Turning Things Upside Down in Old Age

Young people look forward – forward to the day when they can carry a cell phone, drive, leave home, marry, have children. There is a long and hopeful future ahead of them. On the other hand (according to Victor Hugo), elders live in “a cottage with a balcony on the edge of the abyss.”

Old peoples’ future is not nearly so long as their past, so they tend to look backwards – a reversal that happens sometime in our late sixties (in my opinion). Events, creeping mortality, and the mirror all jostle our perspective until it… flips. From that point, it appears that we are looking at the world from a different angle than other, younger people. One is reminded of Lewis Carroll’s poem:

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”

Old people may be forever standing on their heads. This is not such a bad thing. G.K. Chesterton talks about the value of seeing the world upside down (literally):

If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging…. But the point is this: that whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its [the town of Assisi’s] walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and in peril. It is but a symbol; but it happens to fit the psychological fact.

Needless to say, the turning of the world upside down more or less voids the idea of progress. I have talked about progress elsewhere, but it is worth noting again that after the midpoint of life (the peak of Dante’s parabola), the human body is not progressing; the modern aging person lives with the myth of progress while living… the opposite.
But there is hope. Dante describes an upside down world in his Inferno – one goes down only to come out on the other side:

You were there as long as I climbed downward.
When I turned myself round you passed the point
To which all weight on every side pulls down.

And now you come under the hemisphere
Opposite that which domes the vast dry land:
There, beneath its pinnacle of sky… (Canto XXXIV)

Dante and Virgil, of course, emerge in Purgatory, which is not yet heaven (but is far nicer than hell). Remember when you were very young and thought you could dig a hole to China? If you could have done so, you would have tunneled down to the center of the earth and then started going… up. There are also the mythological upside-down trees of the Bhagavad Gita and Norse sagas.

This ability to look back is a blessing of old age. In Mrs. Dalloway, we find this passage:

The compensation of growing old…was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained – at last! – the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.

And in All Passion Spent, Lady Slane calls “looking back on the girl she had once been” as the “last, supreme luxury…. She could lie back against death and examine life.” Old age has its benefits.

And where do we old people come out in our upside-down world? Hopefully, with a new perspective. I love to hike and I have often noted that when going the opposite way I usually travel on a loop, it almost seems like a different path! In retrospect, we may see events in our lives from the standpoint of how they came out rather than what the intention was. We are more likely to forgive mistakes (our own and others – for who could bear the past without forgiveness?) and learn the lessons we missed in our initial shame and regret. From this new standpoint, we also realize that what we thought was good fortune was often disaster in disguise. All this makes us less sure that we know all the answers, but perhaps more sure about what the important questions are. Maybe we are on Hugo’s porch hanging over the abyss, but – nevertheless – we are enjoying the long view down.

And it is just not our personal story; we have lived long enough to see changes in our world. Our generation has seen technology emerge around us and then submerge us all. We have seen what is commonly called progress, but, in retrospect, we are not entirely sure how progress should be defined.

This week’s story, “Two New Apps,” is about technology and love and truth. Enjoy.

 

Lists: Reading About Old Age

Over the next few weeks, I am going to post some lists of books, articles, poems, and other works about old age that I have found helpful (and fascinating) in trying to comprehend old age. I am interested in understanding both the evolution of how we regard old age and the variety of individual stances regarding senescence. I compiled these lists (sometimes with assistance) for a variety of purposes: research for my dissertation on aspects of the literature of old age (which particularly explored changes engendered by the Western Enlightenment project), reading lists for Great Books and senior groups, reminders of works I would like to read or re-read. There are texts that I have discovered and loved which have old people as predominant characters, and works that were written by fairly old people. There is a mixture of genre in these lists: fiction and non-fiction, classics and science fiction, plays, poems, and essays. I even include some works of art and musical compositions – think of Beethoven’s late quartets!

There are, of course, some good anthologies of works about old age. There is, for example, Helen Nearing’s Light on Aging and Dying. If you are of my generation and remember fondly Helen and Scott Nearing’s book on Living the Good Life, you might also enjoy her book about Scott’s death, Loving and Leaving the Good Life. Wayne Booth compiled a wonderful anthology with commentary entitled The Art of Growing Older: Writers on Living and Aging. Harold Bloom gathered his favorite “last poems” in 2010, in a rich volume entitled Till I End My Song. Bloom’s musings are almost as good as the poems. And there is the wonderful Helen Luke’s meditations on literature and late life in Old Age: Journey into Simplicity. But these compendiums are only a start.

I also seek out works by older authors. I have been very young, but I have never been very old (getting there fast). I want to know what those ahead of us have to tell. For example, I just finished (and would highly recommend) Amos Oz’s Judas, which he wrote in his mid-seventies and wherein one of the principal characters is also of that age. I will put together such a list of books by old authors about… living while old.

I have my favorites – most of which I have noted here before. There is Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, about the old gentlewoman (Lady Slane), whom I would like to be in my extreme old age. There are the poems of the old ages of Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Thomas Hardy. There are the journal entries of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s old age. We need not go through it alone.

I am posting today the extensive bibliography for the dissertation I finished a number of years ago, which was entitled “Foreigners in Their Own Country”: The Struldbruggs and the Changing Language of Aging in Swift’s World. It is an interesting list because it spans the history of Western literature on aging, up to and including the era of Jonathan Swift. If you have not read (or do not remember) the Struldbrugg section of Gulliver’s Travels, please go back and find it! (It’s in Book 3.) If you read Gulliver when you were young, you probably will react a little differently now to this episode about the extremely old. On this list I would especially recommend the works from the Greek and Roman world and the late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance. Of particular note would be Cicero’s “On Old Age,” Langland’s Piers Plowman, Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale,” and Gower’s Confessio Amantis. For a look at some of the earliest books on living a long life, one could take a peek at Cornaro’s Art of Living Long or Cheynes, Essay of Health and Long Life. Luigi Cornaro died at the age of 100 in the sixteenth century; Cheyne was a physician in the early eighteenth century with an eager audience for advice on longevity.

I have also posted the abstract from my dissertation so you can see the territory I was exploring. When I researched and wrote it, I became convinced that the Enlightenment and western faith in science changed the way we look at the cycles of life; I have not significantly altered my opinion. (More on that later.) And I closely reviewed much material at that time. And yet, as I grow older, there is still much that surprises me about senescence, both individually and culturally. These lists are just a way to put material out there for others exploring this new (old) territory. Next time, I will post some lists for book groups (for seniors and potential seniors) and talk about my experience in that regard.