Notes on Faust

I just came back from visiting my mother in Memory Care. A few days spending time with patients in various stages of health and dementia has gotten me thinking about Faust again – about the Faust legend in general terms and what kind of Faustian bargain we might have made and be making for the miracles of life extension.

Spengler called Faust the fundamental myth of Western Civilization and this myth has been tackled by great authors from Marlowe to Goethe to Mann to Bulgakov. In case you have forgotten, Faust is a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in return for knowledge, power, wealth. Faust supposedly traces back to an historical figure in early 16th century in Germany, and was kept alive because it struck a deep chord in those who heard it or read it – in farcical plays, in fireside tales, or in early chapbooks.

“Not enough Fausts are written. Everyone should write one,” said Ludwig von Arnim in the early 19th century. In fact, we all write one with our lives. For what are we willing to sell our souls? I, in fact, wrote a “Faust” novel a few years back (the prologue to A Kind of Joy or An Essay with Characters is here), and the exercise forced me to think about this question and how other authors have dealt with it. Marlowe’s Faust asked for magic, Mann’s wants to create great musical compositions, and Goethe’s wants never to be bored. The Faust I created was a woman, and she wants the opposite of what Goethe’s Faust wanted – my fictional Faye wants contentment, peace. For that she is willing to sell her soul. But that is a story, a thought experiment.

If the Faust legend is the central myth of Western culture, of the Enlightenment, then what has our culture bargained for? Like Goethe’s hero, we surely don’t want to be bored; one might wonder what we have sold our attention for. And we don’t want to die. In most of the Faust stories, the protagonist gets twenty-four years before the soul must be handed over. But twenty-first century people do not want to die at all, and has continually increased life spans until our bodies often last much longer than our minds. Science may solve this problem, but don’t count on it. And thus we keep building “Memory Care” facilities to house our bodies, and we keep uploading our pictures and memories to the cloud to ensure that they are not lost forever. I don’t have an answer. Science has done wonders in eradicating disease (think of polio vaccine!), disability (think of cataract surgery!), and the debilitations of old age (think of hip replacement!). It has also made many deadly diseases into simply chronic ones (think of insulin!). But it has not yet enabled our minds to function as long and well as our bodies do.

In the end, most fictional Fausts learn their lesson. Sometimes they lose their lives and souls (Marlowe) and sometimes they recant and the author rescues them at the last moment (Goethe). It doesn’t really matter. The important point is to consider what we sacrifice in life for what we receive. It is easier to think about the rewards and not the payment, but there is that unavoidable moment when payment comes due (Goethe notwithstanding). My mother has lived far longer than her parents or grandparents, but finds herself in a mental state that they never had to experience. Our planet has afforded most of us in the West lives of comfort and plenty, but now our seas are rising and our summers are stifling. Faustian bargains are traditionally with the Devil, but perhaps we could think of the Devil as representing our more impulsive nature, of the tendency to favor immediate gratification over the long-term good. In any case, it is an interesting problem to think about.

Faust might be an especially good legend to contemplate in our old age. In Goethe’s version, it is the old mythological couple, Baucis and Philemon, who stand up to the land-developing, greedy Faust. They refuse to sell out and move from the remote bungalow and thus anger Faust: “Their stubbornness, their opposition/ Ruins my finest acquisition.” Needless to say, they lose (and die), but they will forever stand on the moral ground. In the remoteness of old age – past the time of ambition and acquisition – maybe we can see the ramifications of the Faust myth more clearly  than our children. It is worth thinking about. What did you sell your soul for? What would you sell your soul for?

Parabola and Long Tails

I wrote earlier in this blog about Dante’s vision of life as a parabola, which goes up to the “perfect age” (thirty-four according to Dante) and then starts down again. Life rises on one side and falls on the other, ending on the same level where it began. And so, as it falls, it passes through some of the same horizontal levels passed through on the way up – something that intrigues me, but which I will come back to.

If life for Dante was a parabola, I have wondered whether – seven centuries later – the shape of life has changed. Children (and mostly I mean well-off children) now seem to have a longer childhood. They stay at home longer, marry later, have children later. On the other side, old age is often very long indeed in the modern era. Medicine and technology have allowed life to be extended again and again, until the tail just lengthens and lengthens. Without judging whether this is a good thing or not, it surely changes the shape of a life. My mother, for example, has been old for a very long time. She has had multiple joint replacements and cancer surgeries, but is remarkably healthy as she approaches ninety – except that she has severe dementia. Scary dementia where she is sure that people are watching her, harming her, planning all manner of evil. And this could go on for a very long time. For better or for worse, old age seems to have developed what statisticians call a “long tail” – rather than dipping down precipitously at the end (think parabola), it tapers off as more and more is lost, and yet the heart goes on and so does some form of life. Where Dante saw the symmetry of a parabola, are we now seeing something else?

I like playing with the symmetry of Dante’s parabola. Over my desk hangs a nineteenth century depiction of the stages of a woman’s life – more an arc than a parabola but the idea is the same.

As I noted in my earlier post, the parabola gave me an idea for the structure of a novel which would pair points on the upward movement with corresponding points on the downward slope after the “perfect age” is reached. (Here is an interesting exercise – when did you reach your “perfect age”? Or aren’t you there yet? What is the difference between Dante’s perfect physical age and the perfect spiritual/mental age?) My novel is about two-thirds complete and will soon join its companions in my bottom drawer, but I thought I would post an excerpt. In order to illustrate and test my thesis that there are correspondences between the same point going up and coming down the life cycle, the novels pairs (fictional) diary/journal entries from the same woman, often on a common topic or theme.

The title of the novel is Hummingbird Wars and the excerpt includes two chapters/paired journal entries. In the this selection, we have a young mother being introduced to exciting new technology as the world opens up to VCR’s and personal computers in 1985. At the descending point on the parabola, the same woman in 2005 is nearing retirement, learning yet another version of the operating system at the office, and wondering about the true value of the internet, cell phones, and social media. If you are my age, you will recognize this woman (both the older and younger version) and her thoughts and concerns. If you are younger, you might wonder how your views of technology will change as you enter the long tail of old age.

Forgiveness and Remorse

Forgiveness is different in old age. In the hurry of youth and middle age, we often either push forgiveness aside or bestow it hastily in order to get on with things. In our latter years, old resentments drift out of the silence, out of the memory that cannot remember the word for that thing over there, but can recall all unkindnesses in great detail – the ones we received as well as the ones we perpetrated. Often those we want to forgive (or seek forgiveness from) are not available; they have passed out of our orbit through time, through death, through dementia.

Old age is teaching me many things and one of them is that the human condition is universal. Sympathy is replaced by empathy. There is no time or heart left for enemies. We are all friends in our common human afflictions. And David Whyte says that friendship is all about forgiveness. He says it “is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn.”

And then there is the issue of forgiving ourselves.

Yeats wrote a poem that is a dialogue between the Self and Soul. Unlike similar medieval dialogues, the Self gets the final word here and it is about forgiveness:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

“Casting out remorse” is easier said than done, but the result, according to Yeats, is a recovery of the innocence of Eden. In his “We must laugh and we must sing, / We are blest by everything,” the old Irishman sounds almost like Blake. Heaven all around us! But can we “cast out remorse” without doing something about it? David Whyte refers to the section of the Lord’s Prayer that implies in order to beg forgiveness ourselves, we must forgive “those who trespass against us.” It is a package deal. Of course, often the hardest person to forgive is oneself. I know.

I also find myself contemplating the need to beg forgiveness from this earth that we have been blessed with, out of which our kind was spun and nurtured. How it and its creatures have been abused in my lifetime! How can we ever atone!

Isak Dinesen too references the Lord’s Prayer in her sad story of watching giraffes from her beloved Africa being shipped to Europe:

The giraffes turned their delicate heads from the one side to the other, as if they were surprised, which they might well be. They had not seen the sea before. They could only just have room to stand in the narrow case. The world had suddenly shrunk, changed and closed round them.

They could not know or imagine the degradation to which they were sailing. For they were proud and innocent creatures, gentle amblers of the great plains; they had not the least knowledge of captivity, cold, stench, smoke, and mange, nor of the terrible boredom in a world in which nothing is ever happening….

As to us, we shall have to find someone badly transgressing against us, before we can in decency ask the Giraffes to forgive us our transgressions against them.

The giraffes and the polar bears and the elm trees and the monarch butterflies. Who can we forgive that will reciprocate the forgiveness we need from the world we are destroying? These are not easy questions, but they are on my mind.

Yeats says he is “ content to follow to its source /Every event in action or in thought; /Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!” Measure first. A good carpenter will tell you to measure twice. Maybe realization is enough, but I’m not sure. I think I rather feel, with Dinesen, that more is needed before we can “in decency” throw off all remorse.

This week’s story is “The Iscariot” and references the most infamous sinner of all and describes a woman who sometimes feels like she is running a close second. And, perhaps, a different way to look at remorse and redemption.

Aging Deliberately

I have always been challenged by Thoreau’s ambition to live life intentionally, with purpose and awareness: “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” To live life deliberately. It seems like such an obvious and worthwhile goal.

I first read Walden in college. By then, it was too late to live my childhood deliberately – and is that even possible? For most of us, choices as to how we lived were severely limited until we were emancipated from our families. Our diets, our activities, our free time were all greatly prescribed. And the nuclear family meant that we often were not even aware that other choices existed. Do you remember how shocked you were when you ate a meal or spent the night at a friend’s house and realized that people did things differently? At six years old, I visited a house where the children were allowed to operate the television by themselves! Who knew?

During adolescence and young adulthood, hormones and the drive for emancipation drove me, drove most of us. And then, quickly enough, I was driven by my career and children. And too busy to think about much else. How else does one get through those years but by ploughing ahead with blinders on? When I visit my children now and watch them cope with young children and jobs and all the juggling of such a life, I still couldn’t tell you how it’s done – except that, under the circumstances, one has to suspend doubt that one can do it.

It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I really had time to pause and think about the shape of my life. There wasn’t much that I could do about the past (except make sure I was telling myself a truthful story – but more on that another time), but the future stood out as a time of … my own. Soon I would not have to work anymore, would not have to live in a given place or a prescribed way, would not have direct responsibility for anyone except my partner and myself. But didn’t Janice Joplin warn us: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”? Freedom itself can lead to futility, despair.

Jeannette Winterson says that the “question, ‘How shall I live?’ is fierce.” It is perhaps the only question. For so much of our lives things seem out of our control, and in our latter years we are, of course, subject to the decay and disease of our bodies. And yet. Surely facing deterioration and death is among the things we can do deliberately, unless we are robbed of this ability by dementia (which is just one of the things that is heartbreaking about that condition).

Here is Montaigne in his essay “Experience”:

We are great fools. “He has passed his life in idleness,” say we: “I have done nothing today.” What? Have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental, but the most illustrious, of your occupations. “Had I been put to the management of great affairs, I should have made it seen what I could do.” “Have you known how to meditate and manage your life? You have performed the greatest work of all.” … Have you known how to regulate your conduct, you have done a great deal more than he who has composed books. Have you known how to take repose, you have done more than he who has taken empires and cities.

So as we retire, we might ask ourselves Montaigne’s implied question, “Have you known how to take repose?” and realize its importance. In his repose, Montaigne looked inward and wrote his essays.

Of course, not all courses are open to us. How we (or the vagaries of life) have prepared our bodies and minds for this last part of life is consequential. Lord Bolingbroke who was forced into retirement in 1735 at age 57, wrote a treatise on study and retirement.  He reminds us such study “would have been agreeable and easy if he had accustomed himself to it early, will be unpleasant and impracticable late: such men lose their intellectual powers for want of exerting them, and, having trifled away youth, are reduced to the necessity of trifling away age. It fares with the mind just as it does with the body.” Cicero expresses similar concerns about dayspring mishandled in his essay on old age. But within the limits of our bodies and minds and preparation, choices still must be made. Old age is different from youth; to ignore the opportunities and challenges it presents will lead us to senescence mishandled.

Carl Jung always insisted that the stages of life had different purposes. “We cannot live in the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.” You can read Jung’s “Stages of Life” for his advice on how to spend your old age, but, hey, we’ve lived a long time. Maybe we can figure it out for ourselves. And then do it. Deliberately.

This week’s story, “Essentials,” is not about old age, but it is about the challenge we face at every stage of life – how to make life meaningful. How to live – within the parameters with which we are faced – with intensity and deliberation and good intent.

Geriatric Homesteading

In its original sense (at least in the US), homesteading referred to staking out a piece of land to work and live on and therefore, after a period of time, take title. In more recent years, we’ve had urban homesteading, where vacant properties are allotted provided the residents inhabit and improve them. The emphasis is on continual residence creating a right of ownership. As I started thinking about elderly people I know, I thought we might be seeing a different kind of homesteading. And I’m not sure whether it was a good or bad thing.

Consider the case of a woman who is in her mid-eighties and lives alone in her house. She has had major and minor accidents, been in and out of hospitals and rehab facilities, but hangs onto her house for dear life. The house was not necessarily designed for the elderly; it is on one floor but the driveway is steep (the cause of one major accident) and the house is not handicapped accessible in all ways. It is also a long distance from the people who most want to support my friend – her children, who travel and take time away from home and work to help out. Right now, my friend has gone home with her daughter for a while after some surgery which she was recovering from slowly. But she’ll be back. My friend is clinging to the house with all she has. What does it represent?

Independence, I suppose. Although the fact that it is in a suburb and requires a car (and that’s another subject) for any kind of shopping, meaning that my friend (who still owns a car, but often cannot drive because of temporary disability) requires assistance. She is lucky; people are willing to help. Her children make great sacrifices to come back and forth, but they too seem willing. This has gone on for about three years now. Why is my friend hanging onto her house with such tenacity?

Perhaps because the alternatives are not attractive: elderly housing, assisted living, nursing homes? They have the aura of the funeral parlor about them. They are not “home.” What is home? Frost said it was the “place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And if it’s your own home you, of course, have control. Loss of control is one of our greatest fears.

We have mythologized the value of home ownership in this country; John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that:

Your homestead’s title gives you all
That idle wealth can buy.

Your home gives you privacy. Sovereignty. But there is no one there in the middle of the night to help the sovereign, and it often takes a consortium of people to keep elderly people in their homes. These are stubborn homesteaders, holding out against the advice of friends, appeals by realtors, and the pleading of over-burdened children.

I don’t have an answer. I have seen enough elderly housing and assisted living centers to understand why they are avoided. One thinks fondly of European granny cottages in a child’s backyard, but this is often neither legal nor practical. I do not have a solution – but we should have one. When the boomers started to reproduce in large numbers, we created suburbs. Now that these boomers are reaching senescence, we need to invent something else. Something as appealing as suburbia was in the 1950’s. Something that works.

Houses are powerful symbols. For Jung, the house (in dreams) represented the personality with its many rooms, its order and disorder. But the house is also representative of the body; “Ain’t goin’ to need this house no longer” says the old Gospel song. In the Bible, we are told that God has many mansions for the blessed, and one of the oldest mnemonic devices was making our mind into a house or palace and storing needed information in the many rooms where it can be retrieved – Napoleon used this method and so did Sherlock Holmes. For many, our original homes take on an Edenic quality – my mother in her dementia and confusion longs for her childhood home.

Often, I think of my friend alone in her house and wonder what will happen if she wakes up disoriented in the night. Or if she trips over her little dog (pets being another reason the elderly cling to home). I think of her children – although I am old, I have a mother and mother-in-law still living. I know about the care of elderly relatives far away. And I think of the people without homes. Street people, refugees, prisoners. There should be a better solution to this, but it is part of the “blight that man was born for” which all of us and Hopkins “mourn for.” But, still, we could do better.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of old folks squatting in their deteriorating homes and becoming increasingly defensive toward anyone who tries to move them. I think again of Frost and his description of a very elderly farmer, alone in his drafty house on a frigid winter’s night, nodding by the fire:

One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

It’s “thus” that they do it, and it’s both heroic and sad. But it’s preferable – to them, if not to the rest of us.

The story this week, “Option to Buy,” is about the potent symbol of houses – and maybe a little about the difference between a house and a home.

Failing Bodies and the Failing Planet

First of all, you must read The Overstory by Richard Powers. It is a powerful novel –a story in the best and oldest sense of the word – about trees, nature, and the place of humanity in the cosmos. And it’s about psychology – how much we are affected by our peers, our culture, how hard it is to step aside, how dangerous it can be to think outside our conditioning, but also how necessary. The mood of the book is at once lyrical and dire. Humankind does not appreciate the intricacy and power of nature and seems not to want to learn.

As elders, we will be especially moved by this book and its characters, many of whom we follow into old age. We will want to warn the next generation. But how are the old (myself, the author, all of us) to tell the young and the disenfranchised that they cannot have what we had – new cars, wooden houses, air conditioning in home and vehicle, all of it?  And we had it without guilt. We had the advantage of not giving any thought to clearing a lot, building a house, driving a big car just for the fun of it, having as many children as we could afford to support – and never considering what the earth could support.

We know better now. In part, we learned from our own bodies. We are paying for our early smoking, drinking, drugs. We take statins, use inhalers, go to physical therapy. Athletes are getting joints replaced and hoping they did not land on their heads too many times. Surgeons replace arteries clogged with the fat we ingested thoughtlessly. Dayspring mishandled. And as we retire, we have time to look around at our devastated planet – a devastation that we funded with our new houses and cars and expectations that progress meant we could have more and more. Our bodies and minds know that perpetual progress is a myth. We know this as we nurse our knees and grope for that name we can’t remember. We know this by going back to the neighborhood where we grew up and looking for the woods we played in. The planet too has paid for our mistakes: global warming, plastic continents floating on the ocean, butterflies that never return.

In the middle ages there was the idea that the human body was a microcosm of the universal macrocosm – and each individual grew old in this post-lapsarian world just as the world also grew older, decayed from its Edenic beginnings. But the Enlightenment assured us the world was progressing, not regressing. In the seventeenth century, George Hakewill made an early appeal for the idea that life on earth, that earth, was improving, progressing – and yet even he realized what this meant for the idea of microcosm/macrocosm: “And though whiles I have laboured to free the world from old age, I feele it creeping upon my selfe.”

But the truth is, whether or not humans are accurate microcosms of creation, we are most definitely part of the macrocosm and most definitely not in charge – as much as it might temporarily seem so. In trying to overcome and overwhelm the natural world, we have forgotten we are only part of that world. Irretrievably imbedded in the macrocosm. It is true of a tree; it is true of homo sapiens.

One of my favorite characters in The Overstory is the (fictional) scientist Patricia Westerford – at one point she says: “Trees stand at the heart of ecology. And they must come to stand at the heart of human politics. Tagore said, Trees are the earth’s endless efforts to speak to the listening heaven. But people – oh, my word – people! People could be the heaven the Earth is trying to speak to.”

This novel is full of stories and statistics that will frighten you. They should frighten you. But it is also full of the glory of creation. There is a theory (from Carl Sagan among others) that if humanity was evolved by creation for a purpose, we are perhaps an effort by the cosmos to become aware of itself. Through us. Perhaps our task is not to overcome, but to appreciate. Old people should be good at this. We are also, perhaps (because elders have often stepped out of economic and romantic competition), capable of what one of the characters in Powers’ book calls unbinding. His question is this: Can people come to independent moral decisions that run counter to their tribe’s beliefs? Unbinding. Seeing things outside of cultural norms.

We have lived long enough to know the costs to the world we live in for the lives we have led. To recognize the difference between cost and value. Look around you. Unbind. And read the book. Richard Powers says it far better than I can.

And for more on trees, look at my “Fable About a Soccer Mom.”

 

 

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.