The Coming of Age
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 …