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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


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Thank you (I think), Ronni, for this. It brings a turmoil of emotions to me, bringing to mind my mother in her last years commenting on her failing memory, appearance, and feeling of uselessness. Through it all, though, she made every effort to "carry on." Now that I'm in my late 70s I can appreciate that it is a view of what many others have already experienced in their last years.

Thanks for giving me a chuckle (well...actually, a snort of surprise) at your "sort of" collecting books on aging. In 30 years will you be leaving your collection to a library?

'properly ironed nightgown'??!!
To someone who has those kind of preferences, old age would indeed be a hardship.

The thing that struck me about the woman's lamentation was her dependence on others and the insensitive way they treated her. It was cruel of Harriet to lock Pansy out at night. Old age brings enough miseries with aches and pains that never leave and a memory that is slowly failing, without having to endure the lack of compassion from caretakers.

I am getting used to pain as it is part of me. I can laugh at my memory mishaps. But I do get irritated when I feel incomepetent when I make mistakes that I knew I would not have made when younger.

As long as I am able to live alone and care for myself I will enjoy being old with the knowledge that I am very fortunate to be blessed with so many years. But if I were to be at the mercy of unkind 'others' death would be a welcome friend.

If you don't have Carolyn Heilbrun's "The Last Gift of Time" in your collection, you might want to at least read it. An excellent book about growing old. (When I looked her up on the Internet so that I could write her and thank her, she had already passed away, in 2005. Sigh. /// Have read a lot of her non-fiction books. She was an excellent writer, primarily about women.

I'm always fascinated by the writing of those who can observe their own slippage, yet write about it so eloquently and precisely. Since becoming the fulltime companion/caregiver of my mother-in-law who has been slipping further and further into dementia and now, at 93, physical decline, I have discovered many wonderful works that have helped us tremendously, in navigating these waters.

Two of my favorite books about aging are: "If I Live to be 100" by Neenah Ellis and "Somewhere Towards the End" by Diana Athill. I insisted that my sons read these also for who knows who will be around to care for me if and when I need it and want them to understand a little more about growing old and how it feels.

The poem brought the thought, "Oh my, so sad", and so human in every way. I hope I am brave enough to travel through that place.

I was asked today to give occasional care to a woman who is mentally deteriorating as she rounds the corner of 90.

I've met this woman before with her family and she was extraordinarily sharp and alert.

I will learn from her in the odd hours I will be with her.

Athill's remains one of my favourites.

XO
WWW

Independent souls make their lives easier for themselves if they can graciously accept the assistance they need, assuming they have a caring compassionate family member/caregiver. Finding that often fluctuating fine line between what the person can do for themselves, allowing and encouraging them to do so versus doing everything for them, is often key to a more pleasant existence. Such activity generally gives the person a more positive attitude they can and want to continue life.

I, too, tend to think someone writing eloquently about their physical state, age perspective that projects more negative aspects may actually be in better shape than their words state or suggest. But, what they believe can make it so.

I've enjoyed Sarton and Athill's perspectives on their aging experience.

There is much to be learned from these, and other, writers to be sure. Darlene, I'm with you! As long as I do not find myself at the "mercy" of some unkind other, I can manage. Woe befall the other who would try to lock out our two beautiful, spoiled (indoor) cats at night. A hex upon such an act--and the person who would do it. Our cats belong to, and with, their person.

I agree with Joared. We need to be promoting, loudly, a whole new mindset that Help Is Good, and associate it with continuing strength and independence, not weakness and losing.

Two pithy quotes about aging from the other side of the pond.
First from Dylan Thomas who died young thanks to his over fondness for booze:
"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
Great poetry but half-baked idea.
Then T.S. Elliot:
"I am old, I am old, I wear my trousers rolled" Only old men would understand.

I am fond of the last line of
ULYSSES from poet
Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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