The Mirror of Age

There is a footnote in Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” which all of us can identify with:

I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jerk of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a traveling cap came in. I assumed that he had been about to leave the washing-cabinet which divides the two compartments, and had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass of the open door. I can still recollect that I thoroughly disliked his appearance.

First, we must remember that Freud has defined “uncanny” as the “mixture of the familiar and the eerie.” And, in this case, it was his own image as an “elderly gentleman” that was uncanny. And so, perhaps, it is with old age. The face is familiar but the transformation can sometimes be…eerie. I think part of it is because when we look at our own faces in the mirror or at the faces we love, we see a vision anchored to the past. It is only when we unexpectedly identify ourselves as a stranger that we can see what we really look like to others.

The old face in the mirror is a familiar motif –we see it in poetry. In both Robert Graves’ “Face in the Mirror” and Thomas Hardy’s “I Look into My Glass,” the poet contrasts the visage he sees with how he feels inside. Graves is puzzled:

I pause with razor poised, scowling derision
At the mirrored man whose beard needs my attention,
And once more ask him why
He still stands ready, with a boy’s presumption,
To court the queen in her high silk pavilion.

Hardy is more outraged as he views his “wasting skin” and wishes his heart would also waste away:

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

For babies, the “mirror stage” starts a process of physical identity. For the aging person, the mirror may serve as an agent of disintegration rather than integration; a secure sense of the physical self developed when young – and as young – is displaced by the changing body in the mirror: “The I or ego which is developed in the mirror stage of infancy is structured precisely to resist the anxiety of bodily fragmentation. In old age, with one’s position reversed before the mirror, the ego finds it more difficult to maintain its defenses” (Woodward, Aging and Its Discontents). Fragmentation rather than integration – no wonder we are disoriented.

Still, we have wonderful self-portraits of artists like Rembrandt in their old age. A triumph of the spirit looks out of Rembrandt’s wrinkled eyes. I have lasted, Rembrandt seems to say, despite and because of this old, battered body. We know Rembrandt used a mirror for his many self-portraits. Clearly he came to terms with what he saw. Such self-examination is not easy, but I think it would be a worthwhile exercise.

The old, deaf, and presumed mad (I’m not so sure) Jonathan Swift, upon being led across a room in his dotage, caught sight of himself in a mirror and cried out “O poor old man.” And so cry we all. But, near the very end, Swift was found rocking himself and muttering “I am what I am, I am what I am.” There is a truth in the mirror. We can deny it, but it is part of who we are and it cannot be rejected anymore than can the self/soul that peers out of the reflected eyes.

Yes and Hesse and Old Age


A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Spinoza and the value of cheerfulness. I took some criticism for promoting baseless optimism; surely this is not what I (or Spinoza) intended. Let me try again.

Cheerfulness is a way of saying yes to what life presents. Think of Molly Bloom saying yes to life and all it entails. Remember Paul telling the Corinthians that Jesus was never about yes or no, but always about yes. Consider Nietzsche sharing his “highest insight”:

This final, most joyful, effusive, high-spirited yes to life is not only the highest insight; it is also the most profound, the most rigorously confirmed and supported by truth and study. Nothing in existence should be excluded, nothing is dispensable …. To understand this requires courage….

Yes! An affirmation of life, the start to approaching life with… cheerfulness. As one definition has it: an ungrudging attitude toward life.
One of the best (and most neglected) writings on old age is a collection (Hymn to Old Age) that Hermann Hesse pulled together from his own letters and other writings. At age seventy-five, Hesse talks about getting to yes in regard to life – and specifically in regard to old age:

An old man who only hates his white hair and his proximity to death is as unworthy a representative of this phase of life as a young, strong man who hates his job and his daily work and tries to get out of them. In brief, if an old man is to achieve his goal and do justice to his task, he must be in accord with age and everything that age brings with it – he must say yes to all of it. Without this yes, without acceptance of what nature demands of us, we lose the value and sense of all our days – whether we are old or young – and we betray life.

Hesse is thought of as a great influence on the young. We all read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf when we were young. If we were lucky we read Glass Bead Game when we were a little older. But Hesse lived to be eighty-five and he had what seems to be an admirable old age. And he “gratefully give(s) names to the gifts that are given to us by age”:

For me the dearest of all these gifts is the treasure of images which after a long life we carry in our memory, and to which with the decline of our active powers we turn with a different attitude from ever before…. Looking, observing and contemplating increasingly becomes a habit, an exercise, and imperceptibly the mood and approach of the watcher permeates all our actions… today, gently leafing through the great picture book of our own life, we are amazed at how good and beautiful it can be to have escaped the hunt and the headlong rush and to have landed safely in the vita contemplativa. Here, in this garden of old men, many flowers blossom which earlier we would never have thought of cultivating. There blooms the flower of patience, a noble plant, and we become calmer, more tolerant, and the less we insist on actively intervening, the greater becomes our ability to watch and listen to the life of nature and the lives of our fellow humans, and to let it all pass us by without criticism but with renewed amazement at the vast diversity, sometimes taking part or silently regretting, and sometimes laughing with shining joy and humour.

Hesse “gratefully give(s) names to the gifts that are given to us by age.” One might compare Eliot’s “gifts reserved for old age” from “Little Gidding.” Eliot’s gifts are mostly in the negative, he’s not nearly as… cheerful as Hesse. Hesse says yes to it all. Hesse is realistic, though; his paean to old age includes the aches and pains and disappointments of himself and his fellow travelers. But in the end: “Age is not worse than youth; Lao Tse is not worse than Buddha. Blue is not worse than red. Age is only pathetic when it wants to play at being young.”

Interestingly, Hesse wrote an early novel (while in his thirties) about the old called In the Old Sun. It is good, but does not have the ring of truth we find in the selections from A Hymn to Old Age. In the latter, Hesse has been to the mountaintop and back down to the valley – and he is still cheerful.

This week I have posted the story “The More Loving One,” with a nod to Auden.  It is about a dying father’s gift to his daughter, a gift that has to do with saying “yes.”


Second Growth

For anyone interested in the process of aging, one could do worse than perusing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals. Emerson lived to be almost seventy-nine, and kept a journal between the ages of seventeen and seventy-two. Not only do we read about his transit through time, but he relates the development and aging of his friends – and Emerson’s friends were wonderful people indeed.

I have conscientiously kept a journal for the past fifteen years; in the writing, it has been therapeutic; in its existence (particularly with the aid of the word processor’s search feature), it has been an aid to memory; in its chronology, it has helped me understand my own journey through time. I wish, though, that I had such documentation of earlier crises in my life, as I rely on my memory – both historical and emotional – to try to make some sense out of things retrospectively, which I believe is part of the mission of old age. And one’s own memory can be a sly fox. Of course, there remains the problem of what to do with the written details of one’s life and thought when the end of life (or mind) comes, but for now it is a priceless resource (to me). More on this in another post (as well as hints as to how to journal consistently), but back to Emerson.

In a journal entry that Emerson made in February 1862 (he was fifty-seven), he gives us his thoughts on a second growth in old age, as well as a comment from his friend Thoreau (what wouldn’t you give to go on a long walk with those two?):

[Oliver Wendell] Holmes came out late in life with a strong sustained growth for two or three years, like the old pear trees which have done nothing for ten years, and at last begin to grow great. The Lowells come forward slowly, and Henry Thoreau remarks that men may have two growths like pear trees.

And this got me thinking about… dandelions. For one thing, it is that time of year in North Carolina. For another, dandelions have two “growths,” two “blossomings.” One day on a walk, I began wondering about dandelions (having seen a wonderful crop of them). How do they metamorphose from a yellow bloom to a white one with no “transitional” blossoms? As I got down on my haunches and investigated more closely, it seemed that the golden bloom closed up again and then reopened as the white feathery blossom – I found this diagram of the dandelion life cycle:



So, the blossom is twice born – once to youth, beauty, color, and sexual purpose (attracting those bees), and the second time to lightness, airiness, ultimate dispersal, and perhaps rebirth. In-between, there is a period of rest, a closing down, a respite. It might behoove us to think of our whitening heads as such a second flowering.

For those of you interested in Emerson’s journals (which are voluminous), I recommend the abbreviated Heart of Emerson’s Journals, edited by Bliss Perry. For those of you interested in Emerson’s life, I recommend Mr. Emerson’s Wife, by my friend Amy Belding Brown.

For a story this week, you might go back to “Again and Again and Again” for a tale of Walden Pond, or you can read the prospectus for a novel (I actually did write the novel several years later), included here as “A New Fable of Old Age.” This started as a thought experiment in which the old are forced into a second growth. I apologize for my tardiness in posting this time; we have been visiting our elderly mothers. Perhaps more about that too at a later date.