It’s very childish, but it drives me. It makes my life extraordinarily interesting.

mckenna: How do you define “amazing”?

moshfegh: Well, as whatever thing amazes me. I don’t know if I can define it past that. I’m writing a novel and I have moments where I feel my head is going to explode. Probably every artist feels that way about their work when they’re happy. That they’re destroying something and it’s beautiful, because of the thing they’ve created. I don’t know. I want that so much. It’s my drug. It’s the ecstasy of living for me. I think Leonard Cohen might be right. But I don’t think he was saying that we have to settle.

mckenna: I asked Allen Ginsberg, “What’s the greatest privilege of growing old?” He said, “You get funnier, smarter, and you acquire the ability to take the long view of things. And despite the physical prowess you lose, erotic desire never fades — having crushes, seeing some brilliant face in the crowd, your heart melting. That’s always there.” Is that how you envision old age?

moshfegh: God, I hope that’s what it’s like.

mckenna: But erotic desire never fading — it’s harder for a woman. I wouldn’t say that people recoil from older women in horror, but they’re stripped of part of their erotic identity as they age. In the New York Times there was a piece on Louise Bourgeois. She said, “The art world loves young men and old women.” She surprised me. Do they love older women because now they’ve become kooky old crones?

moshfegh: The art world is not always the best reflection of culture as a whole. Obviously, or it would be celebrating young women and old men. But about a woman’s erotic value diminishing — I don’t know, Kristine. According to whom? According to whose authority?

mckenna: According to the shared view of culture that is perpetuated by television and magazines. It takes real internal strength to defy that. My twenties and thirties were not good. I was too insecure. Even though my life was really fascinating then and I loved my work, I had a lot of inner turmoil. My forties were my best decade, I’d say.

moshfegh: How so?

mckenna: I gained confidence. I felt proud of the work I was doing. I was able to make a living doing my work. I felt hopeful and optimistic.

moshfegh: What were you hopeful for and what was your optimism about?

mckenna: Men weren’t the huge, baffling mystery that they had always been to me. I was less terrified of men. Less terrified of judgment. I believed more in myself, I’d say. Which is very liberating.

moshfegh: And so what happened?

mckenna: I got older. And journalism changed completely. It was harder to make a living doing it. I had to change careers. That was hard. My fifties were harder, definitely. I experienced a lot of death.

moshfegh: Do you think that I’m bound to be terribly disappointed by my future?

mckenna: You mean, do I feel that way now?

moshfegh: Yeah.

mckenna: I would say that I don’t have the illusions about life that I used to. Because of the age that I am, I don’t say this could happen or that could happen. Because it already hasn’t happened. I don’t really know what I aspire to at this point. You’re really clear on that. You know what you’re aspiring to.

moshfegh: I feel like my problem is that I don’t aspire to big-enough things. I feel like I could probably do anything I wanted, but I often get confused by the limitations other people complain about.

mckenna: For instance?

moshfegh: On a very simple level. When you talk to somebody and they have low self-esteem and don’t think they can actually accomplish what they want. There’s this thing hanging in the air — “Oh, don’t be so proud to think that you can do what you want.”

mckenna: I just said I don’t know what I aspire to at this point. But I do. I aspire to have deep intimacy with people in my relationships. That seems like a worthy thing to aspire to.

moshfegh: I hope I aspire to that before I die.

mckenna: I don’t think I aspired to that when I was thirty-two.

moshfegh: Were you obsessed with watching your face age?

mckenna: Oh yeah, like all women, of course. It’s a horror show. It’s shocking, to see the body fall away. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

moshfegh: Yeah, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. These days I’m feeling really in love with myself, basically. I think it’s because I’m finally mature enough to appreciate who I am. But it took a long time. I always felt like there was something disgustingly wrong with me, you know?

mckenna: It’s wonderful that you got past that.

moshfegh: It’s not like a certainty every day. But maybe because of that, the aging thing is kind of adorable to me right now.

mckenna: Wow.

moshfegh: I don’t know. On my best days I see myself like an animal. And when you love an animal you don’t start hating it because it isn’t a puppy anymore. It’s beautiful in another way.

mckenna: That’s a great way to look at it. It’s hard to get dressed when you’re a certain age and look in the mirror and say, “Oh, I’m ready to go out at night.”

moshfegh: Did you have moments when you were young when you felt like you were hot shit?

mckenna: When I look at photographs from my twenties and thirties, I think, “God, why didn’t you feel better about yourself? You were so cute.” But at the time I was filled with anxiety and a sense of inadequacy.

moshfegh: I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it too. I guess maybe that would have been the worst thing for me.

mckenna: To be aware that you were cute?

moshfegh: Yeah.

mckenna: Well, you’re still young, Ottessa. You’re very young.

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