Old age is not a topic that people are clamoring to talk about. Even old (or almost old) people. I know. For years, I was on the Board of the Summer Great Books Institute (highly recommended) which takes place at Colby College every summer, and for years I tried pushing a reading list (six works in six days on a common topic) about old age. No one was interested, even though the average age of our attendees was creeping well beyond sixty. The subject was thought to be too depressing. Too morbid. Finally, in 2013 my colleagues agreed to a week in the literature of aging just to shut me up. The list for that year included the following works: Simone de Beauvoir’s Coming of Age (La Vieillesse) (discussed over two days), Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, Cather’s The Professor’s House, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
In the end it was a great week. People were far from uniform about their ways of thinking about aging. For example, there was the “Do no go gently” crowd and then there was the calm acceptance contingent; there was the “young as you feel” group and the ones who thought they felt far better old than they ever had young. And so on. The discussion was great. And – as in many Great Books discussions which adhere to the original guidelines – we were able to communicate on topics that are hard to approach when not triangulated around a text.
Later when asked by the college where I worked to put together a brief seminar for our elder program, I proposed short readings about… aging. The coordinator of the program didn’t think that people would be interested. They wanted to do something “fun.” Graphic novels about teenage angst perhaps? I stuck to my guns and had a lively session that was repeated several times with different groups of elders. A sample syllabus is here; it included shorter works about the old, by the old, and about aging. Poems are great for this kind of discussion and perhaps I will include a list of poems about aging in my next post.
For the past century or so, one of the most popular genres has been the “coming-of-age” novel – from Huckleberry Finn to Catcher in the Rye to Black Swan Green (boy versions). For girls, we had Jane Eyre, Little Women, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t know about you, but I read these books as a young person not just because I could identify with the protagonist, but because I was looking for a road map – a guide for the perplexed young woman, so to speak. Not that it kept me from making the same mistakes (and more), but I was headed to territory I wanted to understand. Isn’t the same true of old age?
We have long had the term Bildungsroman to denote a coming-of-age story. Interestingly, the German words translate as “education” (bildung) “novel” (roman). As I said, a road map, a positive experience. It wasn’t until 1992 that scholars coined the term Vollendungsroman to denote a work about the “winding down of life.” Vollendung means “completion” or “accomplishment.” It would seem that the old – unlike the young – aren’t getting an education; they are getting a certificate of completion. Ah, but at least the genre has a critical category, perhaps because it also has a potentially large market in aging baby boomers.
We talk to others about age, but often flippantly. “You’re only as old as you feel!” Well, yes, sometimes I feel young, but sometimes I feel ancient; I feel that death is leaving messages in my voice mail, sending me ominous texts, battering my bones and teeth. I want to read someone who has been through this, thought about it, imagined how it might be handled by someone. Then I read Gideon or Crossing to Safety or A Spool of Blue Thread or, of course, All Passion Spent.
Erik Erikson has been quoted as saying that “the task of the final stage of life is the psychic battle between integration and despair.” A recent article about novels on old age stated that “Watching authors fight the battle through the stories they write, only to emerge victorious on the other side, is one of the great gifts provided by late-life novels.” Somewhat true, but victorious is not the word I would use. The ending usually involves loss, decay, death and, hopefully, reconciliation and acceptance. Not victory.
We assume that coming-of-age novels have a happy ending, but they usually end on the plateau of young adulthood. Even with a wedding thrown in and the inference of a happy-ever-after, we know better. Marriages fall apart, careers implode, friends often disappear. And so it is with old age. Along with the wrinkles and the palsy, we need to accept the ending. For that reason, I am heartened to see that the Fall Great Books Institute which meets in the Poconos (also highly recommended) will talk about death this year. They are reading Joyce’s “The Dead,” Gogol’s Dead Souls, Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and some poetry selections, including Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”
You might have noticed that I often write about old age in my fiction. This week, I offer you my story, “A Perfect Ending.” Not that there is any such thing as a perfect ending. But we can be perfectly sure that there will be an ending.