Monday, 10 December 2012
Literary Lamentations on Old Age
From Wayne Booth (1921-2005), a literary critic who spent most of his career as a professor in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago:
“Readers will have noticed that through all of these powerful lamentations run that paradox with which I began: The better you express the losses, the less you've lost. To hold back the losses to capture the beauty that was is to turn the loss into something else: the triumph of imagination.”
Depending on how long you have been reading Time Goes By, you may have discerned that I (sort of) collect books about aging. I did not set out to do so, nor is there intention or orderliness to it - just an urge to learn more that compels me forward.
A recent addition is a 1992 collection of book excerpts, poems, letters and diaries: The Art of Growing Older: Writers on Living and Aging, “Selected,” as the title page notes, “and with Personal Reflections by Wayne Booth.”
The writers range from the ancients to those of the latter 20th century and many selections are familiar to me from general reading on old age and other compilations I own. What sets this book apart is Booth's thoughtful and informed commentary.
The first chapter, titled “Facing the Facts: Losses, Fears, Lamentations,” could as easily be called (in the youthful vernacular of my generation) Bummers. This doleful example is typical of others in the section, an eloquent piece of writing from As We Are Now by May Sarton:
”Days have gone by. It must be October, mid-October I think, because the leaves are flying fast. The great maples are skeletons against the sky.
“The beeches are still a marvelous greenish-yellow, a Chinese yellow, I have always thought. Pansy, now the nights are cold, sometimes comes to sleep with me, and slips out (clever cat) before anyone has stirred.
“The only time I weep is when she is there purring beside me. I, who longed for touch, can hardly bear the sweetness of that little rough tongue licking my hand.
“There is nothing to say any longer. And I am writing only because Lisa is to bring Eva today. Harriet doesn't want them to see me as I was – dirty hair I hardly bothered to comb, an old woman, a grotesque miserable animal.
“She washed my hair and it is drying now. This time she was gentle, thank God. I suppose she can be because I am just a passive bundle. She brought me a clean and, for once, properly ironed nightgown. I do not dress very often any more. I feel safer in bed.
“It must be mid-November. The leaves are all gone. Harriet found Pansy on my bed and now locks her out every night. The walls close in on every side. I do not remember things very clearly...is my brother John still alive? Where has Anna gone?”
In that list of discontents, Sarton captures the enormity of the ebbing of life - the weakness, both disinterest in and disgust with her appearance, hostility, loneliness, fear, confusion and, too, appreciation of the small pleasures left to her.
All that in beautifully wrought prose that belies her statement that her mind is not working so well anymore.
What I like about this new addition to my library of aging is that Booth, far more than simply curating quotations, listens closely to what the writers are saying and gives his readers those “personal reflections” he mentions on the title page.
In Chapter II, as throughout the book, he disputes Sarton's and the other writers' lamentations of dreadful decline on evidence, he explains, of their literary skill.
”When Chateaubriand said, 'Old age is a shipwreck,' he was not just complaining, writes Booth, “he was celebrating the pleasures of metaphor, still available to him in his old age...
“Indeed, most of the laments in Part I were created – I must underline again – with a force that refutes their surface message: 'I am old, feeble, miserable, dying.' Well, yes, I believe you since you insist. But how, then, do you manage to pull yourself together and offer me a poem, or even just a metaphor, about it...
“When you put your whole soul into it like that, I cannot quite believe in your total helpless and hopeless gloom – not in the same way I believe flat statements like, 'I am utterly miserable' or 'I am going to commit suicide.'
“In a way, of course, I believe you more: you have made me feel your misery more actively, and so have drawn me into it.
“On the other hand, even when your poem is not your very best work, it shows you obviously alive, wonderfully alive, more alive than some of the ostensibly more cheerful folks we turn to now.”
(After which Booth takes on age deniers about whom we are not concerned – at least, not today.)
The deeper I delve into the literature of aging, the richer it becomes.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joanne Zimmermann: Day of Infamy