Lost Horizon and the Purpose of (Extreme) Old Age

 

Most of you have probably read James Hilton’s Lost Horizon at some point in your life.  A good read if there ever was one.  As you might remember, it involves the hidden land of Shangri-La (which is where we get this word from), deep in the mountains of Tibet.  Four unwitting passengers crash land in a small plane near the lamasery, and we are told the story by someone who met up with one of those passengers years later.  The narration style is much like that of Heart of Darkness, but the story is even stranger.

The lamas at the monastery oversee a “happy valley” which is protected enough from the winds and weather for abundant farming and living in the kind of moderation believed in by the lamas, one of whom explains to their visitors: 

If I were to put it into a very few words, my dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation.  We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all lands – even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself….We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience.  And I think we can claim that our people are moderately chaste, and moderately honest. (50)

The lamas themselves have less moderation and more discipline and have learned how to age to wondrous numbers of years, living for centuries (but they are not immortal).  As the head lama tries to entice Conway, the main character, to stay and undertake their way of life, Conway  questions the purpose of such a long life:

…your sketch of the future interests me only in an abstract sense.  I can’t look so far ahead.  I should certainly be sorry if I had to leave Shangri-La tomorrow or next week, or perhaps even next year; but how I shall feel about it if I live to be a hundred isn’t a matter to prophesy.  I can face it, like any other future, but in order to make me keen it must have a point.  I’ve sometimes doubted whether life itself has any; and if not, long life must be even more pointless.(108)

And then the old lama tries to answer him:

There is a reason, and a very definite one indeed.  It is the whole reason for this colony of chance-sought strangers living beyond their years.  We do not follow an idle experiment, a mere whimsy.  We have a dream and a vision… it seemed to him [the founder] that  all the loveliest things were transient and perishable, and that war, lust, and brutality might someday crush them until there were no more left in the world…he saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy; he saw their machine power multiplying until a single-weaponed man might have matched a whole army…. when they had filled the land and sea with ruin, they would take to the air…. Can you say that his vision was untrue? (109)

And then he goes on to envisage how Shangri-La will be left, hoped to be spared, when civilization destroyed itself:

We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect.  Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegances of a dying age, and seek such wisdom as men will need when their passions are all spent.  We have a heritage to cherish and bequeath.  Let us take what pleasure we may until that day comes… when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth.   (110)

I post these long quotes because they raise questions that interest me.  What is the point of extreme old age and what would we be willing to sacrifice to get it? In any case, I think it is worthwhile to think about why we are watching our diets, slogging to the gym, taking statins, replacing joints.  To live longer, yes.  Out of fear of dying, of course.  But what are we doing with all those additional years?  Are we like the inhabitants of Shangri-La, just trying to preserve a way of living?

And is there any purpose in trying to preserve a way of life that is not just fading, but disappearing at a rapid rate?  The lama sees a hope that as civilization destroys itself, Shangri-La will preserve the “elegances of a dying age.”  Is that the purpose for extreme old age?  I do enjoy “the elegances of a dying age.”  Some I can hang onto – old books and movies, classical music, setting a nice table for dinner.  Some I have no choice but to watch dissolve around me.  For example, rampant development has made it very hard for me to go back to some of the scenes of my youth.  And I have long since given up on any hope that these “elegances” will be passed down to the next generation – who are living very different lives and have no interest in my china or acoustic piano.

There are, of course, many other reasons to want to live a long life.  It might be worthwhile, however, to try to verbalize them and use them as a map if we are lucky enough to live a long life.  St. Benedict thought he knew the purpose of old age; “our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce [with God], that we may amend our misdeeds.”  Simone de Beauvoir thought that we had to create a purpose, a project, for ourselves to make old age worthwhile. “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.”  With so many of us living longer, it is a topic worth pondering, no?  And you might re-read Lost Horizon while you are thinking about it.  Or look at a previous blog I wrote about the purpose of old age.

 Shangri-la is a kind of utopia; it also portrays a form of gerontocracy – governing by the old.  I have never written a utopia, but I once wrote a speculative novel about a gerontocracy – the Prelude of which is here.  Oddly enough, although written many years ago, it starts with a pandemic virus. 

The Wells Fargo Wagon

As I found myself shaking my head at the constant prowling of delivery trucks in my neighborhood, I thought the best way to express my anxieties might be in a new piece of fiction.  You can find “Prime Time” here, but there were some additional thoughts on the subject I wanted to share.

When I was in eighth grade, I participated in the chorus of a junior high production of The Music Man.  In that musical, there is a piece about the exciting experience of having the Wells Fargo delivery wagon show up in one’s neighborhood:

Oh the Wells Fargo Wagon is a coming down the street

Oh don’t let it pass my door

Oh the Wells Fargo Wagon is a coming down the street

I wish I knew what he was coming for!

The song goes on to detail memorable deliveries from the past (grapefruit from Tampa and a cannon for the courthouse square), and soon the whole town is celebrating the rare pleasure of a gift brought to one’s door.  I remember a similar excitement as a child when someone in the family got an order from the Sears or Montgomery Ward catalogues – although most often the packages were picked up at the counter in the back of the store and not delivered to the house.

These days delivery trucks prowl my neighborhood streets daily.  There is the ubiquitous Prime van, the jeep that delivers the mail, the big brown UPS truck, and a multitude of other vehicles delivering groceries, pharmaceuticals, take-out food, and almost anything else one could imagine.  This trend started years ago, but Covid accelerated it.  We all succumbed, and we all got used to it.  Deliveries helped us maintain isolation during the pandemic, but I fear that continued use of such services will increase our isolation as time goes on.

We used to get to know the people who came to our doors regularly, be they mail carrier or milkman.  Drivers are now on such tight schedules that they have no time to exchange words with us.  They do not even ring our doorbells, but rather send us a text or e-mail telling us the package is there and perhaps even enclosing a picture.  Meanwhile, our motion sensors often take pictures of them as they run to and away from our front door.  I don’t have any more relationship with the people who bring me my orders than I would have with a drone.  (I would, however, prefer not to have the drone.)

Now, this capability is wonderful for some older people who have trouble getting to the store, and I surely don’t begrudge any of us this service.  But the process is both non-geographic and impersonal.  We are not doing business locally (other than perhaps with orders from local restaurants or grocery stores), and we are not interacting with anyone to do it.  This worries me.

I also have a parallel concern about the number of storage units that are being built in my area – in all areas of this country.  For the last period for which I could get statistics, the industry expanded construction of units by 27% – this was in 2018 and the industry has certainly not stopped growing.  And deliveries have increased – aggregate statistics hare hard to come by, but some delivery services like Instacart have seen 500% growth and we all know how well Amazon is doing.  But does this all mean that much of the stuff we are ordering we are paying to store?  What is going on here?

Add to this, of course, the fact that we are watching movies at home, playing games online, and meeting our friends and relatives via Zoom.  Some of this will loosen when and if Covid gets under control, but some has become habit and convenience.  I think that social norms may have lapsed and changed in ways that cannot be fully restored.

Perhaps I have always been fascinated by the delivery services –  you might remember my story about the end of the world and the UPS man.  But if we are not going to interact with people in stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues, what will fill the void?  If the elderly can be “served” without human interaction, what has been lost? 

Again, I refer you to my new story, “Prime Time.”  I would also note that the very word on which Amazon stakes its relationship with us, prime, has particular connotations for the elderly, who may not be in what is traditionally labelled the “prime of life,” but who are still very much alive.  Keeping us off the road and out of the stores may be for our own good for now, but I fear it will be a lesser good in the long run.

 

Reunions – Looking Back with Affection and Embarrassment

I was recently tracked down by a very nice woman who was a classmate of mine during my first two years of college – 50 years ago.  After my sophomore year, I married and could not afford to return to school right away, so I quickly lost track of the good friends I made during those two years  – perhaps the kind of friends you never make again.  We were young, female, and completely out from under our parents’ thumbs for the first time in our lives.  In addition, this was the sixties.  When I arrived, there were strict curfews and prohibitions about spending nights off campus without parental permission (this was a women’s college); within a few months all restrictions were lifted.  Fun, but dangerous to a seventeen-year-old like myself who had no idea what to do with such freedom.  I often think that I burned myself out quickly and retreated to a disastrous early marriage.  In any case, that was the situation, and – while I could recall those days and people vividly when I tried – I mostly struggled not to remember.

So out of the blue comes one of the nicest of those remembered classmates, who has volunteered to be in charge of rounding up all the women who lived in our campus residence house for the 50th reunion.  I have no intention of attending the reunion (I ended up graduating from a different college), but I found myself interested in catching up with her and ultimately agreed to submit some basic information for the reunion book – including a 500-word essay on what I had been doing for the last 50 years.   That would be 10 words per year, but – then again – some of those years I barely remember.

Nevertheless, I gave it a go and recommend it as an exercise.  In fact, we all do it verbally pretty consistently when we meet new people, and they want to know something about us.  But this felt different.  These people knew what a mess I was a half-century ago.  I wanted to show the trajectory of where I had been, how I had recovered, what was still left to do.  Here is a brief excerpt, leaving out those parts about my children, husbands, degrees and locations:

I think we went to college in strange times – when I arrived at _____ as an innocent young woman (girl) of barely 17, I had just managed to learn what parietals were when they were abolished.  It was a wild time that I remember well and yet often find painful to recall.  I met warm friends, and tested myself, my friends, my teachers, and my parents in a multitude of ways – but apparently got the wild oats out of my system.  I have been determined that my old age would be more thoughtful and deliberate than my youth (wouldn’t take much) and have been much taken with the study of old age and literature – the topic on which I wrote my dissertation and on which I maintain a blog…. Through all these years I have read voraciously, taken piano lessons most of the time (with little effect), belonged to writing groups (same result), hiked, and knit….

Before she died, my mother gave me a pile of letters I wrote home while at ____.  I haven’t read them (sense of embarrassment surely); they reside in the back of the bottom left-hand drawer of my desk.  It is telling that I haven’t discarded them. But hearing from some of my classmates has perhaps given me the strength to revisit those years.

If fact, those letters in the drawer – envelopes covered with little pictures and slogans (“Wear Your Love Like Heaven”) have silently mocked me for years.

But I am reminded of a poem by Paul Fenton (“The Ideal”):

This is where I came from.
I passed this way.
This should not be shameful
Or hard to say.

A self is a self.
It is not a screen.
A person should respect
What he has been.

This is my past
Which I shall not discard.
This is the ideal.
This is hard.

It is hard to deal with those portions of our life of which we are not proud, but I am glad to have had my old classmate give me a shove.  I wrote those letters; I was exuberant if misguided.  And I was lucky to be surrounded by kind people.  As I age, as we all age, a common phenomenon is to have a better memory of the far past than we have of the recent past.  But those memories shouldn’t hurt.  They made us who we are.

It has always been so.  One might incant a line from Psalm 25: “Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord.”  Amen to that.

I have never written about my early college life – even in fiction.  But “The Iscariot” or “Shrove Tuesday” contain characters who try to deal with the irreversibility of the past.

“This Will All Make Sense When I Am Older”

I ran across a cute Disney video from Frozen II,  wherein a young snowman (snowboy?) named Olaf sings a delightful song about how life is scary, but comforts himself that “this will all make sense when I am older.”  Of course, that got me thinking (now that I am older) about whether that was true.  I invite you to answer the same question for yourself.

Separated by time and hormones from experiences of our younger years, there is a certain detachment in old age that allows us to calmly consider why certain things happened, why we did the things we are now embarrassed to remember.  And there is sometimes a bittersweet melancholy to such thought.  As Kierkegaard told us, “life can only be understood by looking backward; but it must be lived looking forward.”

Many people have tried to make sense of their lives, to give it a linear and rational narrative.  One of the things we learn in old age is that human beings are not always (or often) rational animals, lessons are sometimes earned but not learned, and we accumulate at least as much guilt as we do wisdom.  In these days, wisdom is needed, guilt seems to be confused with embarrassment, and the old often seem willing to let the young set the moral agenda – on civil rights, women’s rights, gay marriage, humane acceptance of all kinds.

This reminds me of the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery.  There are a couple of mysterious things about this episode, which occurs only in the Gospel of John.   The Pharisees bring  a woman caught in adultery to Jesus; Mosaic law calls for her to be stoned to death and the crowd is ready. Jesus responds by crouching down and writing in the sand.  Over the centuries there has been much speculation about what he wrote.  Perhaps he was writing the sins of the onlookers, because finally he rises and tells the crowd that “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Personally, I wonder if he was just writing to get his thoughts straight – something I do all the time.  So the writing in the sand is one mystery, but not the one that interests me the most.

Soon after Jesus’ challenge (let him who is without sin throw the first stone), the crowd starts to drop their stones and disperse.  And here is the most interesting part to me in this familiar passage: John clearly states that “they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last.” The old people left first. Why? 

Did the old leave first because they were wiser? Had they learned that youthful indiscretions are not the end of the world?  Or did the old leave first because they had accumulated so much sin of their own that they knew clearly and immediately that they were not eligible to cast the first stone?  Is this an example of the value of experience?

I have elsewhere mused on the value of reflection in old age, and of writing one’s own story.  Maybe there will not be a clear narrative when we go to string the episodes of our life together, but there will surely be lessons there which we were taught, but never had time to really learn.  In the episode of the woman taken in adultery, the issue was forced.  For most of us there is not such a crisis.  But there is still a need, and time to learn the lessons that have accumulated in the parts of our minds we don’t visit very often. “This will all make sense as I get older,” says young Olaf.  Perhaps, with distance and time and attention, anything is possible. However, we might also remember the lesson that Sara Teasdale shared in one of her last poems: “The heart asks more than life can give, /When that is learned, then all is learned.”  

Many of my stories involve lessons learned late. For such tales, you might try “The Iscariot,” “A Balm in Gilead,” orEye of the Needle.”

Old Folks in the Stories That Formed Us

Salman Rushdie had an essay in the Sunday New York Times last week about what we learned from the books we loved in our younger days. While Mr. Rushdie’s juvenile reading list was very different from mine, I agree with his conclusions: “I believe that the books and stories we fall in love with make us who we are, or, not to claim too much, the beloved tale becomes a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives.”  If this is true – and surely it is, at least in part – then what did those beloved books and stories tell us about getting old?  In the books of my youth, there seemed to be two kinds of old people – the  nasty ones (think of Aunt March in Little Women) and the nice ones (Mr. Laurence, also in Little Women).  Mr. Laurence has an  initially gruff exterior, but gradually reveals his good heart.   In fact, many of the aged characters in the books I read in my youth were first described as gruff and perhaps miserly, until “warmed up” by a young character.  This was the case with Mr. Laurence (warmed up by Beth), with the old Grandfather in Heidi, and with Silas Marner (perhaps middle-aged rather than old and brought back from his miserly life by his little charge Eppie).  

In fairy tales, the witches were often old (and ugly), while fairy godmothers could be young or old (but were always beautiful).  Old folks were often feeble or bedridden (think of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother).  Or silly.  There was an old woman who was stupid enough to swallow a fly, and Old Mother Hubbard had so many children she didn’t know what to do.  No role models there. 

In the Bible (I was a Sunday School child), living to be old was a sign that God liked you if you did the right things: “You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you will possess” (Deut. 5:33).  If you’re good you will thrive in old age: “Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing.” And we should particularly be good to our old parents if we want to live long ourselves: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12).  Then there was old Simon in the New Testament who just wants to see the Messiah and die.  None of this particularly interested my younger self.

But when we were young, we were not looking for models of elderly people in literature.  We were looking for coming of age stories – stories that gave us hope, or at least some comfort that we were not alone in our angst.  In our old age, we are looking for a Vollendungsroman, a story about the end of life, the winding down.  It may be time to go back to those old stories.  Rushdie suggests that we may find a new emphasis in old stories.  “A book may cease to speak to us as we grow older, and our feeling for it will fade. Or we may suddenly, as our lives shape and hopefully increase our understanding, be able to appreciate a book we dismissed earlier; we may suddenly be able to hear its music, to be enraptured by its song.”

I reread Heidi a couple of years ago, and, while originally the spunky little girl was of the most interest to me, now the hero of the piece was the grandfather.  Alone and self-sufficient (and more than a little irascible) on the mountain with his goats, he is eventually able to garner the effort to take a little girl into his life.  I also had forgotten about Peter’s blind grandmother, to whom Heidi reads and with whom she develops a touching bond.  These characters were always in the book, but they escaped my younger imagination.   As a teenager, I was particularly taken with Salinger’s Franny and Zooey; going back to it I am reminded of the picture the young people conjured up of the imaginary Fat Lady for whom Seymour tells them they must perform – she is old and fat and cancerous and the very reason for life itself.  Michelangelo’s God is a very old man.  Christ is forever young, but God is always old. 

In any case, this is what Rushdie’s column made me think about.  Maybe it will inspire you to think about the stories that formed you and what they taught you about getting old – and what they could still teach you.

I continue to admire Franny and Zooey so much that I paid homage to Salinger in naming the characters in one of my novels (Order of the Stock Farm Jesus) – although I changed the spelling to Zoë and both characters are female (Salinger’s Zooey is the brother).  And while there is no Fat Lady in my story, it contains a formidable grandmother and a limestone Jesus.  There is an excerpt from that novel here.

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.

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.

 

Huxley’s Last Utopia – Island

Sometimes, the books of an author’s old age comment on or continue the work of their younger years.   Almost everyone knows how Aldous Huxley thought the world might go wrong from his 1932 Brave New World; less often read is his description of a (doomed) utopian society in Island, published thirty years later and not long before he died.  Huxley describes for us a peaceable kingdom on the island of Pala, which is about to be upended by contact with and exploitation by the outside world.  Unlike Hesse, Huxley is not writing an individual’s life, but, rather, the life of a culture from its beginning to its apparent imminent demise.  And we get Huxley’s vision of how life might be lived in a society which was supportive rather than exploitive.

Huxley was heavily influenced by Buddhism, and his island culture spun out of Buddhist beginnings to a place where mynah birds are trained to call out “Attention” to get listeners to pay heed to the present moment.  Sex is open even to children; this makes for uncomfortable reading today as adults on Pala sometimes “teach” young people the finer points of physical love.  There is a large extended family structure, allowing children to move between households.  Huxley was obviously influenced by Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa on both these traitsBut the main emphasis in Pala is on cultivating mental health.  My favorite scenes involve teaching children the tricks of mind control.  They are, for instance, told to imagine different animals or people, to multiply them in their mind, and then wipe them away in an exercise to show the youngsters how they can control their own minds and not be victim to random and hurtful thoughts.  We could all use that lesson.

Drugs are presumably bad in Brave New World (soma makes you feel good, but it also controls you).  By the time we get to Island, drugs are put to better use, with all young people going to through a rite of passage that includes the use of a mescaline-type substance (called moksha) that makes them cognizant of their place in the universe.   Long passages relating drug experiences could and should have been edited out of this otherwise interesting book.  Other people’s drunken or drugged adventures are seldom interesting.

The thinking process that got Huxley to Island can be traced through his non-fiction.  Thirteen years after Brave New World, he wrote the brilliant Perennial Philosophy, where he tried to pull together the convergent ideas of many of the world’s religions (called the “ultimate anthology” by the New York Times).  It might have served as a Bible to the residents of Pala.  In 1954, he wrote the less brilliant Doors of Perception, which encouraged the use of mescaline for enlightenment.  Huxley himself asked his wife to inject him with LSD on his deathbed  in 1963.  (Sidenote: President Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis all died on the same day, meaning the latter two got very little press upon their demise.)  Huxley apparently never gave up the idea that chemical assistance was a part of the life well lived.

Huxley’s Pala is doomed, however.  There is oil on the island and the capitalists are at the door.  The people are peaceable and have no weapons, no standing army.  They are going to lose control.  So, while this is the picture of a utopia it clearly reminds us that the real world is anything but.

Here’s the thing though – the people know it is coming and they are rational enough to know they probably can’t stop it.  Their training, however, makes them sure that they will cope (“even in the worst society an individual retains a little freedom”), and, as the tanks roll in, the last thing we hear is a mynah bird telling us to pay attention.   At this point, the reader is at once deeply sad for the lost utopian vision, but heartened by the realization that, perhaps, all utopias are in the heart and the way in which we relate to the world. 

And Huxley gives us other words of truth here.  “Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence – those are the three pillars of Western prosperity.”  As I read this, I could not help but think that “planned obsolescence” applied not just to appliances and cars, but to the planet that nurtures us.

Novels of old age do not usually offer happy endings, nor do they conclude that the human race is perfectible – or even good (think of Melville’s The Confidence Man).  Old people know these things.  I would not trust an old person who hadn’t realized that the Eden of childhood was not recoverable.  The question is how to live within the world as we find it.  Not to say we shouldn’t try to improve it, but denial is the worst kind of soma.