Vollendungsroman

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.

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.