Covid-19 and the Generational Wars

There has always been a generational divide. In our hippie days, we called it a generation gap, but it was more than that. We didn’t trust anyone over thirty. As our baby boomer generation came into adulthood, moved into jobs, then into better jobs, and finally into collecting pensions, social security, and artificial hips, our children and our children’s children started to worry about who was going to pay for all this. These economic fears were on top of the more individual problems of who was going to go stay with Mom when she had her cataract surgery and how to get Dad’s driver’s license away from him.

In some ways, this is nothing new. When Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, he included the incident of the Struldbruggs, a select group of people who would never die. Their culture did not see them as a source of wisdom, but rather as an economic problem. Their society finally decided to declare them “dead” at the age of eighty, allowing heirs to inherit, taking away their right to vote, and leaving them alone to age while the world went on without them. This just as longevity was starting to increase in the Early Modern world. The younger generations first saw the “baby boomers” hold on to the limited upper-level managerial and professional positions. Then they realized that the retirement of the older generation (us) will be funded by the younger (through the Social Security system, Medicare, and other ways). The economic gerontophobia (yes, there is a word for it!) that Swift outlines is alive and well.

Then, as now, the elderly represent at least three threats. There is the threat that the old will not relinquish control and that their inability to keep pace with change and to release capital will impede progress. Then there is the seemingly contradictory threat that they will have to be supported (both economically and emotionally) in their old age. And finally the very presence of the aged is a memento mori, a threatening reminder of decay and mortality in a culture which does not want to think about these things. This unease is fueled by endemic expectations of scientifically produced and ever-increasing longevity, and juxtaposed with the hopes of the youth that technology will mean that they might, themselves, live long but never get old.

And now we have Covid-19, which is more of a threat to the old, but less of an inconvenience (we mostly don’t have jobs anyway and everyone knows we don’t go out much), and less of a threat to the young and more of an inconvenience (who mostly do have jobs, and may have young children in the house, or could still be looking for partners). I know the young can get Covid-19 and suffer greatly from it, but in Italy 95% of the deaths have been in those over 60 and 84% in those over 70. In the United States, 78% of the deaths have been in those over 65 and 92% in those over 55. Those are alarming statistics for the old, but perhaps empowering for the young.

When these younger folks were our children (or grandchildren), we gave them curfews and told them they couldn’t go to Florida on spring break. Quarantine rules must feel like déjà vu to some of them. How does this all play out? And back to our youthful distrust of anyone over 30. Are we reaping what we have sown?

I wrote an earlier post about whether the old could teach the young anything “(Teach Your Children Well?”), or whether everything had to be learned anew with every generation. Still a good question. In old England, even before Swift’s time, there was an instructional story of a man who made the decrepit old grandfather eat from a trough. One of the young children in the family starts building something, and the father asks what it is. “It’s a box for you to eat out of for when you are old like grandfather,” says the observant child. Thereafter, the old grandfather is treated better. But I am not sure that young people really believe that they are going to get old. Maybe, like our own death, it is too hard to believe. Or maybe we have all gotten too used to thinking in the short term.

Over a decade ago I wrote a novel, The Last Quartet (nod to Beethoven), about a situation that is the exact opposite of what we are facing. In a horrible epidemic, it is the old who survive and have to carry on with the world. I have posted the “Prelude” to this novel here. It is a thought experiment which might be of interest at the moment.

To start thinking about how our view of the aged has changed in the modern world, you might look at the abstract of a dissertation I wrote about the changes that started about the time that Swift invented the poor Struldbruggs.

 

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.

The Mirror of Age

There is a footnote in Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” which all of us can identify with:

I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jerk of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a traveling cap came in. I assumed that he had been about to leave the washing-cabinet which divides the two compartments, and had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass of the open door. I can still recollect that I thoroughly disliked his appearance.

First, we must remember that Freud has defined “uncanny” as the “mixture of the familiar and the eerie.” And, in this case, it was his own image as an “elderly gentleman” that was uncanny. And so, perhaps, it is with old age. The face is familiar but the transformation can sometimes be…eerie. I think part of it is because when we look at our own faces in the mirror or at the faces we love, we see a vision anchored to the past. It is only when we unexpectedly identify ourselves as a stranger that we can see what we really look like to others.

The old face in the mirror is a familiar motif –we see it in poetry. In both Robert Graves’ “Face in the Mirror” and Thomas Hardy’s “I Look into My Glass,” the poet contrasts the visage he sees with how he feels inside. Graves is puzzled:

I pause with razor poised, scowling derision
At the mirrored man whose beard needs my attention,
And once more ask him why
He still stands ready, with a boy’s presumption,
To court the queen in her high silk pavilion.

Hardy is more outraged as he views his “wasting skin” and wishes his heart would also waste away:

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

For babies, the “mirror stage” starts a process of physical identity. For the aging person, the mirror may serve as an agent of disintegration rather than integration; a secure sense of the physical self developed when young – and as young – is displaced by the changing body in the mirror: “The I or ego which is developed in the mirror stage of infancy is structured precisely to resist the anxiety of bodily fragmentation. In old age, with one’s position reversed before the mirror, the ego finds it more difficult to maintain its defenses” (Woodward, Aging and Its Discontents). Fragmentation rather than integration – no wonder we are disoriented.

Still, we have wonderful self-portraits of artists like Rembrandt in their old age. A triumph of the spirit looks out of Rembrandt’s wrinkled eyes. I have lasted, Rembrandt seems to say, despite and because of this old, battered body. We know Rembrandt used a mirror for his many self-portraits. Clearly he came to terms with what he saw. Such self-examination is not easy, but I think it would be a worthwhile exercise.

The old, deaf, and presumed mad (I’m not so sure) Jonathan Swift, upon being led across a room in his dotage, caught sight of himself in a mirror and cried out “O poor old man.” And so cry we all. But, near the very end, Swift was found rocking himself and muttering “I am what I am, I am what I am.” There is a truth in the mirror. We can deny it, but it is part of who we are and it cannot be rejected anymore than can the self/soul that peers out of the reflected eyes.