Authors: Arnold Weinstein
Tags: #Social Sciences, #Essays, #Writing, #Nonfiction, #Education
Even with my boundless optimism about literature’s gifts, I am hard put to find works that convert dying itself into joy. But if dying marks our finish line, there might be much to say about our efforts, performance, and satisfaction en route to the end. Is this not the ultimate truth, at once empirical and imaginative, of growing old: that you do it for a long, long time, that your challenge is to see it right, to see it as a time for living rather than dying? This would be the wisdom of a species that, at its best, never loses sight of life’s goodness. Could old age be the time for coming into this estate?
“Staying the course” emerges as the ultimate wisdom in Daniel Defoe’s eighteenth-century classic
. Defoe fascinates most because his characters go through an unending number of disguises, avatars, and roles in their trip through time. Hence this novel whispers to us that—more basic than any moral code—breathing and coping are the crucial activities of the species that moves from morning to noon to night. If Moll’s sights are largely on her own fortunes, the case is more complicated with Bertolt Brecht’s
, for this low-to-the-ground heroine faces huge odds in her struggle not only to stay alive but to keep her children alive during the tumult of the Thirty Years’ War. She comes to us, as does Hemingway’s Santiago, as a figure of endurance, of never quitting; but unlike Santiago and his marlin, Courage’s loyalty, pluck, resilience, and salty wisdom are tested by the crushing, impersonal forces of history.
This discussion closes with an account of the most richly embodied (and “em-minded”) figure in modern literature, James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. Bloom faces entropy and losses galore, but the marvel of
consists in his manner of facing these generic slights of growing old by seeing life as a fount of endless stimuli, by nonstop reflection and reaction to the everyday. Bloom’s plebeian (brilliant) humor and Odyssean resilence, his capacity to duck the bad and to savor the good, are never served up to us as doctrinal fare. Still, I see in the antics of this man coping with trouble an excellent formula for the wisdom of old age.
One of the major purposes of this book is to consult the literature of growing up and growing old, in order to see what it teaches us. Why else would one read? Yet the lessons of art have little to do with religious sermons or bottom-line thinking, and frequently enough we are obliged to sort these matters out ourselves, to glean, for example, from the travails of Lear or Goriot or Phèdre or Mother Courage something of value for us personally. How characters manage their lives always tells us something about managing our own. Whether the texts are cautionary or triumphant, we will find ourselves in their reflecting mirror. The works discussed in this chapter are meant to have a valedictory cast to them: exit works that richly illustrate the larger argument about the light literature sheds on growing old.
Cardiologists play their little role in the life of the aging, for we know that the heart is a muscle and blood-supply system increasingly subject to wear and tear. Is this not the case morally and psychologically as well? Can the old maintain their emotional vibrancy and élan right to the end? In some sense, all the prior discussions of growing old revolve around these basic questions, whether we emphasize the sexual, the somatic, or the spiritual side of things. Perhaps the most frightening fate that could await us is to die while still living, to cease to feel or to care about the lives around us. Gabriel García Márquez has left us an unforgettable portrait of such a condition in his portrayal of Aureliano in
One Hundred Years of Solitude;
a famous general waging war throughout most of his lifetime, Aureliano elects to immure himself affectively, literally to enact Christ’s
“Noli me tangere”
injunction. Is this the “cost of living”? Against this calcification of the heart, I propose the counterexample of Helena, the beautiful old matriarch of Ingmar Bergman’s final film,
Fanny and Alexander
, who offers us a deeply theatrical model for keeping the heart alive: role playing, with the caveat that you must
the role you play, so that you enact an entire repertoire over the course of a life in time.
Remember the eyes of desire: Romeo gazing at Juliet on the balcony, Des Grieux entranced by Manon, the Chinese man smitten by the French girl on the ferry, Phèdre inflamed by the sight of her stepson Hippolyte, Aschenbach mesmerized by the Polish boy Tadzio. The French call this vision the
coup de foudre
, the thunderbolt, for it is electrifying in its power and immediacy. But there are other kinds of love and other kinds of eyes, and they reverence the ongoing, unfurling reality of time. Unlike the hunger of desire, this love incorporates memory, transcends the retinal, makes room even for death. It is stamped by generosity, and we will see much of it in the culminating chapters of this study.
Perhaps the most exquisite text we have about old loving is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, which begins by depicting a body beset by its final winter, knowing it will not flower again, headed for a permanent sleep. What is sublime is the response to this spectacle of decay: the deepening and intensifying of love, so that death and life feed each other, so that my dying grows your love. At long last our phrase growing old finds its lovely coherence. The poet Baudelaire has none of Shakespeare’s idealism, but his poem “The Little Old Ladies” has a comparable form of generosity, for it obliges us to see the old “in time,” to perceive their dimensionality and fullness. Proust is our great master on this theme, inaugurating a kind of “fourth-dimensional” vision of loved ones, hallowing the actual scope of their lives and our bond with them; yet there is nothing easy in such perception, and Proust even suggests that our own love militates fiercely against factoring death and oblivion into our grasp of others. But if we can do this, we can finally approach an ethos of old age, a way of looking and feeling that is nourished—rather than sapped—by the passing of time.
With this burgeoning view of love as death’s opposite, we will complete our discussion of old age by examining three powerful narratives that are unflinching in their awareness of time’s entropic work but that honor the reach and dimensions of human love. None of these books is triumphant. Each can break your heart. I begin with the astonishing and largely unknown
Out of Mind
, written by the Dutch novelist J. Bernlef and dealing with the grisly reality of Alzheimer’s disease. Here is the ultimate failed harvest, you might think, for the protagonist, Maarten, is indeed going to be systematically “erased” by his neurological disorder, thereby losing his entire grip on “reality.” But things are not this simple, and we see the stubborn, undying hold of the past, even as this man can no longer recognize his wife or his setting. Love itself endures as a primitive pulsation, even at the cost of sanity; it is the last thing to go, even though it too must eventually cease.
The next entry is Virginia Woolf’s magnificent
To the Lighthouse
, it too under the shadow of death and oblivion yet remaining in our minds as a moving tribute to the continuing life of those who love and nurture and die. Woolf displays a rare kind of generosity in re-creating, from the inside, the story of her own parents, and in the figure of Mrs. Ramsay, the novel’s “earth mother,” we have literature’s richest portrait of a mature woman’s love, as deep as Phèdre’s but cued to the fates of others. Can this die? Woolf weaves together many strands of my argument: the life of the heart, the reign of mortality, the legacy of love, the virtues of art.
We close our discussion of enduring love with a book that picks up every issue studied up to now: fathers undone, exiting the stage, unsanctioned lust, postsexual life, final harvest, and the eyes of love: J. M. Coetzee’s masterpiece
. Not unlike
, Coetzee’s novel is about learning to accept aging/dying and learning to see clear. The protagonist, David Lurie, does not go mad, there is no heath, and his child does not harm him, yet he must come to understand that many overdue bills have now come due, some of his own making, others the work of racial history, still others concerning the very elemental rights he has thought his. Lurie is to be altered entirely by the events that befall him. Eros must yield to
. Professor that he is, he learns that life does teach right up to the end—especially, perhaps, at the end.
digs into the pit. To gauge how deep it goes, how devastating its news is, a contrast with Sophocles is useful. Recall the equally devastating Oedipal plays, especially the earlier play about a man who slew his father and fornicated with his mother. Only with the help of Freud and so many others can we see this text as a blueprint of our deepest programming, implanted so deeply that it is able to govern behavior while eluding all consciousness. Yes, much debris is strewn as pieties hit the dust: peaceful coexistence between young and old, made up of love and instruction and mutual respect—our fond dream of these matters—has no place in this scheme; war is its ultimate truth. But the Greek playwright never tells us why the choice must be either infanticide or parricide. One wants to know more about the prerogatives of youth and age. Reverence for one’s elders was a deep-seated Greek virtue, firmly established, essentially unassailable; yet the play assails it, annihilates it. Sophocles writes about this crisis from the angle of prophecy, knowledge, and ignorance, but he says very little about what it feels like to be on either side of this parent/child divide: what it feels like to be rising son or falling father.
For just these reasons one turns to the richest text in Western literature concerning these matters: Shakespeare’s
. Just as all philosophy has been construed as a footnote to Plato, it seems fair to say that much of our literature about the fate of growing old seems to be a footnote to
. The story of the king who was cannibalized by his daughters, who was required, in Freud’s words, to “renounce love, choose death, and make friends with the necessity of dying,” shows up everywhere: in Balzac’s
The Master Builder
Death of a Salesman
Exit the King
. Shakespeare illuminates every issue that matters; it is harsh stuff.
Lear’s very first words announce the trajectory he will take, even though he has no inkling of its horrors. He will divest himself of his kingdom so that he can prepare for the final phase of his life: “ ’tis our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths while we / Unburdened crawl toward death.” Seems rational enough: time to retire, let the children take over, withdraw from the stage, approach one’s end. It’s a sensible plan, still very much in evidence today, ratcheted up to levels Shakespeare could not have imagined as estate planners work out their models with the old with means. But the plan goes amok, opens onto an abyss. For five acts it piles on, needles in, hollows out, unstoppably. At play’s end, Edgar’s commentary on this old man’s long ordeal suggests that its dosage of pain and terror is unimaginable for the young: “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” There is an outright generic feeling in these lines: The old bear the most; one does not, as Lear fondly assumed, “shake” away cares. Far from ever being “unburdened,” one is laden with pain of a new kind; crawling toward death is okay notionally but unbearable experientially. Good-bye, death with dignity.
strips us of all illusions and fantasies we might entertain about the last chapter of our life. For starters, we see that the old men of this play—for Gloucester is unmistakably Lear’s double, his counterpart in suffering to come—have achieved precious little wisdom via their long years, are in fact prey to grotesquely rash and precipitous decisions, tragic ones. They are due for some lessons, and they are going to get them. Lear seems monstrous to us as he demands to know how much each of his daughters loves him—as if their feelings were as quantifiable as the lands he is divvying up—and he seems more monstrous still when he cuts off Cordelia from her inheritance in one fell swoop. “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.” Mind you, Cordelia is something of a chip off the old block, so stubborn is she about not fawning and prettifying her devotion to her father; after all, she might have found some temperate words to assure him of her loyalty. But no. She can be as headstrong as he is. She will not bend, not flatter. And so he undoes an entire life—his as much as hers—in a few sharp words: “Let it be so, thy truth then be thy dower.… Here I disclaim all my paternal care, / Propinquity and property of blood, / And as a stranger to my heart and me / Hold thee from this forever.” She is now his “sometime daughter.”
All are shocked. Kent courts (and finds) banishment by repeatedly urging Lear to “check this hideous rashness.” Neither Burgundy nor France can believe his eyes and ears. Goneril and Regan see in this behavior not only their own private gain but a very palpable proof that Father is not right in his head. Errors are dear in this play, dear in their price, dear to the one who commits them; Lear disinherits his daughter with lightning speed and then explodes with fury when Kent begs him to reconsider: “Come not between the dragon and his wrath.” No doubt some of this vehemence and anger is ascribable to kingship, to the absolute power Lear is accustomed to, but it is hard to be on his side at the play’s beginning, so intemperate and out of control and violent are his actions. How not to agree with the diagnosis put forth by Goneril: “You see how full of changes his age is; the observation we have made of it hath not been little. He always loved our sister most, and with what poor judgement he hath now cast her off appears too grossly.” Regan’s rejoinder is both famous and true: “ ’Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.” Shakespeare is about to rectify this last problem: Lear is headed for a good bit of new self-knowledge.