In 2012, there was a film made about the old age of Renoir. The film was lovely, but painful to watch, as Renoir coped with rheumatoid arthritis as he kept on painting, having to have assistants wrap his fingers around the brush to get him started. Possible for Renoir, perhaps, because he had the fame and fortune to get much support and respect, even though he was greatly debilitated. No nursing home for him. But still inspiring and lovely – pursing his project to the end.
In her La Vieillesse (interestingly, a French feminine noun meaning “old age,” but translated in the English version to The Coming of Age), de Beauvoir says that “there is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning – devotion to individuals, to groups or to causes, social, political, intellectual or creative work. In spite of the moralists’ opinion to the contrary, in old age we should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in upon ourselves.” Yes. But. She also says (and all of this is in her conclusion to the book) it is fairly inevitable that “illusions” will vanish and “one’s zeal for life pass away.” Therefore, we shouldn’t think too much but just continue in established “paths.” De Beauvoir does not think much of retirement.
De Beauvoir tells us the retired, “even if he keeps his health and clarity of mind…is nevertheless the victim of that terrible curse, boredom.” How afraid we are of being bored! What did Pascal say? “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” And what did Kafka say? “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” When on earth do we get a chance to sit alone and listen if not in old age, in retirement? Is it such a terrible curse? And what about people (like athletes) whose passions are dependent on a functioning body? My folks were devoted to tennis and desolate when they could not play.
There is more to it. De Beauvoir says that in old age we are overwhelmed by the past, as there is so much of it. She talks about the “hard apprenticeship” of childhood and the fact that “the unpleasant memories of this time that were repressed in adulthood [by ceaseless activity] revive in old age. The barriers that stood up well enough so long as the individual was active and subject to social pressure give way to the lonely idleness of old age.” Isn’t this a good thing (not the loneliness, perhaps, but the time to reflect)? Do we want to die with these barriers in place? (This is a very good question, and my readers may have very different answers.)
This is one of those divergent problems (see Schumacher’s Guide for the Perplexed for a good definition of divergent and convergent problems) – for which there are only contingent answers. Surely we should pursue projects that engage us, challenge us. And this makes me think of Thoreau and his Artist of Kouroo. I don’t know if HDT heard this fable somewhere or made it up, but in Walden, he gives us an artist “who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.” The artist works and works, through endless eons of time, until he had a pure and faultless creation and “he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion.” In true creative engagement, time falls away. “His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth.” Perennial youth. But, when one puts the brush or the pen or the carving knife down, doesn’t one still have to deal with the aging body? May we always have projects ahead of us, but may we also be prepared to just sit – when we want to and when we have no choice.
This week’s story (“Every Winged Bird According to Its Kind”) is a part of my Metamorphoses series and concerns an old woman who has found a modest project, an object of engagement, in her old age.