What Do Old Women Lust For?

The first story in Jane Campbell’s Cat Brushing opens in the mind of an elderly woman taking herself to task for her sexual fantasies: “The lust of an old man is disgusting, but the lust of an old woman is worse.”  Campbell then goes on to give us thirteen captivating stories of love and lust and loneliness and old age.  Her book quickly disproves her opening statement; there are many kinds of lust (including that for the sensual satisfactions of simply brushing your cat) which make life richer and are far from disgusting.  We don’t often talk about our physical needs or lusts (which may not be the same thing), but Campbell’s old ladies pull no punches.

Jane Campbell was born in 1942 and published her first book eighty years later – but this is not the tentative voice of a literary newcomer.  This is an author who knows exactly what she wants to say (perhaps having had many years to think about it).  Her language sometimes brings blushes, but it always has the ring of honesty.  The stories range from infatuations of old women with their caregivers to complex relationships with Artificial Intelligence (AI) “creations” (one good, one bad – and I’ll come back to that) to simple stories of attachment to friends, place, animals.  Death hovers throughout, but few of these ladies die in the stories, at least physically.  Most of the characters make good (if hard) choices, but even when bad choices occur (one old lady runs away from a tyrannical handicapped sister, only to end up with a murderous husband), we are not so sure that the women have any regrets.   Let me start with the AI stories.

In “Lockdown Fantasms,” short Covid lockdowns have eventually merged into a continual isolation for the old; old people who live alone must do with limited assistance, but they are allowed weekly visits from fantasms, which seem to be AI-generated beings who give the old people companionship of whatever kind they wish – the fantasms will even have sex with you, watch a movie with you, cook for you.  At each weekly visit (they are not allowed more often) their form is different; one cannot get attached.  But for the narrator in the story, the fantasm is something to look forward to and prevents her from using the morphine/tranquillizer combo that the government provides in case a hologram once a week is not enough.  Fantasms are tweaked to respond to the needs of the recipient, but are only provided to those elders who live alone in pandemic-approved isolation.  It is an incentive to remain isolated.

In another story, “Schopenhauer and I,” the form of AI is a personal care robot supplied to a resident of an assisted living home after her beloved dog, Hobbes, disappeared.  The old lady is sure that the institution she is living in did away with her dog because he was too much trouble.  In turn, they have forced on her a mandatory robot – which she names Schopenhauer, but casually calls Arthur, and hates with the same passion with which she loved Hobbes.  Arthur monitors her 24/7, making life easier on staff.  I won’t give away the ending, but it is a tale of retaliation, and vengeance by an old lady is not pretty.  These two stories about AI do point out, however, that humanity can approach and utilize robots/holograms in many ways, but the choices relating to old people seem to be aimed at comfort and control – or, perhaps, to control through comfort.

In Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, the lusty old bawd from 14th century Bath tells us that what women most want is sovereyntee, sovereignty or control over their own lives.  In days when women’s lives were chattel, this was a way of looking for equality of some measure.  But companionship, sexual partners, are also of great interest to the old Alyson; she “kode of that art the olde dance” (she knew the art of the old dance).  Thus, the sexual life of old women might not be a frequent literary topic, but it is not new.  It has deep roots.  And, incidentally, Chaucer’s last poem, which he wrote when he was fifty-nine, was “The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse,” which has sly sexual allusions to his sex in old age.

Many of the stories in Cat Brushing dwell on the fantasies (and not just sexual ones) which keep us alive (and not just breathing).  The final loss of such fantasies is never easy and sometimes kills us.  Most of Campbell’s women come to terms with reality and adapt – but not all.  Most of their fantasies involve relationships of various kinds and seem to evolve out of loneliness. What do we do for contact when we are old and alone?  Even when the women in Campbell’s book find companionship, they know it may be temporary.  Their partner, friend, pet, may die before they do.  But for today they have a cat to brush, and the memories of touch and ecstasy.

I find that I don’t write many (any) dirty old lady stories; I am a New Englander born and bred and we don’t talk about such things.  We try not to even think about them – more’s the pity.  This is the value of Campbell’s book.  However, my short story, “Snickerdoodles,” was inspired by The Wife of Bath’s Tale.

“Hopelessly Devoted’ – Dedication in Old Age

Devotion is much to be admired.  I am not necessarily talking about religious devotion, but single-minded dedication in any form tends to sanctify both the object of worship and the devotee.  We often trivialize the devotion of other people when it differs from our own, but true devotion – be it to a person, a god, an art, an animal – is often admirable and surely gives many lives their meaning.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna (a god in disguise) tells Arjuna, “Those who worship other gods with faith and devotion will also come to Me, Arjuna, but by other paths.”  The paths are many, and in older people we sometimes see devotion take forms we may find silly – devotion to a grandchild, a cat, a favorite cause, a collection of coins or favorite recording artist.  But there is nothing silly here.  In a few cases, devotion to bad causes can have evil results, but true love is almost always life-enhancing.

My favorite story of this kind of devotion is Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” (Une Cœur Simple).  Félicité was a servant who spent her early life devoted to people – a lover, the children in the house where she was employed for half a century, a nephew – who did not return her love.  She became practiced at such love, and when she was given a parrot, she had a captive object for her boundless affection.  In her old age, when the parrot dies, she has him stuffed.  He is her most prized possession, her object of adoration, the center of her life.  Again, from the outside, this looks silly, inane – but as Félicité grows old, it is the parrot that grounds and centers her life.  When she dies peacefully, “she thought she could see, in the opening heavens, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.”

There are other tales of old folks and their devotions.  We have the cliché of the old woman carrying around pictures of her grandchildren, of the old man telling and retelling tales of his favorite baseball team.  There is Silas Marner, the old miser, who finds happiness in his attachment to the child Eppie; there is Hemingway’s old fisherman Santiago and his devotion to bringing the big fish out of the sea.  Such devotion is sometimes tragic in the end (as it is for Santiago), but it vitalizes life.  For the elderly, it is often what gives long life meaning.

We had a neighbor who was in his nineties when we moved into the neighborhood.  During the time he lived next to us, his wife’s health failed and she died.  He took wonderful care of her.  He also took wonderful care of a mangy old dog, whom he walked daily and found endless pleasure in.  When he decided he had to move out of his house, the only criteria for a new home was whether old Lucky could come.  I don’t know which of them will live longer, but I do know they have enriched each other’s lives. At a particularly desperate point in my life, a therapist suggest that I get a pet.  I thought that, in my current state, a pet to take care of was the last thing I needed.  But I adopted a cat, and I felt better.

Simone de Beauvoir, in her book on old age, said that all old people need “projects” that we are devoted to:

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.

In her philosophical and scholarly manner, Beauvoir imagined these “projects” to be special people, creative endeavors, worthy causes, or political activities.  I think she is right that we need something to be dedicated to, but I would take a broader view.

Of course, devotion can go wrong.  If zealous attachment is motivated by fear or power lust, it can be deeply destructive, and we can all think of many examples – from the Nazi hierarchy to the witch burners.  The January 6 insurrection was a prime example in recent times, but we all know cases of misplaced devotion.  All the best of human emotions possess a shadow side, and once in the grip of a cult, a tribe, a powerful personality, it is hard to see our way out of the fog.  How to know?  I think that true devotion does not expect a return on investment, the return is the investment.

I wrote a story (“Shrines”) about three old women who are devoted in their own ways, ways that might seem to have little meaning from the outside.  One could ponder whether their various dedications enriched their lives.  I tried not to reach any conclusion in my story.  I still have not reached a conclusion.