Sunday, January 15, 2006

ideas about aging in literature

Observations about aging probably date back to the earliest human times, and written records of thoughts about age appear as early as the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. Recent writers on age have included Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan. The latter is best known for The Feminine Mystique and is the author of The Fountain of Age, released in 1989. Analysts have observed that a good deal of the literature about age contains three general approaches to aging, which have ideas about aging in literature 125 been labeled as the "antediluvian," "hyperborean," and "rejuvenation" themes. The first of these refers to the time before Noah in the Bible, and means literally "before the flood." It reaches back to the time of Adam, who according to the Bible, lived to be 930 years old, and to other patriarchs like Noah, who reached 950, and Methuseleh, who attained 969. The underlying idea in this theme is that people long ago lived much longer than they do now-a mistaken notion, according to modern research, because studies in the ruins of ancient Egypt and Rome and elsewhere show that the average length of life in ancient times was about 25 years. Although some people did live to advanced years, no evidence of exceptional length of life has appeared in archeological studies in these or other locations. Today the average life expectancy, about 75 years in the United States, is much greater than it ever was in the past. The hyperborean theme refers to the notion that somewhere in far away places people live to an exceptionally old age. This theme is still very much alive in the Soviet Union, where gerontologists insistently claim that an individual, Mezhid Agayev, residing in a remote region of Azerbaijan in the Caucasus mountains, lived to be 139. They have also claimed that a woman in Bolivia had reached 205, while two other persons in the USSR, a woman named Ashura Omarova and a man, lived to 195 and 165 respectively The hyperborean idea originated with the Greeks before the time of Christ. It surfaced again in modern times in one of the bestsellers of 1930s, the book Lost Horizon. In this tale a group of Europeans and Americans crash-land a plane on a flight west from China and accidentally happen on the city of Shangri-La, an earthly paradise of peace in remote Tibet where residents live virtually forever.
A film by the same name featured matinee idol Ronald Colman as the hero. After enjoying the peaceful enchantments of Shangri-La for a time, Colman leaves with a Tibetan woman, played by the actress Margo, who manages to convince him that the place is fraud. Once outside this earthly paradise, Margo, who had actually lived in Shangri- La long beyond the human life span, goes through a transformation of aging before Colman's horror-stricken eyes and dies in the midst of a howling blizzard. Colman is rescued and makes his way back to Europe, but there he finds his memories of Shangri-La too strong to resist. He struggles once again to return to that happy place, and after a harrowing search in the mountains of Tibet he manages to rediscover his paradise. In real life, of course, there is no such place as Shangri-La; and, because they live with better sanitation and receive better health care and nutrition, the residents of industrialized western nations have a longer average life expectancy than those of remote places no matter how peaceful the latter may appear.
The rejuvenation theme is familiar to most Americans because they have heard the story of Ponce de Leon (the second largest city in Puerto Rico -- Ponce -- is named after him) and his discovery of Florida made while in search of the Fountain of Youth. The idea of rejuvenation has great appeal because of its promise to restore youthful vitality, beauty, and strength. It stands behind the success of nostrums like Queen Bee jelly, a popular ingredient in face creams and other emollients a few years ago, which sweep the American consumer market from time to time. It also fuels the thriving plastic surgery industry, which generates millions of dollars annually in face lifts, forehead lifts, chin lifts, breast lifts, fat tissue removal, and what-not. Retin-A, or resorsinal, a drug that removes some wrinkles by restoring collagen in the skin (but can also cause serious allergic reactions for some people), is one of the well-publicized promises of eternally youthful appearance.
Besides expressing these themes, many literary treatments of aging have gravitated to one of two poles-age is the best of times or it is the worst of times. Proponents of the pessimistic view-age is the worst of times -- included the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, tutor to Alexander the Great. Aristotle saw the elderly as filled with faults-he believed that they were rigid, small minded, suspicious, cynical, ungenerous, cowardly, and shameless. They survive by shrewdness and calculation rather than through decency and moral values. They may seem self-controlled, but this is only because they do not have the physical power to generate emotional feelings.
On the other hand Plato, who once was Aristotle's teacher and who some consider the greatest philosopher of all time, took the opposite view. He thought that only the old had the necessary wisdom to be the governors of society, the politicians. Aristotle disagreed-he felt that old people had such grave defects of character that they should be disqualified from holding any political office.
The biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which was probably written about two hundred years after Aristotle's time, shared a pessimistic view of age. This was expressed in a haunting and enormously powerful passage of poetry known as the "Allegory of Age":
Remember your Creator ... before the sun and the light of day give place to darkness, before the moon and the stars grow dim, and the clouds return with the rain-when the guardians of the house tremble, and strong men stoop, when the women grinding the meal cease work because they are few, and those who look through the windows look no longer, when the street-doors are shut, when the voice of the mill is low, when the chirping of the sparrow grows faint and the song-birds fall silent.
Other spokespeople for the negative view of age have included Shakespeare and the modern writer Simone de Beauvoir, who published her highly negative ideas in 1973 in a book called La Vieilliesse (Age). Best known for her work The Second Sex. which helped to launch the women's liberation movement worldwide, de Beauvoir's book on age concentrates on illness and decline. Even more, de Beauvoir attacks society in general for the maltreatment of elder people- blaming the social milieu for what she describes as the poverty, uselessness, loneliness, and depression of the elderly.
Young people, she says, dismiss age with an indifferent shrug, and this has intensified the plight of the elderly and increased the stigma attached to age. At one point in her book she describes age as a "natural curse" because human societies treat the old so poorly that apes treat their own elderly comparatively better. Her views can be summed up with a few dramatic quotations like this one:
... the vast majority of mankind look upon the coming of old age with sorrow and rebellion. It fills them with more aversion than death itself. ... When memory decays ... former happenings ... sink and vanish in a mocking darkness; life unravels stitch by stitch, leaving nothing but meaningless strands of wool in an old person's hands .... Those (elderly) who escape utter poverty and pinching want are forced to take care of a body that has grown frail, easily fatigued, often infirm, and racked with pain. Immediate pleasures are forbidden or parsimoniously measured out: love, eating, drinking, smoking, sport, walking.
While many gerontologists were much impressed by de Beauvoir's description of age, her account was probably heavily influenced by the illness and decline of her beloved friend and lover, Jean-Paul Sartre, a leader in the French school of existentialist writing, who went blind in his later years. De Beauvoir's study of age did not take into account ongoing gerontological research; which was beginning to show that most people take their senior years in stride, and that the old are actually happier and more self-composed than people usually have thought.
In fact, proponents of the positive view of aging have easily held their own against the pessimists. The earliest of these, the Roman statesman Cicero, who lived about 60 years before the birth of Christ, wrote a highly spirited defense of age. Active in Roman politics at the time of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, Cicero exercised his famous oratorical powers in a treatise entitled de Senectute (about Aging). In this defense Cicero answered four charges against aging- that it: weakens the body; withholds enjoyment of life; stands near death; and, prohibits great accomplishments. His principle defense against such views was that age is really superior to youth because it is a time of spiritual growth. Age, he argued, is greater than youth because it stands above the trivial pursuit of pleasure typical of the early years of life. Cicero's essay includes innumerable passages that deserve to be quoted, but two stand out especially for their appeal to modern minds. One is a forerunner of the idea that life is a series of passages, a concept which author Gail Sheehy was to adopt when she wrote her best-selling book Passages in the early 1980s. In Cicero's words:
There is a fixed course for life's span and a simple path ... for Nature. A fitting timeliness has been allotted for each part of the journey, so that the helpless dependency of infancy and the fiery intensity of youth, the dignity of the established years, and the maturity of old age have each a certain natural endowment, which must be perceived and fulfilled in its own season.
Cicero here not only identified the broad passages of life but observed that each age has its own unique qualities and excellent features, and therefore that late life is in no way inferior to early life.
At another point Cicero expressed a view about life and death that offers useful guidance to anyone who happens to consider these subjects:
I have no regret at having lived, for I have so conducted my life that I do not feel that I was born to no purpose, and I cheerfully depart from life as though I were leaving a guest chamber, not my own house. Nature has granted us an inn for a moment ... not a permanent dwelling.
Living at a time before the rise of Christianity, Cicero held that there were philosophical reasons to believe in the immortality of the soul. Still, he felt that even if his belief in immortality was mistaken, he had no fear of death. Should there be no such thing as immortality, then he would happily go forward into the future, for when life simply ends there can be no sense of hardship or pain. Cicero's treatise is probably one of the world's great writings on age. Daniel Defoe, author of the famous adventure book Robinson Crusoe, in the mid- 1700s wrote a less-known work titled Moll Flanders. Quite scandalous for its time, the book develops an unexpectedly positive outlook on the virtues of old age. Moll's lifestyle was lurid, one of involvement with a variety of lovers and husbands, which led her at one point to describe herself as a whore. On two occasions she traveled form her home in England to America, but underlying her flamboyantly adventuresome life lay a moral theme: She was independent, courageous, self-reliant, resourceful, and made her way against all hardships. Her second journey to America came in her fifties and sixties as a result of a criminal sentence for stealing (Australia later became the prison colony for England, but at Moll's time England's American territories served as its main prison colony). Once in America Moll managed to retrieve the one husband whom she really loved, a man separated from her years before because he was caught and convicted as a highwayman, a life he undertook due to abject poverty. Together they achieved success by running a plantation in Virginia, and in due time they returned to England.
There they lived an old age that redeemed them from their sin-filled youth. Now comfortable and wealthy, Moll's closing words are that she and her husband had determined "to spend the rest of our lives in sincere penitence for the wicked lives we have lived. " For Moll, age was a time of cheer and good humor where one can make up for the failings of a lifetime.
Robert Browning, a major poet of the Victorian England now celebrated with a spot in Poet's Comer in Westminster Abbey in London, was another writer who expressed a favorable view of old age. This he set forth in a memorable poem about the reflections of the thoughtful Rabbi Ben Ezra. A man with a philosophical turn of mind, the rabbi praised long life because it gave one a chance to witness the unfolding of God's plan for humankind.

Grow old along with me,
The best is yet to be,
The last of life,
For which the first is made.

According to the poem the years of youth are merely an introduction to seniority, the time when the really important events of life happen. In our present era, when most people attribute the best only to youth, the rabbi's ideas come like a breath of fresh air, stating a truth that ought to spread wide to the growing millions who are reaching their advanced maturity.
Russell, C. H. Good News About Aging. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1989.


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