Auden, Narcissus, and the Duty of Happiness

I have gone back to reading Auden; this time I am reading his prose in The Dyer’s HandHe has much to say about life and old age, but I was particularly taken by this bit about Narcissus:

Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection because it is beautiful, but because it is his.   If it were his beauty that enthralled him, he would be set free in a few years by its fading.

We love our image because it is ours; we even correct it in our minds to be closer to what we think it should be.  I always think I look better in the mirror than I do in the cell phone pictures people take – I guess it is harder to mentally photoshop pixels than it is a face in the mirror (or in the mind).

Auden’s love for his own old body extended to his old age, even though he himself described his face as “a wedding cake that had been left out in the rain.”  It was his.  This comes across in his poem “A Lullaby,” written a year before he died.  Here he hugs himself, calls himself “Big Baby,” and references Narcissus again:

The old Greeks got it all wrong:

Narcissus is an oldie,

tamed by time, released at last

from lust for other bodies,

rational and reconciled.

For many years you envied

the hirsute, the he-man type.

No longer: now you fondle

your almost feminine flesh

with mettled satisfaction….

Harold Bloom loved this poem: “Older than Auden was [when he wrote the poem], I chant this lullaby to myself during sleepless nights and wish I had more of his admirable temperament.”

Bloom is right; Auden did have an “admirable temperament,” even in his old age (although Auden only lived to age sixty-six).  Like Spinoza, Auden thought we all have a duty to be cheerful, to be happy (again, from The Dyer’s Hand):

It is incorrect to say, as the Declaration of Independence says, that all men have a right to the pursuit of happiness.  All men have a right to avoid unnecessary pain if they can, and no man has a right to pleasure at the cost of another’s pain.  But happiness is not a right; it is a duty.  To the degree that we are unhappy, we are in sin.  (And vice versa.)  A duty cannot be pursued because its imperative applies to the present instant, not to some future date.

My duty toward God is to be happy; my duty towards my neighbor is to try my best to give him pleasure and alleviate his pain.  No human being can make another one happy.

Spinoza did not put it in religious terms; in his Ethics, he tried to reason his way through to a formula for the good life and says this: “Cheerfulness cannot be excessive, but is always good; melancholy, on the other hand, is always evil.”  And Spinoza has no use for regrets, the one thing that often heads off happiness in old age: “Repentance is not a virtue… instead, he who repents what he has done is twice wretched.”

Auden quotes Caesare Paves on the definition of maturity: One ceases to be a child when one realizes that telling one’s trouble does not make it any better.  Auden does not think that it even does any good to tell ourselves about our trouble.  Love the old body, love the life you have had and have now, and do your duty to be happy.  So says Auden, but it is not easy.

However, there are moments, like the one my character has in “Snickerdoodles.”

How Old Are You Inside? How Old Do You Want to Be?

Aged people are often asked how old they feel inside.   And even if they are not asked, they often volunteer the information.  “I know I’m 70, but if I don’t look in the mirror, I still feel like I am 40!”  Rarely does anyone admit to “feeling” older than their chronological age.  Younger is always better, unless you are a fifteen-year-old waiting to be old enough for a driving license.

The common adage of our age is “you are only as old as you feel.”  This was, in fact, the title of a New York Times article three years ago, in which two doctors discussed the effect of the perception of age on health.  Apparently, most people think of themselves as younger than they are, a discrepancy which widens with age:

If you’re over 40, chances are you feel younger than your driver’s license suggests. Some 80 percent of people do, according to Dr. Stephan. A small fraction of people — fewer than 10 percent — feel older. The discrepancy between felt and actual age increases with the years, Dr. Terracciano said. At age 50, people may feel about five years, or 10 percent, younger, but by the time they’re 70 they may feel 15 percent or even 20 percent younger.

This got me thinking about two things – how old do I feel and at which age was I the happiest? (Happy is not exactly the right word; sense of well-being might be better.)  Or to put it another way, if I’m not going to feel 70, what would be the best age to feel?  To start with the first question, I probably only feel about a decade younger than I am.  I definitely do not feel like a working person; the fire of ambition is almost extinguished – it flickers only for matters of small consequence.  I feel like a recently retired person of about 60 I would say, which squares entirely with Dr. Terracciano’s study, with about a 15% discrepancy with my real age.

More interesting are my thoughts about what age I would like to be mentally or psychologically – which age I would like to adopt the characteristics of.  After a short contemplation, the answer was easy.  I would like to be eight years old.  Being eight was wonderful.  I was in the third grade and the only competition I felt in my life was who was the tallest person in the class – myself or Rae Ann Reutershan.  (The boys were all midgets at that point.)  I loved my teacher, Miss Butterfield.  I loved my school and where I lived.  My younger brother was a tease and my little sister was a nuisance, but they were not my responsibility.  I had started needing eyeglasses in second grade, and spectacles made the world so much brighter and more wonderful that I didn’t mind wearing them at all, despite occasional taunts from my brother and his mean friends (four-eyes).

I had no control over my life at age eight, something I knew and accepted.  My parents and teacher called the shots, and I went along with their decisions the way adults go along with the weather – something that may be aggravating but which we can do nothing about.  There was no anxiety, except perhaps some short-lived angst about whether I would hit the baseball or be able to bicycle up a steep hill.  I loved animals and was interested in almost everything except boys and snakes.   I was ill sometimes – that was the era when children still got the full array of later-eradicated diseases as well as the still common colds and earaches – but even that had it’s advantages; I got to stay at home, lay on the couch, and watch TV.  And read.

Another reason I chose eight was that was when my reading ability hit its stride.  I had been an early and precocious reader, and by eight I was able to get “real books” from the library – books like “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew” or Nancy Drew or even “Little Women.”  If I didn’t understand a word, I guessed and kept reading.  I often used words in conversation that I didn’t know how to pronounce, which amused my family.  And reading represented an eternity of possibility.  It was not like Easter candy which would disappear quickly.  I could see by surveying the shelves at our wonderful public library that I would not run out of material for a very long time.  Which was, indeed, the case.  All I needed to do was return the books on time and keep my little sister from destroying them.  The one time of true anxiety I can remember from this period was when my toddler sister crayoned in a copy of one of the Boxcar Kid books I had from the library.  The librarian, who knew me well by then, was very sympathetic.  “It’s still readable,” she said.  Readable – what a wonderful word my eight-year-old self thought.

If it sounds like life was simple, it was. Not for my parents, not for the world – but for me.   I know it is not so for all eight-year-olds.  (Think and weep for the children of Ukraine!)  My family was intact and had its problems, but at eight I didn’t know the difference between problems and normality.  I thought all was as it should be, and I adapted.  I didn’t waste much time wanting to be older or younger.  Eight was wonderful.  Pictures from that period with my sparkly pink glasses and my home perm are a horror, but I was surely not aware of that.  And when something was going on  around me that I didn’t understand and was afraid of, I dove into a book.  Any book.

So back to myself at 70.  Of that little girl, only the joy of reading seems to have stuck.  But maybe I am reverting in some ways.  I would like to think I care less about what I look like or what people think.  I have gone back to realizing that we have very little control over the world. I have come to know that anxiety, guilt, and regret are useless emotions – at least I recognize that intellectually but wonder if one can go back to the innocent Eden of a child.  Last week I wrote about confronting the reality of nuclear war when I was ten.  Two years made a huge difference in my level of anxiety and fear about all things.   Even before the missile crisis, I had lost my optimism and well-being. 

I am talking about a state of mind, not a delusion as to our real age.  My mother’s dementia-fueled descent into her childhood was not a pleasant one.  She spent a year asking me where her parents were and fretting about how she was going to get home.  I do not wish that on myself or anyone.

 But again,  I would like to recapture some of what time and enculturation took away from that eight-year-old girl.  What age would you like to recapture?

The story this week – “Like Heaven” – is about a woman who lives in two worlds – the real one of her old age and a vivid memory of a younger age, which was not perfect but had its moments.   

New Books with Old Characters – Otsuka, Ozick, and Guterson

I don’t know if I am imagining it, but there seem to be more good books written about old age.  Some are fun, some are inspiring, some are tragic – but the best capture some of all that.  Old age is both tragic and funny, both inspiring and depressing.

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka starts with the allegorical story of an underground neighborhood swimming pool used by a number of dedicated swimmers who have their preferred times and lanes, and know the other swimmers by their quirks.  Alice, in the “early stages of dementia,” is among them.  Alice loves to swim; she knows the pool; she knows the routine.  And then the beloved pool develops a suspicious crack.  First no one thinks much of it; some people deny that it is even there.  Then it gets worse and there are haphazard attempts to repair it, to no avail.  Some swimmers are fascinated by the crack; others change lanes to avoid it.    The crack   consumes the minds and imaginations of the swimmers: 

Several of us worry that the crack might somehow be our own fault.   We feel ashamed of it, as though it were a blemish, a defect, an indelible flaw, a moral stain upon our soul that we have brought on ourselves.

The crack worsens; the pool is closed.  Alice no longer has the outlet of her exercise and her routine.  But think about those words: might somehow be our own fault, feel ashamed of it, as if we brought it on ourselves.

The book moves from a group portrait of the swimmers to a chronicle of Alice, written alternately in her voice, the voice of her daughter, and a collective voice of the people in the nursing home with Alice. The methodology is interesting.  We get long lists of things Alice remembers (the persimmons of her youth, the first love of her life) and the things she has forgotten, including most of what happened twenty minutes ago.  Some reviewers took exception to the catalogs that make up much of this book, but these lists give us Alice.  I have often wished that I had saved my daily to-do lists, which I have made kept since I was an adult.  Lists make up our lives.  When our author (or the voice of the daughter) cannot grasp what Alice is thinking or feeling, she gives us the concrete.  Alice’s fade into dementia (the “Diem Perdidi” section of the book) is heartbreaking as she clings to routine in the midst of the fog that is enveloping her. 

Alice is soon moved into a memory care center, Belavista.  “You are here today because you have failed the test.”  The crack has gotten worse, the mind has been shut into a “long-term, for-profit memory care residence conveniently located on a former parking lot off the freeway.”  Alice and her fellow patients are there because each has become “an extremely difficult person to live with.”  The rest of the book details Alice’s descent in the home – a descent into dementia and a descent into hell.  Having had to watch a loved one in such a setting, I found it depressingly accurate.  Why read it?  Because it is there; it is true; as we have more very elderly people, it is proliferating.

The next two books in an indirect way talk about the relationship of aging and writing.  First, there is Cynthia Ozick’s Antiquities; Ozick is still writing at 93, which is a good enough reason to read the book.  I found the writing excellent, gorgeous at times, but the story unsatisfactory.  It is told in the first person of a very old man (in every sense) literally living in the past (his old prep school turned into apartments for the last trustees) and obsessed by three incidents of the past – his attachment to a strange Jewish student, his father’s mysterious disappearance into Egypt for a period, and his lifelong adoration of his legal secretary, which he apparently never did anything about.  This aging Lloyd Petrie is fixated on a series of objects relating to these memories, including his secretary’s Remington manual typewriter with which he encodes his memories. In this the book reminded me of another excellent recent book, Ruth Ozeki’s Book of Form and Emptiness, in which objects actually speak of memory and life.

Maybe Ozick’s Antiquities is unsatisfactory because life is not satisfactory; loose ends do not tie themselves up at the end of the book, at the end of our lives.  Or at least, not very often and certainly not in this book.  At the end, the old man is dismayed that no one is interested in his father’s journals; he surmises that no one will be interested in his either.  And yet, it is these journals that Ozick has created to give us a book about old age and the power of memory.

David Guterson’s book – The Final Case –  was also unsatisfactory as to story, but nicely portrays the difference between the son (in his early sixties) who stops writing novels early and the father who is 83 and still goes into his law office every day, bringing bran cereal for his 10AM cereal and coffee ritual.  Guterson published this novel when he was 65, and is clearly grappling with a decision as to whether to go on writing.  To be clear, this novel is fiction, but Guterson is an author and his father was a criminal defense attorney. He may have disguised some of the facts, but the story has the ring of truth.  The old man takes on public defender cases, as he has his whole life, and dies of a stroke while wrapping up the defense of a despicable woman who has murdered her adopted daughter through neglect.  The narrator then contemplates death for a few months and concludes, as Auden did, that in the end all there is is love: “We must love one another or die” (from “September 1, 1939”).  Again, the plot does not satisfy and the story of child abuse by fundamentalist parents appalls, but Guterson’s comparison of a “green” old age and an old old age, the contrast of early retirement and dogged perseverance,  has much to recommend it.

For other reviews of books pertaining to old age see here (Doerr, Osman, Tawada, Wilder), here (Alameddine, McNamer, Bauer, Englehart), here (Schwab, Goethe) or here (Huxley).