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Growing Old

The Coming of Age

by Simone de Beauvoir
Putnam’s, 608 pp., $10.00

Simone de Beauvoir is one of those writers who dig and dig until they pile up the monumental. Faced by the stretches of dead wasteland in ourselves and our society, in which we dump our unsolved or evaded problems, she settles down to an exhaustive sifting and then rebuilds. She is sometimes portentous, and rarely witty; but her feelings are strong and she is unremitting in her concern. Her present object is to analyze our attitudes to old age. After dealing with the biology of the inevitable decline of the tissues and muscles, she moves on to the behavior of a few primitive societies; next, period by period, from the Greeks and Romans to today; and then to old age as we know it in everyday life. She draws on the words and lives of many rancorous writers, painters, scientists, and musicians who, privileged by their vocations, have closely observed the change that old age has brought to them. Her object is to break the conspiracy of silence on a subject that has become privately and publicly taboo in the advanced countries which are governed by the values of profit-making capitalism.

The fact is that in this century traditional concepts of old age have lost their meaning: socially, old age has become the scrap heap. The irony is that the percentage of elderly people in the wealthier and more advanced countries has enormously increased since the beginning of the century. All but a few are forced to end what sentimental liars have called “the golden years” on declining means among the middle class, and in poverty with little remedy among the workers. The affluent society is strictly for the under-fifties:

The fact that for the last fifteen or twenty years of his life a man should be no more than a reject, a piece of scrap, reveals the failure of our civilization: if we were to look upon the old as human beings, with a human life behind them, and not as so many walking corpses, this obvious truth would move us profoundly.

And she reminds us of the Grimms’s story: a peasant makes his father eat out of a small wooden trough, apart from the rest of the family. One day he finds his son fitting little boards together. “It’s for you when you are old,” says the child. At once the grandfather is given back his place in the family. But the Grimms family home rarely survives in urban industrial life. The Grimms themselves do not like it. They scatter far and wide; industry treats them as units. The boy’s father is liable to lose his job today, and when he applies to Situations Vacant he will find that “no one over forty need apply”; he is many years away from his retirement pension and will certainly be unable to support either son or grandfather.

If one can think of thousands of exceptions to this threat, it hangs imminently over a large section of the working classes and has begun to affect the white-collar worker. First one is disqualified, then one moves on to the segregated condition of the old. All governments are plagued by what the machine or, rather, what the policy that runs the machine is doing; and in Western Europe, Scandinavia, and the United States—among the capitalist countries—there has been a great deal of research and some action, which Simone de Beauvoir goes into. Scandinavia, with few political difficulties to deal with and very drastic taxation, has easily done the best: the community is small enough to be coherent. It is hard to follow the regulations and statistics provided for the other countries: one can only say that good intentions are marred by meanness. The state puts the economy first and the economy is directed to maniacal productiveness.

One would have expected a writer with a Marxist turn of mind to make the communist practices clearer and, above all, more living than they appear here. One is obviously better off in these countries if one belongs to the Party, and production is still the God. One cannot tell in any country how many of the aged like being institutionalized and how many hate it, or what has been lost and what gained. I have seen many “old folks” communities in many countries, and what is depressing about them is the unnatural sight of people living entirely and perforce among people of their own age. One is in an organized antechamber for the dying or in the stiff, lifeless rooms of a doll’s house. And the smell of old age pervades.

I do not think that Simone de Beauvoir’s examination of primitive societies adds much more than exotic spice to the subject, though it is interesting that settled tribes behave on the whole better to the old than nomads do. Among the nomads the legs of the old cannot keep up, and they are often left behind or deliberately exposed to death. The elderly Fangs accept their fate and even joke about it. They take it to be natural that their heirs should get rid of them; sometimes they ask to be burned alive and go out in a blaze. The Hottentots admire the old, but hate the senile, who are sent off to starve, though with a great ritual feast of the tribe to send them on their way. Ceremonial politeness is at least a recognition that a man’s dignity lies in his role—a concept that has vanished in the impersonal life we live nowadays, though one can observe it in the slums of Naples—and also, of course, it helps against magic, which, in our terms, means the retribution we ourselves invent.

We are becoming closer to the nomads, I think, simply because modern economic life forces us to be mobile; we move on from one exhausted hunting ground to another conveniently like it; the family, once the shelter of the old, is scattered. One certain thing primitive life shows: the old are better off in rich societies, but not rich societies like ours, where the wealth depends on each being out for himself.

The most urgent part of Simone de Beauvoir’s survey is concerned with retirement, the modern nightmare. Only worn-out manual workers or people with ruined health look forward to it. The retirement forced on most people today is the real error of our industrial ethos, and it is made worse by the low pensions that rob the man or the woman of the rewards of his long labor and his status. The white-collar worker adapts himself more easily than the laborer. Only the wealthy can assure themselves, when they are kicked out, of a pension that is close to their real salary, for neither the work nor the pay of the worker changes very much in the course of a lifetime.

The real shock lies in being disqualified. Some recover, others fall into poor health and listlessness when work stops. In all countries a very large proportion of the retired men simply hang about the house, particularly in America. An English woman said of her husband when he retired:

That was a day to remember! He cried and the children cried too.” And the husband went on: “I don’t know what to do any more. It was like when you’re put in chokey in the Army. I just sit staring at these four walls, that’s all. Before, I used to go out with my mates on Saturday evening, or with my sons-in-law. I can’t do that any more. I’m like a pauper. I haven’t got a pound-note in my pocket…. What I give my wife doesn’t amount to anything…. I am ashamed.”

Another wife said of her husband: “It’s murder having him in the house. He worries about what you’re doing and he’s always asking questions.” One asked permission to cut the bread.

There is a long list in this book of these despondent stories from France and America as well. A good deal depends on whether those who retired were optimists or pessimists; but in general, those who did not dream of leisure are better off. Florida and the Mediterranean deceive—the latter is found to be bad for rheumatism and rents are too high—but the experience at Prairie City in the United States is that people who go on working have “a much higher tonus” than the retired and their recreations are richer. And, to relieve the gloomy picture, there is a group of Burgundian bicyclists; their average age is eighty-six and activity kept them in spanking health. Many worked full time in their regular jobs, the rest found secondary occupations and devoted themselves to bicycling, walking, shooting, and reading. They were ordinary men far above the intellectual level of their neighbors.

It is Mlle de Beauvoir’s argument that a society like ours, which treats people as material instead of treating them as men and women, prepares its working population for boredom by maiming at the outset, but I have known many old coal miners, especially in Wales and in the North of England, of whom this was certainly not true fifteen years ago. Indeed, elsewhere in industrial England, wherever a trade was well-rooted and the community was long established (as it often is), one could see that the body was aged but the communal pride and spirit were rich. In the new generation of huge cities like London the maiming may have begun—except in pockets like Bermondsey or among dock workers—but from this one deduces that, education or no education, it is the clan or community that is the real educator and the genuine source of a sustaining culture. In so far as it breaks up real communities the new capitalism is antihuman. It standardizes the nomad.

Simone de Beauvoir is on more certain ground when she writes of old age as it affects up privately. There is a conspiracy to make us believe that the old are different from ourselves. Their passions, their sexuality, their needs are intensified by the discovery that all time does not stretch before them. Their angers and jealousies are notoriously fierce although the range is narrower. As she says, there is a return not to second childhood but to something like the willfulness of children, and if old people are strange it is because, as Victor Hugo and the Greek tragedians saw, there is a psychological reconnection with the fantasies of childhood and adolescence. Both children and the old live on the fringes of the adult world and are therefore often mocked.

If life is tragic, society takes the view of comedy: the sexuality of old people is frequently laughed at or censured, for there is an interested reluctance in accepting that the old are like ourselves. Goethe’s family raged against his love for a very young girl when he was in his seventies—they were afraid of losing their inheritance. The mocking of old men and women in their antics with people younger than themselves or with one another is natural for, like all satire, it aims at that part of ourselves that hates what we find in ourselves: the comedy of disgust is as much a purgation as tragedy is, and has the virtue of reconciliation. I am not as shocked as Mlle de Beauvoir is by the grotesque ballet of old women lifting up their skirts and pretending to be young, for the old are often used to their own half-admiring self-mockery. It is even a strength, as she indeed says about Picasso’s pictures of himself as the monkeyish dwarf man pleading and fawning before a beautiful young girl: he is so sure of his strength that he is able to play with any situation in his life.

To censure elderly sexuality is to forget that in those who have had a rich sexual life, it will be prolonged. And it is at the heart of the creative imagination, whether in artists or in the ordinary man. What is difficult for the old is sexual loneliness. It is much worse for older women than for men, though I cannot agree with Mlle de Beauvoir that no one speaks of “a beautiful old woman.” In any case, instinctive sexual attraction may not depend on beauty at all. A voice, for example, is as potent as a body.

These chapters on sex are very valuable, but we have to return to the dour fact that old age is a parody of life: “The vast majority of mankind look upon the coming of old age with sorrow and rebellion. It fills them with more aversion than death itself.” Emile de Faguet wrote, “Old age is a perpetual play that a man acts in order to deceive others and himself and whose chief drollery lies in the fact that he deceives others.” Great. men and women may turn upon their own achievements, as Michelangelo did when he denounced his own sculptures as puppets. There is only one solution, Mlle de Beauvoir says. In spite of the moralists’ opinion to the contrary, in old age, “We should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in on ourselves. One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the lives of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, and compassion.” It is not a good way of preparing for old age to brood on the money one is setting aside, on hobbies, and on one’s place of retirement.

It is strange that Mlle de Beauvoir gives less attention to women in this book than to men. Certainly she quotes Mme de Sévigné at length and speaks of one or two others, but one can think of many more signal figures. I do not believe that women have been more silent than Chateaubriand, Hugo, Goethe, Tolstoy, and Proust or many others whose cases she examines. It is true that women have been reserved about their emotional and sexual lives, but in all human beings of strong creative ability there is what may be called an extra tonnage of vitality. There is a marked literary bent to Mlle de Beauvoir’s mind, which is fortunate, because writers, painters, and musicians have had few reserves about their sensations as old people. Painters and musicians do better on the whole than writers, or at any rate better than novelists, in keeping, and indeed putting new life, into their talents. The failure of invention in novelists is probably due to the fact that memory overcrowds their minds, as it does the aging minds of most of us; it suffocates the power of fantasy from which the novel springs.

All the same, it is to the novelists we must turn for the most intimate accounts of old age. Two seem to me outstanding: Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno with its astonishing portrait of Zeno’s aging father, a description which weaves clinical observation and profound imaginative sympathy together. It is dispassionate and tender, yet intellectually alert. Italo Svevo was fitted for this by his comic genius and his fervid interest in illness: life is a sickness, he said, that only death will cure, and the old know well how to mock. This cleared the ground of all conventional sentiment and morbidity at the outset and freed him to see the life of the aged in their own affronted sense of time as past and present mingled. I imagine Svevo would be too wayward for Mlle de Beauvoir—but willfulness, after all, is one of the privileges and weapons of old age. It was Bertrand Russell in his nineties who sat down on the pavement at the CND protest in Whitehall saying, “I am not prepared to be tolerated much longer.”

The second novel is one Mlle de Beauvoir does go into at length. The Golovlevs of Saltykov-Shchedrin, which is unsurpassed in its portrait of the changing mind of a woman who passes from the bustling despotism of middle age to the muddle of timeless daydreaming and the dozing frights of old age.

She lived as though she took no personal share in existence…. The weaker she grew, the louder was the voice of her desire to live…. Earlier she had been afraid of death; now she seemed to have forgotten it entirely. She longed for all those things she had deprived herself of…. Greed, gossip, and a self-seeking pliability developed in her with astonishing speed…. The transition from cantankerous despotism to submissive flattery was no more than a question of time….

These are bleak quotations which do not bring out the real reason for the care and fullness of the portrait: it springs from the time sense of the Russian novelists of the nineteenth century—the sense of dwelling in the day itself, in the minutes that trickle through the fields or the empty room. That is precisely what the time-scale of advanced old age is: a life moving a day at a time, giddy with memory, waking with violence and fright, appeased by drowsiness, and with strange austerity raising its startled head out of confusion.

With one exception The Golovlevs is closer to our subject than any other variations on the theme of Lear (Mlle de Beauvoir thinks Lear may conceivably have come into Shakespeare’s head when he looked at the breakdown of the manorial system under the Tudors, when unemployment and beggary spread everywhere). The exception is in the work of Samuel Beckett. His writing shows how artists are more sensitive to the burning theme that is hidden or repressed in any given period than the sociologists or reformers are. And indeed see it sooner.

Beckett is not moved by meliorist ideas but presents his old men and women as creatures who have entered a culture of frenzy, complete in itself, with its own rage of inquiry, its feverish speed of acute and changing sensation. They are at war not with death but with their own vitality. His old people are agonized by the life force that prevents them from dying. “What tedium!” cries his Molloy, continuously, contemptuously. Beckett joins those writers who reject the idea of serenity with the frightful hilarity of people forced to survive. His fever is different from the fever of Chateaubriand’s eloquent self-loathing, but both contain their truth and an illumination: when we recognize the inevitable, we are strengthened to bear it or (more important in a selfish society that values long life) to endure it in others.

The social aspect is one thing, but the private is another. A thousand considerations of temperament, upbringing, and chance make generalization impossible. Some people are born older than others and become young late in life. If we are not struck by mortal disease many of us in our seventies nowadays feel little different from what we were at fifty—though this may be a delusion—except that we now know time is shorter. If by luck of vocation or temperament we are incurably active we have little time to think of our decline. But our sense of the mysteriousness of life becomes sharper and we are jarred by the death of friends, as if by the sound of a harsh forgotten chord. If we are vain of our survival we now discover a more piercing grief, for the dead have taken away a part of ourselves. Indeed it might be said that what the old learn at last is how to grieve.

We all have known intimately men and women of all social classes in their eighties and nineties who are incredibly clear in mind and vibrating with life. How much depends on our tonnage of vitality! The only thing to be said is that these old people have usually placed themselves outside the system. They have not been worn out by others; and if they have their aches and pains, they have added to their lives by increasing their work and not by rest. Perhaps they were born unresting.

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