Not Just Yet

Frank Kermode

  • The Long Life by Helen Small
    Oxford, 346 pp, £25.00, December 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 922993 2

In the opening pages of Plato’s Republic Cephalus tells Socrates that when old men of his acquaintance get together they tend to spend their time bemoaning the lost pleasures of youth. Since sex, feasting and other laddish benefits have been curtailed or withdrawn they feel they might as well not be alive at all. But Cephalus also reports that the poet Sophocles, asked how the sex was going, made this exemplary but prim reply: ‘I am very glad to have escaped all that, like a slave who has escaped from a savage and tyrannical master.’ Old age, he says, brings freedom from desire; the true cause for complaint is not old age itself but the way people live. ‘If they are temperate and contented, old age . . . is only moderately onerous; if they aren’t, both old age and youth are hard to bear.’

Youthful readers, confronted by Sophocles’ anaphrodisiac calm, may dismiss this remark as just the kind of thing an old man, having reached an unimaginable stage of drooling enfeeblement, would say. There is a difficulty of communication: Cephalus and Sophocles are themselves old (Cephalus says he can’t visit Socrates in Athens because he can no longer manage the walk from Piraeus) and know something of the subject at first hand; but the young know nothing directly about old age and their inquiries into the topic must be done blind. Helen Small, for instance, pronounces with impressive youthful verve and authority on a condition that must still, in a sense, be a closed book to her. Revealing her own age (42), she laments the dearth of serious philosophical reflection on the subject, and resolves to show how thinking about it ‘rests on larger . . . assumptions about what life is, what a person is, what a good life is’. This broadens the subject, for these are issues on which persons of any age are free to comment. Few of Small’s witnesses are doing real old-age philosophy. Those who have had actual experience of old age are likely to be dead or very tired or just reluctant to discuss the matter with clever young interlocutors, so that much of the best thinking on this subject comes from philosophically sophisticated but honourably ignorant juniors.

In any case, Plato’s belief that old age is the best age for doing philosophy (he thought 50 a good age to begin) seems to have gone the way of another ancient notion, that old persons deserve automatic respect. What, if they can think at all, do they think of old age? Closing my eyes, I ask myself with which masters, if any, my own stock notions originate. The answer for me, and I suspect for many others, is Eliot.

What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? . . .
There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.

And so on. ‘Do not let me hear/of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly.’ Eliot was 52 when he published these lines in ‘East Coker’. Two years later the familiar compound ghost of ‘Little Gidding’ was even more downbeat:

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fly asunder.

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