Emerson and the Boundaries of Old Age

In rating influencers of American attitudes and culture, Ralph Waldo Emerson would come near the top of anyone’s list.  That is why it is productive to look at his evolving attitudes toward aging and what it says (and taught others) in the formative years of this country.  Emerson had a relatively long life for the 19th century; he reached the age of 79.    For most of his life he wrote prolifically, lectured, kept journals and wrote volumes of letters.  Yet his last decade was clouded by his gradual loss of memory and, finally, speech.  In Emerson, as in Jonathan Swift, we have a figure who lived long and thought about what old age meant.  Like Swift, he also had a difficult old age.

Swift, who made resolutions when he was young about how he would not behave when he got old, broke all his own rules.  In his youth, Emerson was sad for the very old who were in the papers for nothing more than being a year older.  “We do not count a man’s age until he has nothing left to count.”  In his essay “Circles,” Emerson wrote: “Nature abhors the old, and old age seems the only disease; all others run into this one.”  And he resents the attitudes of his elders: “But the man and woman of seventy assume to know all, they have outlived their hope, they renounce aspiration, accept the actual for the necessary, and talk down to the young.”  Somehow, he thinks we should be able to resist this: “Old age ought not to creep on a human mind.”  Emerson seems to give little force to the inevitable decay of the body; we must keep our minds young, even though “the surest poison is time.” Emerson knew some admirable old men and he thought they had their place, but old age requires, according to the younger Emerson, “fit surroundings.  Age is comely in coaches, in churches, in chairs of state and ceremony, in council-chambers, in courts of justice, and historical societies.” But not on Broadway or in the mainstream of society: “The creed of the street is, Old Age is not disgraceful, but immensely disadvantageous.”  And perhaps it some ways it is.

Emerson took a kinder view of old age as he got into his fifties (don’t we all), but both Emerson and Swift suffered from an early aversion to growing older, which seemed to only make the process harder when they finally approached senescence.

As Emerson aged, he did mellow to the gifts of age.  They are gentler gifts than those delineated by T. S. Eliot.  First, there is the gift of relief that life has been (more or less) successfully weathered. “It were strange if a man should turn his sixtieth year without a feeling of immense relief from the number of dangers he has escaped.”   Second, ambition evaporates.  Emerson no longer frets about how he will be received, whether a project is a success or a failure.  Third, we do not have things hanging over our heads – we have had the career, the family, the house, the friends.  For good or bad, those days are past us.  “The ferment of earlier days has subsided into serenity of thought and behavior.”  And the fourth and last benefit is a chance to “set its [old age’s] house in order, finish its works, which to every artist is a supreme pleasure.”   Emerson in his late fifties has a warmer view of old age than young Emerson.  But he is also mostly done writing the powerful essays that made him great, that we still read today.

Emerson wrote “Terminus,” one of the great poems about old age when he was 64.  Terminus was the Roman god of boundaries, and Emerson sees old age as a time for boundaries:

Make thy option which of two;

Economize the failing river,

Not the less revere the Giver,

Leave the many and hold the few.

We don’t want to hear about limitations though, do we?  No boundaries for us boomers.  No acceptance of, as Robert Frost terms it, “a diminished thing.”  Many of us suffer from believing that all is possible in a time of life when that is not the truth.  In fact, it was never the truth; old age just hits us over the head with it.

The very old Emerson does note some compensations.  As he lost his memory, he posits that “increased power and means of generalization” partially makes up for the inability to remember a word or a name or a citation.  Emerson is glad to lose his sensitivity to what people think: “One capital advantage of old age is the absolute insignificance of a success more or less.  I went to town and read a lecture yesterday.  Thirty years ago it had really been a matter of importance to me whether it was good and effective.   Now it is of none in relation to me.” 

Emerson finally says of the aches and pains of old age that they come with the comfort that we will soon be out of them.  “Old age bring along with its uglinesses the comfort that you will soon be out of it, – which ought to be a substantial relief to such discontented pendulums are we are.” Yet, Emerson still feared death.  One of the last poems Emerson wrote follows Frost and Keats in asking stars for lessons in endurance and stability. 

Teach me your mood, O patient stars!
Who climb each night the ancient sky,
Leaving on space no shade, no scars,
No trace of age, no fear to die.

Emerson did write one piece about old age for The Atlantic when he was in his late fifties.  But a better way to see how his attitude modulated over time is to look at his journals (where most of my quotes come from), which Emerson kept from his teen years until a few years before he died.  The last notation in the copy I have is that the day is Thomas Carlyle’s 80th birthday.  Emerson may have been wondering if he would make it to 80, but we cannot know if he were hoping he would or  wishing he would not.  He did not.  He died at 79. 


Addie LaRue, Faust, and Old Age

I have been fascinated (but not surprised) to see a Faustian novel on the best-seller list for the past six months.  The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a Faust tale with a twist, and quite enjoyable reading.  There are actually two deals with the devil in this book.  Addie, the main character, has made a pact with Mephistopheles (here nicknamed Luc) which includes both a kind of immortality and eternal youth.  The problem is that she has asked for time and freedom.  No obligations.  Luc fixes this for her by making sure that no one remembers her from one encounter to the next.  It makes robbery easy, but relationships hard.  Henry, the love interest, has made his own deal with the devil based on his desire “to be loved.”  So, everyone he meets loves Henry, but it is clear that they do not love him with discrimination or of their own volition. They love him because a spell has been cast.  There is an especially funny scene in which Henry has a reunion with his dysfunctional family of origin where he has always been a black sheep, but now is the clear favorite of all.  Nevertheless, both deals are very unsatisfactory after theinitial euphoria.  Be careful what you ask for.  Or as Truman Capote reminded us, when the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers.

Since the original German chapbook about Dr. Faustus in the 16th century (based on even earlier legends), there have been numerous versions of the Faust story.  Goethe and Marlowe wrote theirs in the form of plays.  Thomas Mann wrote a good one (Dr. Faustus) and his son wrote one too (Mephisto – but if you’re going to read one, read the father’s and pity the son).  Washington Irving and Stephen Vincent Benet wrote famous versions. It was done time and again in music too.  Bohemian Rhapsody is thought to be based on a Faust story, as is music written by Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner.  There was at least one successful Broadway musical on the topic (Damn Yankees), and even an episode of The Simpsons (“Bart Sells His Soul”).

The Faust story fascinates us.  Maybe this is because we have all sold our souls for one thing or another – individually and collectively.  Spengler posited that Faust was the core myth of our culture: “Western man sold his soul for technology.”  Take your nose out of your cell phone and think about this.   While not all technology is bad, most technology has some bad consequences, and all technology can be used for evil purposes.  Progress does not necessarily lead to paradise.

But I am especially interested when poor souls make a pact for eternal youth and longevity.  This, for example, is the basis for Gounod’s opera, Faust, where the title character seems to want youth more than anything.   I thought of this recently as I read an article entitled “Is Life Extension Today A Faustian Bargain?”  The author (S. Jay Olshansky) is concerned that while the “longevity revolution” increased life-span by 30 years over the last century or so, we are now trading small increments in life-span for large increases in chronic illnesses:

But Mephistopheles isn’t done with us.  Like the street magician that lets you win the first game, and then sucks you into a bigger con with larger stakes, or a drug dealer that gets you hooked with free samples, the next much costlier offer is before us now.  We’ve had our taste of longevity, and now we want more – much more at any cost, and Mephistopheles knows this.

We know this.  We also know that the chances of dementia after a certain age balloon upward, and as we watch our diets and take our statins, we have to worry about whether we are just preserving our bodies for a longer stay in the memory care facility.  As with most technology, we tend not to think of the negative ramifications.  In the article referenced above, Dr. Olshansky suggests that we might concentrate our research more on having a better old age than having a simply longer one.  I think we also have to think about what a “better” old age means – does it simply mean retaining our youth or is it something different?  What would a “better” old age mean to you?  Mary Oliver asks, “When men sell their souls, where do the souls go?”  Old age might be a good time to get them back.

Faust fascinates me.  Life is like Borges’ “Garden of the Forking Paths;”  every time we choose one experience over another, we are bartering away our future – for good or bad.  Faust’s experience with Mephistopheles is one metaphor for this.  A more benign one might be Robert Frost’s “two roads diverg[ing] in a wood.”

I have written on this topic before (“Notes on Faust”) and written a novel (unpublished) with a Faust theme, the Prologue of which can be accessed here.  I have also posted a portion of Chapter 5 of that book (A Kind of Joy) wherein Pauline (an agent of the Mephistopheles figure) works out her deal with Faye, a young mother and novelist.

Meanwhile I encourage you to think about the bargains you have made, and what a good old age should look like.

Does Life Have a Plot?

The title of this blog – “When I Come to Be Old” – comes from a list of resolutions that Jonathan Swift compiled as a young man about how he would behave in his old age. It is a litany of the things he finds annoying about the older people around him and includes the reminder not to “tell the same story over and over.”  We old people tend to tell stories to others and to ourselves.  We are trying to make sense of our lives.  Boring those around us with repetitive stories is definitely to be avoided, but is trying to make stories out of our lives a good thing or a bad thing?

We want to make sense of things.  We want to believe that things happen for a reason.  Whole religions are built out of this.  When we wonder why “the wicked prosper,” Christianity moves the end of the story to eternal life.  Buddhism and Hinduism and other religions of karma and reincarnation assure us that it all works itself out over many lifetimes. Whether we believe this or not, however, we want things to make sense now.  We want to be able to read the stories of our lives to a satisfying conclusion.  So we make the past into a story.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea.  The philosopher Galen Strawson thinks that our culture encourages people to construct continuous narratives of their lives over time, while life might be better understood as “episodic.”  Things happen and then other things happen.  Lives do not necessarily make sense.  Freud gave us the idea that everything was rooted in our childhoods; if we could just follow the thread we would understand.  Maybe.  But there are random events like illnesses and weather and which roommate you were paired with as a college freshman.

In Swift’s time, it was common to talk about life in seven years segments.  Swift’s mentor, Sir William Temple (one of the old men Swift is talking about in his resolutions no doubt), wrote that “mind and his thoughts change every seven years, as well as his strength and his features.”  The seventh year (7,14, 21…63, 70) was seen as “climacterical” and having significance as a turning point.  (Climacteric is now a term we use synonymously with menopause, but that is just one kind of change.)  This theory assumes definite differences between your old self and your new self.  And surely, none of us can understand all of the decisions we made forty or fifty years ago.  And yet we try to connect the dots.

But life is not entirely in our control (another lesson we might not learn until old age), and bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason – and vice versa. The Bible contains the most significant story of a man whose life does not make sense – Job.  The last chapter of the Book of Job (where he gets new riches and new children) is thought to have been tacked on at some later date to make us all feel better.  Mostly it makes us wonder, does God really think children are replaceable?

We want it all to make sense.  In some cases it seems to for a while.  People who work hard do well – but not always.  Good parents have good children – but not always.  Love begets love – but not always. As we get old and look back on our lives – what holds it all together?  What part of my eight-year-old self endures (besides some unreliable memories)?

Autobiographies written in old age reinforce the cause-and-effect route.  Benjamin Franklin wants to convince you that he plotted out his life and developed his character according to a set of guidelines which he developed as a young man and is hoping to pass along to his poor son.  On the other hand, Penelope Lively entitles her memoir Making It Up, and by following the forking threads of decisions she made and things that happened to her, makes it clear that it could have gone another way.

Galen Strawson thinks the human population is divided into diachronics (those who see life as a continuous narrative) and episodics (those who remember events but do not forge a link). He intimates that the latter have an easier time seeing each day as a new beginning.  One might think of the Greek differentiation of time as chronos (linear calendar/clock time) or kairos (special experiences outside of time). Old age is a time for episodic reminiscing, which is often followed by an attempt to make sense of the episodic sequence.  Maybe this is a fool’s errand.  Surely it is beyond our ability.  Among the questions the Buddha said were “inconceivables” and should be “put aside” were questions as to how karma worked. 

So, when you sit down to write those memoirs or family histories, please consider that your life is not a novel.  You do not need to find a plot (or to invent one).  A number of my short stories are about people who read the wrong narrative into things (try “The More Loving One”).  But maybe reading any narrative into things should only be done provisionally.

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.