Drama of Old Age – Oedipus at Colonus

Sophocles was in his nineties when he wrote Oedipus at Colonus; we think it was not performed until after his death.  It is, of course, part of the cycle that starts with Oedipus Rex  and ends with Antigone, but Colonus was written last and reveals an Oedipus with a different temperament than the younger, brasher man who was overcome by and angry at his fate.  Oedipus is now old and has found a kind of reconciliation with what has happened to him: “You’ll never find / A man on earth, if a god leads him on, / Who can escape his fate.”  So Oedipus seems to have dispensed with the guilt.  He is in a grove near Athens, getting ready to die, and to lend his protective spirit to Athens rather than to Thebes.  The gods have said that whoever accepts the dying Oedipus will be “blessed.”  Oedipus has no wish to bless Thebes, the city that cursed him.   

Oedipus is not the only old person in the play.  Old Creon shows up trying to convince Oedipus to die at Thebes, and the chorus is composed of “elders.”  Oedipus has come to the sacred grove at Colonus (outside of Athens) with his adoring daughters (Ismene and Antigone), and has a confrontation with one of his two hated sons.  But, while the passionate young Oedipus spurned fate, the aged Oedipus has decided to accept his fate and die in the sacred grove.  Zeus thunders his approval. 

In his posthumous book, On Late Style, Edward Said differentiates between two artistic approaches at the end of creative lives.  He proposes that some aging literary and musical artists reflect “a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity often expressed in terms of miraculous transformation of common reality,” and puts the Sophocles of Oedipus at Colonus in this category, along with the Shakespeare of the late romances (think of Winter’s Tale or The Tempest).  These writers have come to a kind of late serenity, and perhaps also a kind of truce with death.  I would probably put Eliot’s Elder Statesman in this category too.  There are angry old people too, though, and not everyone comes to resolution, peace.  While Oedipus says that his “experience and length of days teach me to be content,” even Oedipus comes to no reconciliation with Thebes, Creon, or his sons.  Reconciliation should not require capitulation.  And perhaps contentment does not require any reconciliation beyond one’s own conscience.

Colonus influenced Eliot’s Elder Statesman and also influenced other writers.  E. M. Forster (at a much younger age) rewrote Colonus as a perfectly wonderful short story (“The Road to Colonus“) with a completely different ending.  In the story, the aging Mr. Lucas is touring Greece with his caring daughter Ethel.  The story starts with the sentences: “For no very intelligible reason, Mr. Lucas had hurried ahead of his party.  He was perhaps reaching the age at which independence becomes valuable, because it is soon to be lost.”  And, of course, we find out that it is already too late. We can all relate to that.  The party comes through the parched countryside to a ramshackle inn by a spring in a grove of trees.  An oasis of sorts.   Mr. Lucas finds some peace there by an old tree; he wants to stay; he wants to die there.  But unlike the obedient daughters of Oedipus, the efficient Ethel is having none of this.  He gets tricked into leaving and spends the rest of his life not exactly living with his daughter and her husband back in England.  We learn later that the inn was destroyed when the tree fell later that evening; Mr. Lucas was meant to die there but did not accept (or was not allowed to accept) his fate.  While his daughter Ethel says, “Such a marvelous deliverance does make one believe in Providence,” we are left to conclude that escaping Providence was a disaster for the poor old man living half a life in his daughter’s house back in England, forever complaining about the noise and forever being ignored.

Colonus is full of strange and mysterious occurrences.  So is life.  We can rage against the things we do not like (including our own mortality – think of Dylan Thomas’s advice that “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light”).   However, if we rage on and on,  we may lose any ability to enjoy the parts of life that we do like.  “Our life is not as pitiful as you’d think,” says the elderly Oedipus, “as long as we find joy in every hour.”  This sounds a little like Lear’s speech to Cordelia: “Come, let’s away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage… and take upon’s the mystery of things.”  There is, perhaps, time in old age to take upon ourselves the mystery of things.  And to let them be. 

I drafted a novel once about the Great Books Institute which takes place every year at Colby College.  If you are interested in what my fictional readers had to say about Colonus, click here.

The Drama of Old Age – Eliot’s The Elder Statesman

 

I have written about last poems, last novels, and now a last play.  There are many wonderful last plays, many of them directly relating to old age.  T.S. Eliot wrote The Elder Statesman in 1958 when he was about 70; I first read it when I was in my 50s, then again at 63, and now as I am about to turn 70 myself.  It is both a heartening and scary play.  On the plus side, Eliot uses the word love more in this play than in all his other drama combined; on the scary side, imagine arriving at the nursing home only to find it populated by all the people you have wronged in life, all the people who know your darkest secrets.

Eliot stated that he partially based his play on another play by an even older playwright.  Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus when he was about 90.  Cicero tells a story about how Sophocles’ sons were not happy at how their elderly father was handling the family fortune.  They took him to court for incompetence and Sophocles defended himself by reading from Colonus.  So much for the sons.  But Elder Statesman is not a rewrite of Sophocles; it feels deeply personal.  One cannot help remembering that Eliot and his brother-in-law had locked his first wife away in an insane asylum; she had died there ten years before this play was written.  And here we have a play about the problems of the past, how to deal with regret for things that cannot be changed.  Any old person knows about this.

Much of Eliot’s late writing is religious (or spiritual) in nature, but there is no religion in Elder Statesman.  The protagonist, Lord Claverton, has just retired due to a failing heart and is facing the first period in his life with an empty appointment book.  He has a loving daughter and a renegade son.  And time to think.  But he does not have to dredge up his old sins; they come knocking on the door.  The youthful joyride where he ran over someone, the inappropriate love match that he let his father buy off, the younger friend whom he betrayed.  For most of us, these kinds of past sin just reside at the bottom of our consciousness; Eliot has them come to call.  The question to be answered is what to do about our past sins, our inner critic:

What is this self inside us, this silent observer,

Severe and speechless critic, who can terrorize us

And urge us on to futile activity,

And in the end, judge us more severely

For the errors into which his own reproaches drove us.

One of the things we sometimes do with our own faults is to project them on our children.  Lord Claverton does this with his son  Michael – always fearful that Michael has gotten into trouble with some woman or hurt someone while driving his sports car.  In the end, however, he realizes that the only lesson both he and his son have to learn is not to try to escape their responsibilities, the consequences of their own actions:

Come, I’ll start to learn again,

Michael and I shall go to school together.

We’ll sit side by side, at little desks

And suffer the same humiliations

At the hands of the same master.  But have I still time?

There is time for Michael.  Is it too late for me, Monica [his daughter]?

Is it too late?  The call, the question, the entreaty, the petition of the old – can I undo, can I atone, can I make restitution, can I learn the lesson?  This is a play and so the old man does learn a lesson and that lesson involves love – a very human kind of love.  Confession, yes, but not necessarily to a priest:

If a man has one person, just one in his life,

To whom he is willing to confess everything –

And that includes, mind you, not only things criminal,

Not only turpitude, meanness and cowardice,

But also situations which are simply ridiculous,

When he has played the fool (and who has not?) –

Then he loves that person and love will save him.

We all hope to be fortunate enough to have that person, to find that person.  For Claverton, it is his daughter.  But one has to be willing to confess.  In Colonus, Oedipus dies claiming he was not fully responsible for what happened to him and his family.  There surely is a sense in which our fates are ordained by circumstances – but almost never completely.  Oedipus says that old age teaches him acceptance:  “My experience and my length of days teach me to be content.”  I hope your old age has brought you acceptance and contentment.  If not, read The Elder Statesman and think about who you might not want to encounter in the rest home of your final years. 

Also, for a story about dealing with the sins of the past, try my story “Shrove Tuesday;” for more on T.S. Eliot, you might look at my blog from a year ago, “Eliot’s Gifts of Old Age.”

Do the Elderly Have More Bandwidth?

I recently read Alan Jacobs’ book, Breaking Bread With the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil MindWho does not want a tranquil mind?  I recommend it (both the book and the tranquility). But I was particularly taken with Jacobs’ metaphor of bandwidth as a measure of the perspective of our lives.  Specifically, he wonders if young people – cocooned in their internet playlists and current fads – have not much narrowed their bandwidths.  Sounds paradoxical doesn’t it –  shouldn’t more bandwidth mean more information, knowledge, perspective? 

One might look at it this way.  When we boomers were young (oh, so long ago), we were universally exposed to what our parents and grandparents listened to, watched, talked about.  There was only one television in our house (in the family room), one radio (in the kitchen), and one phone (in the center of everything to prevent any kind of privacy).  And the children were not in charge.  So, we watched and listened to things our parents chose.  And when there was nothing else to watch or listen to, we read a book or eavesdropped on the adults.  Thus, I knew the tunes and lyrics of all the popular songs from the forties, watched any number of old TV shows and movies, and used the kind of language they approved of while talking on the phone.  When I was at my grandparents’ house, I watched Lawrence Welk and listened to my grandfather play old hymns on his upright piano.  Forced to attend church and Sunday School, I picked up the 17th century language of the King James Bible and got to know the organ music of Bach.  Desperate for something to read in the days before Kindle, I picked up whatever old stuff was in the house.  All of those things became my points of reference. I don’t think I was any different in this regard from other members of my generation – and probably all previous generations.   So, as Jacobs posits, our bandwidth stretched well into the past.  He says this wider bandwidth gave us a greater personal density – a term Jacobs said he got from Thomas Pynchon. 

For the most part, younger people today have their own computers, smart phones, televisions.  Statistics tell me families seldom sit down to meals together and seldom even gather around the same television show.  They can insert their ear pods and not have to listen to old music, old television, old people.  Their world is narrower.  Not that I wouldn’t have loved to have their options when I was fifteen.  And yet.

Jacobs’ argument makes sense to me.  Churches (at least main-line churches) and classical music concerts (when we could still have concerts) have become oceans of white hair.  Young people are, presumably, home listening to self-selected podcasts or reading the latest graphic novel.  Not only does that mean that they know less about the past, but it may have some effect on their attention span.  When you cannot change the channel or find another book, you have little choice but to stick to it.  Unless you are exposed to Bach and the beauty of King James English at an early age, will you easily appreciate it as you grow older?  And there is something else about the past that the present and future don’t have – it’s over; we can see how things turned out.  We can (maybe) learn lessons, or at least intuit when we are repeating prior mistakes.

It is not just the young I worry about in this regard.  I don’t listen to commercial radio because the music sounds like noise to me.  And I now have a choice.  I can listen to whatever I want on my MP3 player or computer and will never develop an appreciation for Lady Gaga and grunge rock.  I can get almost any book I want from our wonderful library system; as a result, I read books I like and have never opened a graphic novel.  So, my bandwidth extends far into the past, but not far into the future.  And the internet wants to help me with this by suggesting books based on my past reading, movies like the one I just watched, people like me that I might like to be “friends” with.

By the way, this problem is not entirely new.  T. S. Eliot identified it in 1928 (“Second Thoughts on Humanism“) in relation to the fact that there were enough books marketed in his day that “there never was a time, I believe, when those who read at all, read so many more books by living authors than by dead authors; there never was a time so completely parochial, so shut off from the past.”  If old Tom were still alive, he might be pining for those days.

I have no solution to this, but I am not sorry that I had the exposure I got when I was young.  Left to myself, I would have read Nancy Drew books and watched cartoons – perhaps branching out as I got older and bored of the same fare, but how would I have known what was out there?  And, of course, the extreme divisions in this country are surely a symptom of this.  If you aren’t forced to hear all perspectives, how broad is your bandwidth?  I wonder.

The Purpose of Old Age


I recently encountered an anthropological theory to explain why women evolved to live beyond their child-bearing years. It is called the “grandmother hypothesis” and posits that having post-menopausal women looking after the kids and tending the home fire worked to ensure the survival of the species. (I could find no such hypothesis about male longevity – but that is another subject.) This hypothesis made me think, as I often have, about what the purpose of old age might be. Or (and better), what purpose can we give it?

Literature gives us an array of meanings to choose from. The “grandmother hypothesis” reminds me of Willa Cather’s wonderful story “Old Mrs. Harris.” Mrs. Harris takes care of her daughter’s family, sleeps in a room off the kitchen, and comes from a culture where “every young married woman in good circumstances had an older woman in the house, a mother or mother-in-law or an old aunt, who managed the household economies and directed the help.” Mrs. Harris has no “help,” so she does it all herself, and her neighbors feel sorry for her, until they realize at the end that Mrs. Harris is doing exactly what she wants to do. While it is hard on the old bones, “the moment she heard the children running down the uncarpeted back stairs, she forgot to be low. Indeed, she ceased to be an individual, an old woman with aching feet; she became part of a group, became a relationship.” There is a special kinship between her and the young ones she tends so solicitously. She was “perfectly happy.

On the other hand, the elderly Lady Slane (in Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent) pushes her family away so that she will have time to reflect on the past and meditate on her life. Lady Slane characterizes such time as “life’s last supreme luxury.” Similarly there is an old custom in Buddhist societies of the old “going forth” into the forest or ashram to spend the last part of their lives in contemplation.

The very elderly speaker in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead concludes that old age is for forgiveness – and love: “ It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire. Another reason why you must be careful of your health.” So, we live long enough to forgive others. I can tell you from experience that if you outlive the “others,” forgiveness is easier. And then there is Saint Benedict who says in the Prologue to his Rule that “our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce, that we may amend our misdeeds.” So we live long to forgive and be forgiven.

In fact, old age in the Bible is often seen as a reward for faith and good living. Abraham and other Biblical patriarchs died at “a good old age” for a job well done. “If thou wilt walk in my ways to keep my statutes, and my commandments, as thy father David did walk, then I will lengthen thy days” (1 Kings 3:14), says God to Solomon. In this way, the purpose of old age is to reap one’s reward for work well done, and many retired people indeed look at their “golden years” this way. This attitude has been very lucrative for the cruise industry (until Covid).

Again and again, the Bible exhorts the old to find purpose in sharing their wisdom: “The glory of the young is their strength; the gray hair of experience is the splendor of the old” (Proverbs 20:29). Similarly, in his Republic, Plato (and he was surely talking about the grandfathers rather than the grandmothers) thought that those over fifty should turn to philosophy, but also take a turn at being an officer of the state, “regarding the task as not a fine thing but a necessity.” As I have noted elsewhere, we have many elderly leaders these days – but I am not always sure they come at it from the attitude Plato would have them adopt.

Emerson posited that the best use of leisure at the end of our lives would be to “run to the college or the scientific school which offered the best lectures.” Bolingbroke wrote an essay in the 18th century about the role of study in retirement, stating that the old mind “may continue still to improve and itself” as compensation for the decline of the body . But Seneca and Montaigne rather disdained the view of an old man as a pupil. Montaigne does, however, draw a distinction between studying and being instructed. “While it is creditable for every age to study, so it is not creditable for every age to be instructed. An old man learning his ABC is a disgraceful and absurd object; the young man must store up, the old man must use.”

In her book The Coming of Age (recommended if not always agreed with), Simone de Beauvoir says that the only way to make old age meaningful is to have projects:

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) that it is fairly inevitable that “illusions” will vanish and “one’s zeal for life pass away.” And we must consider these projects carefully; Carl Becker (Denial of Death) posits that many people engage in “immortality projects,” sometimes doing tremendous damage while trying to make sure that their name never dies.

Carl Jung, who uses the metaphor of times of day in his essay on “The Stages of Life,” says that each stage has its own program and the purpose of the evening of old age is to be reflective, “preoccupied with himself.” He agrees with the anthropologist that there must be a meaning to our longevity. “A human being would certainly not grow to be 70 or 80 years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species to which he belongs. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.” And he is firm that we should not try to be young. It is as ridiculous for us to take on the goals of youth as it would be for youth to spend its time reflecting on its death.

Finding a purpose in old age is clearly an individual quest – or it should be. If we take our motivations from internet ads, glossy content, or paperback advice, there will be nothing individual about it. I have no answers for you, but leave you with the good advice of Seneca:

It is disgraceful for an old man or one in sight of old age to be wise by the book. “Zeno said this.” What do you say?… All those men who never create but lurk as interpreters under the shadow of another are lacking, I believe, in independence of spirit.

If you want to think about the grandmother hypothesis some more, you might try my story “Common Enemy.” The title comes from Sam Levenson: “The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy.” Of course, no one who is not old enough to be a grandparent will have any idea who Sam Levenson was or why this is funny.

The View from Old Age – Mono or Stereo, Black-and-White or Color, Analogue or Digital?

We old folks remember when televisions made the transition from monochrome to color, music moved from mono to stereo, and everything migrated from analogue to digital. We all remember the first family in the neighborhood to get a color television (not us!).   In each case, we were awed by the difference in quality – in a stereo symphony, in a technicolor movie, in digital accuracy.  We have had examples of how our perceptions were changed simply by the filter which technology put on things (or the filter it took away).

I was thinking about this the other day when I was re-reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.  (Re-reading is one of the great gifts of old age – for the things you remember it is a deepening experience, for the things you don’t remember you get the pleasure of a first-time reader all over again!) I picked Campbell’s book up again because I have had it in mind for years to write a novel based on the “hero” experience, but with an older woman as the main character.  Stay tuned.  Anyway, in the end Campbell returns his hero from whence he came, but bringing him back to his old culture with a new dual perspective – the old mundane view and the new cosmic vision.  We all – even heroes – have to deal with the mundane world, but  the hero knows that it is only a reflection of, an emanation of, the “vital energy that feeds us all,” the universal chaos that we all came out of.  This knowledge cannot be verbalized; it can only be realized.

Campbell tells a story about Thomas Aquinas that I had never heard before.  The great writer and scholar had a mystical experience while at Mass about three months before he died, after which he

put his pen and ink on the shelf and left the last chapters of his Summa Theologica to be completed by another hand.  “My writing days,” he stated, “are over; for such things have been revealed to me that all I have written and taught seems but of small account to me…

Campbell, the man of myths, says that what is experienced at this point is “beyond myth,” beyond language; there is only silence.  We see this in the Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna is speechless when Krishna finally reveals his true nature; we see it in the Book of Job when God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind and Job says he learned “of things beyond me which I did not know.”  In the myth, Job is rewarded with new children and cattle.  Beyond myth, perhaps, Job is awarded by a new expanded view of the world, in stereo and living color.

I don’t know about you, but as a younger person with children and ambition, I could not look beyond the mundane world.  My younger life was definitely a mono world – and nothing high def about it.  Get lunches made, make sure everyone has clean underwear, make it to the office on time – such were the parameters of my world.  I miss some things about those days (the things I can remember – it was such a blur), but my life has changed. Now, I have time to assimilate all that has happened to me, to ponder what I see and hear and read, time to digest.  In one Hindu myth, souls go to their appropriate level after death in order to think about the life they have just led and to extract lessons from it.  I am not so sure about counting on that opportunity after I am cremated; I want to do it in my old age.  I think that is one of things that old age is for.  It is the only kind of ambition I have left.

But unlike Thomas Aquinas – or maybe because I lack his level of mystical experience – I do want to try to write about it.  So here I am.  In Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, Lady Slane sees the ability to reflect on the past as “the last supreme luxury, a luxury she waited all her life to indulge.”  She goes back over her life, perhaps looking for the hero’s journey in it all.  “She could lie back against death and examine life.”

At the age of sixty-four, Emerson said in his journal that “the good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.”  Is it Emerson’s “thread of the Universe” that Campbell’s hero discovers and which gives him an extra dimension (or two or three) from which to look at life?

We can see this reach for a more multi-dimensional view of life if we look at the late novels of Marilynne Robinson.  She published the wonderful Housekeeping in her thirties, and then did not publish another novel (although she did write non-fiction) until she was sixty-one.  There followed four novels that explore the same lives from different perspectives: Gilead, Home, Lila, and the recent Jack.  Many of her characters are elderly; many see themselves and their lives in tremendous perspective.  In the four novels, she circles around and around her characters (and wonderful characters they are) and around the very nature of existence.  After I read Jack, I decided to go back and re-read them in order.  It is turning out to be a good exercise, and I only hope that Robinson, now seventy-seven years old, has not written her last novel.

Proximity to death is necessary for the hero’s journey, according to Campbell.  Well, proximity to death is something we old people have. The hero must slay the dragon, outrun the wind, sail across an angry sea and defy the gods of his time.  In one form or another, many of us have performed these deeds.  What is the myth that we embody?  Is it different from one person to another?  Or is it, as Campbell claims, the same in essence if not in symbol?  Have we gained perspective? Acknowledged the universal chaos?  Have we moved from mono to stereo, from monochrome to technicolor, from a shortened perspective to a wider one?  Comments welcome.

To think about the value of re-reading, you might try my short story, “Nothing New.

Chips from the Hanging Spar – Melville’s Last Works

Melville would seem to have had a fairly miserable old age, ending with his death of cardiac failure at the age of 72.  No wonder his heart gave out.  After an initial success with books about sailing in the South Seas (Typee, Omoo, among others), Melville struck out with Moby-Dick (the greatest American novel that the NYTimes misspelled the title of in his obituary) and then again with Pierre (“Herman Melville Crazy” read a headline).  At the age of 38, he seemed to be washed up.  His last full novel, The Confidence-Man, didn’t help his reputation.  It is, however, a novel worth reading and a book of our time, of illusion and disillusion.  Not long ago, Philip Roth said that “the relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’ ”

The characters in Melville’s novel are either scammers or those who are just asking to be scammed.  It asks the brilliant question as to why we are so prone to believe what we want to believe and not to look for the truth.  One of the most interesting passages in this regard involves an old person and is worth quoting here.  A “confidence man” is talking to a man from Missouri (no one seems to have names) about the conning of an old man on the steamer they all are traveling on.  The Missourian has just finished telling the old sick man that he shouldn’t trust in the natural remedies sold to him by the doctor/con man and the con man argues that it would be “pitiless” to take away the old man’s hope:

“Yes, poor soul,” said the Missourian, gravely eyeing the old man – “yes, it is pitiless in one like me to speak too honestly to one like you [the old man].  You are a later sitter-up in this life; past man’s usual bed-time; and truth, though with some it makes a wholesome breakfast, proves to all a supper too hearty.  Hearty food, taken late, gives bad dreams.”

Truth is too hard to bear in old age – and so we turn to religion, medicine, what? One might think of Jung’s call for religion as a source of “psychic hygiene” for one approaching death.  But of more interest here is Melville’s disillusionment with life.  There is none of that in Moby-Dick.  While there is the evil of Ahab, Moby-Dick is a tale of the cooperative effort of a shipload of very different men who work together to a common end.  Something has changed for Melville with time and age.  The taste of life has gone sour. 

But this was not Melville’s final statement.  I prefer to think of Melville’s unfinished novella Billy Budd as his last judgment on life.  There is still disillusionment, but there is also handsome, honest, innocent Billy.  Billy Budd has been called “Melville’s Testament of Acceptance” of life as it is (Fogle).  It has also been called a work of tragic irony.  I prefer to think that, after being buffeted about for decades, Melville shows us he remembers innocence, he remembers Eden.  And he has accepted that it is inevitably lost.  One thinks of Beethoven’s inscription to the last movement of one of his last works (String Quartet Opus 135): “The Difficult Decision.”  Over the notes he wrote the question, “Must it be?”  He then responds to himself as the movement lightens and quickens: “It must be.”

In Melville’s story, Billy must be hung even though his action was provoked by a psychopath and the whole crew is on his side.  But in the British Navy one could not get away with flaunting the rules.  It would be bad for discipline.

Melville flaunted the rules and paid the price in many ways.  I have no idea whether he had regrets in his old age, but it seems he was not particularly content.  In 1850, he had written an enthusiastic piece about Hawthorne (whom he had yet to meet), and in it he talked about how great writers did not avoid difficult topics.  And he says that “he who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great.  Failure is the true test of greatness.”  Melville himself was about to be tested.

He wrote the piece about Hawthorne in 1850, while he was working on Moby-Dick.  That great novel was published in 1851 to mediocre (at best) reviews.  In 1852, he published Pierre, which induced reviewers to doubt his sanity.  The Confidence Man  – Melville’s last full novel – was published in 1857 when Melville was only 38.  Eventually unable to sustain himself as an author, he took a job as a customs inspector in 1866 and worked at the New York Customs House for 19 years.  And then he started Billy Budd, which was published many years after his death.

According to the biographers, Melville entered a long silence at the end of his life.  Some thought he was crazy; but he was writing Billy Budd and, perhaps, came to the conclusion that we are all crazy and had to be to live this absurd life.

Melville had early success, which dwindled into an undeserved neglect and failure in his old age.  It happens.  We all have things (or marriages or children) which did not turn out as we hoped.  The question is what we do with all of that in our old age.  I wish I could tell Melville how much I love Moby-Dick; how well he read human nature in The Confidence Man, and how Billy Budd is one of the grandest of tragedies.

 In Billy Budd, the spar that Billy is hung on turns into a holy relic of sorts, with sailors chipping off bits surreptitiously because they know that there died a noble soul.  I have no chips of the spar or the true cross, but I have Melville’s books.

 If you are interested in thinking about what to do with a sense of failure in old age, you might look at my stories “A Balm in Gilead” or “A Perfect Ending.”  Or you might look at an earlier post, A Dimished Thing?.

An Aging Hippie Considers the Chaos in Washington

 

I protested the War in Viet Nam.  I marched and watched young men burn their draft cards and participated in sit-ins.  Young men of my generation objected to being forced to carry guns, perhaps be killed, in a war that seemed senseless.  That turned out to be senseless.  The rioters in the Capitol on Wednesday were angry with the thought that someone might take their guns away and they did not seem to mind a little killing. 

I am old and those rioters were (mostly) young.  I would like someone to succinctly tell me what their grievance is  – other than the unproven belief that Trump had somehow won the election despite certifications, audits, and polls leading up to the election showing that Trump would probably lose.  When I protested in the sixties (and again when we entered Iraq), I did it grimly.  These young men clearly seemed to be having a good time.  What is going on here?

I live in the south.  My state voted for Trump.  In my neighborhood, mostly made up of retired folk, there were probably (judging from the lawn signs) an equal number of  Trump and Biden supporters – so Trumpism is surely not just for the young.  But with every generation, I think, it is the young who insert the energy into every new movement.  It was so with civil rights, women’s rights, voter rights. 

Are the current Trumpists the children or grandchildren of the people who doused the protesters of my era with water hoses or called us communists?  Their brand of patriotism was tough to take then, and it is killing this country now.  But here is a difference.  I don’t think we were disagreeing about the facts in those days.  The other side might have been saying that we should be out there battling the Reds in Viet Nam, but they weren’t saying that  George McGovern or Eugene McCarthy were running child pornography rings.  Something has changed.  Something is worse.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am old and old people tend to be conservative, to think things were better in the good old days.  We don’t like things to change a whole bunch.  But we have also learned some things along the way, including that the flag doesn’t legitimate all efforts made under its banner or that elected officials don’t always do the right thing.

This morning, I went to the local convenience store to get my Sunday New York Times.  The very nice young man who works the early shift there asked me if I had had a good week as I paid for my paper.  I pointed to the pictures of the ransacked Capitol Building on the front page and said, “Except for this.”  He quickly pointed out to me that there had been protests when Hillary lost.  He is right; I even attended one in Asheville.  “But we didn’t do this,” I said.  “We didn’t carry weapons.  We didn’t deny the results of legitimate elections. We didn’t destroy property or try to upset our democracy.”  The young man just smiled and went on to the next customer, not much interested in what an old lady had to say.

This has been a hard year for all of us.  The old have been particularly hard-hit by Covid, by infection and death and the isolation it has forced us into.  We watched a President disregard – and even belittle – the protocols like mask-wearing that could have kept us safer, while he got drugs when he got ill that we would probably never have access to.  When people I know got Covid, they were told to monitor their breathing and call 911 if their oxygen level got so low they couldn’t function.  That was all.  And now all of the rules of democracy and civilization that we have prided ourselves on are being disregarded.

In 1920, Robert Frost wrote the poem “Fire and Ice,” inspired, it is said, by a conversation he had with an astronomer at Harvard about how the world will end:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

We have the fire of passions and global warming; we have the ice of hate and destructive thinking.  Either would “suffice,” but we must somehow fight both at once.  And the old must do their part.

But please don’t think that I just blame the young.  Our generation must have done something wrong in order to produce such massive disregard for truth, science, moral balance.

I have been counting the days until January 20, but that will not be the end of it.  It will be the end of neither Trumpism nor Covid.  I wrote a piece a while back entitled, “What Are the Old to Do?” where I concluded  that we should remain civil, participate in lawful and peaceful protest, and continue insisting that facts be verified.  I am much afraid these things will not be enough, but other suggestions are welcome.

Next week I will get back to last novels.  Melville, I think.

 

Thoughts on the New Year and Turning 70

There is much hope in the land for the New Year; 2020 will not be fondly remembered by most people. I do not have to detail the collective tragedy of this lost year.  On the positive and personal side, we were blessed with two healthy new grandsons this year, but have only seen them once. And, just as the vaccine is in our sights, Covid has surged.  It has even entered my immediate neighborhood for the first time.

I have written in another year about the images of the “old” year (Father Time) and the “Baby” New Year.  This is a holiday which will not let us forget time is passing.  As I get older, New Year’s Eves come faster and faster, and I go to bed earlier and earlier.  No bells at midnight for me.  And I am cognizant today that 2021 is the year in which I will turn 70.  Seventy seems old to me.  I am sure I will get used to my new decade (although my husband who is two years ahead of me says he hasn’t).  But the numerical marker is a bellwether, a harbinger of things to come.

The Bible tells us that seventy years is all we can expect of life.  Psalm 90 is quite explicit on this point:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

Or in a more modern translation:

Seventy years is all we have—eighty years, if we are strong; yet all they bring us is trouble and sorrow; life is soon over, and we are gone.

One can argue that in Biblical times 70 was much older than it is now.  Maybe.  But I know there are many things about old age that have not changed, that cannot be easily “cured,”  including the simple truth of the wear and tear our bodies and minds have undergone for seven decades.

As anyone who has been reading these blogs will know, there has been much debate in recent years on what our attitude toward old age should be.  One of my favorite authors (both as the academic Carolyn Heilbrun and the mystery writer Amanda Cross) wrote The Last Gift of Time – Life Beyond 60It is a lovely book about getting older and delineates many of the joys of old age.  Yet, Dr. Heilbrun also vows in the book to commit suicide at age 70,  as “there is no joy in life past that point, only to experience the miserable endgame.”  She actually waited until she turned 77; I wish she had waited longer.

A few years back (2014), Ezekiel Emanuel (noted oncologist and bioethicist who was recently appointed to Biden’s Covid team and whose brothers are Rahm and Ari) wrote a much-discussed article in The Atlantic entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”  The title is misleading; Emanuel does not necessarily hope to die in his mid-seventies.  But he has decided that by age 75 he will give up all measures to make him live into a very long but perhaps debilitated old age.  He is clearly against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, but:

I am talking about how long I want to live and the kind and amount of health care I will consent to after 75.  Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible.  This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.

I recommend the article – particularly those parts about where our health care dollars are going and how statistics show that longevity improvements often just “increase the years spent in disability.”  By the way, Dr. Emanuel says in this essay that he will no longer take flu vaccines after age 75; I wonder how he feels about this in the current situation.  I do not want to make his argument simplistic though; it is a powerful statement of reality in the face of the very unreal chase after immortality.  As I approach my eighth decade, all these things are on my mind.

This is my last post in a remarkable year.  It is also the time for printing up my journal for the month of December and completing the three-ring binder labeled 2020.   This is the 17th year I have undertaken this process of recording my life in an organized way; these piles of words remember more than I do.    Virginia Woolf said, once, that she wrote her diary for her 50-year-old self to read (she was in her thirties when she said this).  Why does a 70-year-old keep a diary? (I bet you know the answer to this – if not read my blog on the subject here.)   And when is it time to stop writing and just to review and reflect?

December 31st  is also time to put away my books of morning readings – this year it was readings from C.S. Lewis and the third volume of a set of daily poems that I cycle through on a triennial basis. It is a time to start clearing away Christmas decorations and throwing out old calendars. 

And, as we clear away the old, are we getting ready for that final clearing away?  Does the end of a year make us consider that – perhaps – the new year might be our last?  Out with the old, in with the new?  Old man time being replaced by baby new year?  The old year being shuffled into drawers, shut into binders,  or collected in folders for our tax returns?  I have made no resolutions for the New Year.  I am not as pessimistic as Carolyn Heilbrun or Ezekiel Emanuel, but I did watch my mother’s life disintegrate into a malicious form of dementia in the end.  There should be some middle ground to this business of fading out, of becoming someone we don’t recognize mentally or physically.  I have no answers, but am open to alternatives.  And, in truth, I look forward to this new year.  Especially, to this new year.

 

Huxley’s Last Utopia – Island

Sometimes, the books of an author’s old age comment on or continue the work of their younger years.   Almost everyone knows how Aldous Huxley thought the world might go wrong from his 1932 Brave New World; less often read is his description of a (doomed) utopian society in Island, published thirty years later and not long before he died.  Huxley describes for us a peaceable kingdom on the island of Pala, which is about to be upended by contact with and exploitation by the outside world.  Unlike Hesse, Huxley is not writing an individual’s life, but, rather, the life of a culture from its beginning to its apparent imminent demise.  And we get Huxley’s vision of how life might be lived in a society which was supportive rather than exploitive.

Huxley was heavily influenced by Buddhism, and his island culture spun out of Buddhist beginnings to a place where mynah birds are trained to call out “Attention” to get listeners to pay heed to the present moment.  Sex is open even to children; this makes for uncomfortable reading today as adults on Pala sometimes “teach” young people the finer points of physical love.  There is a large extended family structure, allowing children to move between households.  Huxley was obviously influenced by Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa on both these traitsBut the main emphasis in Pala is on cultivating mental health.  My favorite scenes involve teaching children the tricks of mind control.  They are, for instance, told to imagine different animals or people, to multiply them in their mind, and then wipe them away in an exercise to show the youngsters how they can control their own minds and not be victim to random and hurtful thoughts.  We could all use that lesson.

Drugs are presumably bad in Brave New World (soma makes you feel good, but it also controls you).  By the time we get to Island, drugs are put to better use, with all young people going to through a rite of passage that includes the use of a mescaline-type substance (called moksha) that makes them cognizant of their place in the universe.   Long passages relating drug experiences could and should have been edited out of this otherwise interesting book.  Other people’s drunken or drugged adventures are seldom interesting.

The thinking process that got Huxley to Island can be traced through his non-fiction.  Thirteen years after Brave New World, he wrote the brilliant Perennial Philosophy, where he tried to pull together the convergent ideas of many of the world’s religions (called the “ultimate anthology” by the New York Times).  It might have served as a Bible to the residents of Pala.  In 1954, he wrote the less brilliant Doors of Perception, which encouraged the use of mescaline for enlightenment.  Huxley himself asked his wife to inject him with LSD on his deathbed  in 1963.  (Sidenote: President Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis all died on the same day, meaning the latter two got very little press upon their demise.)  Huxley apparently never gave up the idea that chemical assistance was a part of the life well lived.

Huxley’s Pala is doomed, however.  There is oil on the island and the capitalists are at the door.  The people are peaceable and have no weapons, no standing army.  They are going to lose control.  So, while this is the picture of a utopia it clearly reminds us that the real world is anything but.

Here’s the thing though – the people know it is coming and they are rational enough to know they probably can’t stop it.  Their training, however, makes them sure that they will cope (“even in the worst society an individual retains a little freedom”), and, as the tanks roll in, the last thing we hear is a mynah bird telling us to pay attention.   At this point, the reader is at once deeply sad for the lost utopian vision, but heartened by the realization that, perhaps, all utopias are in the heart and the way in which we relate to the world. 

And Huxley gives us other words of truth here.  “Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence – those are the three pillars of Western prosperity.”  As I read this, I could not help but think that “planned obsolescence” applied not just to appliances and cars, but to the planet that nurtures us.

Novels of old age do not usually offer happy endings, nor do they conclude that the human race is perfectible – or even good (think of Melville’s The Confidence Man).  Old people know these things.  I would not trust an old person who hadn’t realized that the Eden of childhood was not recoverable.  The question is how to live within the world as we find it.  Not to say we shouldn’t try to improve it, but denial is the worst kind of soma.    

Last Novels – Hesse’s Glass Bead Game

I will go back to last poems at some point, but let’s talk about a few “last” novels over the next few weeks.  There is even a list out there of “best” last novels.  Many of the novels I will talk about here are on the list, but there are also some omissions (Mann’s Dr. Faustus for one).

First, let’s admit that a writer’s last work is not always their best.  One might think of Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, which is surely not up to her standard.  But great authors who have lived to old age have had a long time to hone their craft and to think about what they want to say.  And that can make for very interesting reading.

I have been re-reading Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game,  and – as many times as I have read it – it always and inspires.  Glass Bead Game was Hesse’s last book and probably his best.  It earned him a Nobel Prize and the acclaim of his peers.   Last novels have various forms, but many are “lives” of fictional characters which allow the older writer to survey the whole of life.  Hesse follows the life of his main character, Joseph Knecht, through childhood to his ascendency to Master of the Glass Bead Game and on to the end of his life. 

Hesse was writing in Switzerland in the late thirties and early forties; he seems barely aware of radio and other media.  The novel takes place in the 23rd century, in a world that collapsed in the twenty-first century after an era of continuous warfare and cultural breakdown.  Even though Hesse did not envision anything like computers and the internet, he blames the collapse on a shallow culture of distraction and a culture of “untrammeled individualism.”  More freedom “than they could stand” led to the Age of Feuilleton – the latter word meaning the section of a European newspaper devoted to light entertainment – stories about celebrities, “a major source of mental pabulum for the reader.” Sound familiar?  The newspapers also provided games for distraction.  “These games sprang from their deep need to close their eyes and flee from unsolved problems….”   Freedom was the watchword, but loss of religion led to a   “passionate search for a means to confer legitimacy on this freedom.”   We want to do what we want, but we want to be sure we are doing the right and approved thing.  A paradox to be sure.  Civilization was saved by an elite group of scholars who formed a sort of monastic/academic order from which they rescued the educational system and reworked the culture to give it a sense of discipline and purpose.  Hesse’s main character rises in this fascinating structure, but, in the end, realizes its limitations.

One of the things that is intriguing about the education of the elite in Castalia, Hesse’s world of learned renunciates, is students and teachers are encouraged to write a certain kind of life review periodically – however, they are encouraged to set the review of their life in another historical period.  Hesse has appended three of these life reviews – purported to have been written by his protagonist – at the end of The Glass Bead Game,  and any or all of them are worth your time if you do not want to tackle the whole novel.  I haven’t exactly tried this kind of life review yet, but it would make for an interesting exercise for those of us who think things out through the written word.

And on the topic of writing, there is this description of the kind of writing that the older Joseph Knecht tells a younger character he is going to undertake once he escapes from Castalia and his duties as Master of the Glass Bead Game.  He describes such work as a “booklet, a little thing for friends and those who share my views”:

…the subject would not matter.  It would only be a pretext for me to seclude myself and enjoy the happiness of having a great deal of leisure.  The tone would be what mattered to me, a proper mean between the solemn and the intimate, earnestness and jest, a tone not of instruction, but of friendly communication and discourse on various things I think I have learned… I imagine, I might very well experience the joys of authorship, of the sort I foresee: an easygoing, but careful examination of things not just for my solitary pleasure, but always with a few good friends and readers in mind.  

This description from a fictional retiree (of sorts) aligns pretty well with the reasons I write this blog.  My blog is always offered as a kind of “friendly communication and discourse.”  And it is also a “pretext for seclusion” – not that we need any pretexts these days!

I will look at some other last novels over the next few weeks.  Please feel free to let me know what your favorites are.  If you are interested in Hermann Hesse (who had much to say about old age), you might refer to my earlier blog posts: Becoming and De-Becoming and Yes and Hesse and Old Age.