Is Age a number, a state of mind, or what our bodies do? Jeremy Brunger considers “that awful specter”.
That “awful specter,” Age, which once loomed large in the public consciousness of the Western working poor until modern science began to reign in its more criminal activities, has lately been on my mind. Around 20 I began to grasp it firmly—the fact I, like all things, will dissipate and become annihilated no matter my contrary wishes. Mortality was once one of the most powerful engines of civilization we had: it was why we celebrated birthdays, because they were so limited in scope, and unquestionably it drove millennialist religion further and further into the cultures of the world. In some places in South America children are not even named until their third or fourth year because of a monstrously high infant death rate. Under such conditions, time is a commodity like no other. Youth was historically a figure to be coveted because, fleeting, it left in its wake someone near to death because there was no middle age. This last is a 19th and 20th century invention. I myself am 22. Were I a woman living in the 19th century I would already be considered over the hill. Death is on my mind because I should have no reason to fear it, not just yet; it is on my mind because age is, the two being strangely identical in substance.
I am reading Lynne Segal’s book Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing, published by Verso. Segal is a second-wave era socialist feminist (who also apparently produces some of the smoothest academic writing I’ve ever read). She presents a long analysis of what age has become after the 20th century, citing the existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir more than anyone else. Her book is a mixture of literary criticism and social criticism, with a bent towards the psychoanalytic, given Segal’s own training as a Freudian analyst. Rarely have I thought so much about getting older—its inevitability, our race beside Sysiphus to the mountaintop, the universal nature of decline. But Segal, herself rather elderly, speaks of age much more optimistically than I might have, had I written a book on the subject. Perhaps it is because she has so much age and I have so little.
If ours is a hebecentric society—hebe being Greek for youth—it is because youth no longer has so much of the backhanded compliment about it. It can be perpetuated, if only to ignore its counterpart of old age; in America alone the anti-aging industry moves billions of dollars of product every year. Once it signified one’s prime before the great decay of aging. Hobbes wrote in his Leviathan his famous lament: “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Now, youth is a phase that can be extended almost indefinitely. Segal herself writes a good deal about how many people whose chronological age is well past 50 still psychologically think of themselves as they were when they were nearing 30. There is a young man sheltered inside every old man.
Age is the time between our birth and our death—it is our great structure from which no one is exempt. Or so it is said. Religion was one of the great historic forces that did battle with old age. Some of its strains even offered the promise of eternal life. For lack of material advantages against the onslaught of aging, we sought to live on in the abstract planes of Plato. Now we have botox and pec implants, knee replacements and new hearts fashioned out of stem cells and plastic. The 21st century is going to witness a moment of world-historical proportions: the defeat of getting old. That is not a mere speculation; it is a promise that I will probably live to keep. What will happen to “aging gracefully,” another 20th century invention (only the aristocrats aged gracefully before then, and at that, they often died at 40)? What will happen to the grandfather, the good old days, monetary inflation?
There is a story in Christian literature called “The Wandering Jew.” Theologically, after the resurrection of Jesus until today, there should be a man who personally witnessed the savior himself: a Jew who wanders the world until the messiah returns once more. Such a thing might not be a relic from religion, no more than it is a thought straight out of science fiction. Of course, such remedies will probably remain accessible only to the wealthy for quite some time. Such advancements will probably also further entrench certain inequalities—people who do not die will no doubt become wealthier and wealthier in the finite system we call our economy. But these will be epiphenomena of our current social order, not intrinsic to anti-aging science itself. In prolonging the body we will prolong culture, too. Segal thinks it is wrong to consider aging itself a bad thing, rather than a natural thing; she also locates it in class, whereas the poor have much more to fear in aging than do the wealthy. I myself would love to be 30 rather than 22. Perhaps by then my unmitigated dread of waking up and being 80 years old will have been dispelled by some degree. I have heard that life gets better after one turns 40. One has experience, status, and (hopefully) enough money to concentrate on other things than the daily grind. We will see. A poet I’ve recently engaged in correspondence with is about 60—by all accounts his life is getting better and better the more he ages. His first book of poetry will be on the shelves within the year (and he is probably in better shape than I am). His job is certainly better than mine.
“Age, with his stealing steps,
Hath clawed me in his clutch.”
That couplet is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The sentiment is certainly not his alone; even today people from all walks of life dread old age and seek the salves of metaphysics or science to mend their fears, myself among them. “Time is a thief,” people say. If so, it is a weighty one. What it steals cannot be replaced. For all the pessimism inherent to the subject, however, it is good to see some people, like Segal, praise getting older—she even has some kind words to say about dementia—all the while reminding us to look after the older people in our lives. The poet Fernando Pessoa, one of the most talented writers of the last century, wrote that “In youth we are twofold. Our innate intelligence, which may be considerable, coexists with the stupidity of our inexperience, which forms a second, lesser intelligence. Only later on do the two unite. That’s why youth always blunders—not because of its inexperience, but because of it’s non-unity.” The corollary of his observation is that, as we age, we also become more unified with ourselves, more in tune, more personally solidified in how we go about the business of living, to live without distractions. Perhaps in this century we will not have to separate cohorts according to “young” and “old,” but will rather seek unity between the wisdom of age and the rages of youth, which together can no doubt accomplish more than either can alone. They say genius is born wrinkled.
Photo: Renaud Camus/Flickr