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 Since sex, feasting and other laddish benefits have been curtailed or withdrawn they feel they might as well not be alive at all.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.

Eliot was now 54. Certain dark consolations, admonitions rather, are offered, but the ghost’s sentences echo coldly in the mind, along with ‘Gerontion’: ‘Neither fear nor courage saves us.’ These resonances tempt us to join in the complaining; but somehow they don’t go deep enough to drain our reserves of cheerfulness. Small introduces Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools’, a great poem certainly and a terrible one, here sympathetically analysed. Larkin was 51 when he wrote it, a middle-aged man already terrified by the prospect of dementia. What, then, is to be done, as the menace of senescence increases? ‘Not fare well, but fare forward’ is Eliot’s bleak recommendation. Larkin is less stoical but no more consoling: ‘Well,/We shall find out.’ Both these poems are about the apprehensions of middle age and not about old age itself.

Small describes her book as ‘essayistic’, which it exactly is, and its being so causes her and her reader some trouble. At first the topic seems reasonably narrow: ‘What philosophers and non-philosophers have had to say about old age has, in essence, changed very little since classical antiquity.’ But they have had a good deal to say about life in general, and old age is a part of it. So she gives them their say, and in doing so displays admirable discursive energy and a determination to control many strands of argument.

Especially concerned with the rival claims of the aesthetic and the ethical, she includes a number of high-class fictions that refer to these claims. Among the novels about which she has most to say is Death in Venice. Thomas Mann was 35 when he met the original of the boy Tadzio, whose beauty prevents Aschenbach from achieving ‘Platonic sublimation’. Consequently, Mann, with his aesthetic imperative, cannot offer ‘a primarily moral account of what it means to live into old age, of what the value of a long life might be, and what the relation is (if any) between a long life and a good life’. Ethical considerations (always dominant in this book) are in Mann’s story subordinated to the aesthetic. He wrote as an artist longing for release from the demands of form, from the need to impose form on experience. Despite his intellectual resources he was thus forced onto what Small regards as the wrong, the aesthetic track.

The question of narrative unity entails an acute problem with endings and Small gives it a chapter to itself. Fear of the end may affect the spirits of the aged, but given the choice between having an end and having it perpetually deferred, they would choose the former. Tennyson’s ‘Tithonus’ is a great poem but it is not calculated to encourage a desire for deathlessness; and Swift’s Struldbruggs would end all hesitation in the most fervent lover of existence. The story of The Makropulos Case is also exemplary. It counsels us not to accept such unnatural conditions. The old will not be disturbed, feeling the certainty of extinction in the very short term a topic of much more immediate interest.

The larger claim is that endings can be thought of as part of a plot, that a life resembles, or ought to resemble, a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end, the end being thought of as the completion of a ‘progress narrative’. But in fact the last years may not offer anything that could be called ‘completion’. They may contain ‘projects’ with posthumous implications, a provision recommended by Simone de Beauvoir, or they may be spent in idleness or even wickedness, having few virtuous connections with the rest of the life in question, or with the structures of literary narrative.

Nor do readings of the past and divinations of the future of a particular life much resemble reading a poem or a story. There may be a passing resemblance to reading in the recollection and arrangement of personal disasters and pleasures now gone by, yet likely to have a foreseeable effect on the future. And musings of that sort may help to establish a personality, a self of sorts, that provides connections between past, present and future. Driven to it, we might even claim to discern a structural relationship between events in childhood, youth, middle age and old age, chronologically remote elements that pertain to one another only because of the continuing existence of a factitious self that recalls, or fails to suppress them.

In assembling such shored fragments and ghostly encounters, it might be said, but fancifully, that what we are doing bears some resemblance to the making of fiction. The old person can see himself as an autobiographical pícaro, given a self that traverses and violates, but is also changed and coloured by the landscapes of the past, yet does remain a sort of self, the kind that fiction can project – responsive to generic pressures, yet malleable. But he lacks the options open to the fiction writer. He cannot choose to end his life at a point just before death where it might best be experienced as fulfilled. Death may be, is likely to be, a little too early or a little too late.

It is on this point of choice that making a fiction and completing a life differ most sharply. To make use of one of Small’s exemplary old men, it is a matter of fictive luck whether Priam ends or does not end his old age in misery, escapes or does not escape the sword of Neoptolemus, dies there and then or returns unscathed to his wife and fifty children. Should Job, his boils cured, his contest with God honourably lost, be returned to prosperity, to seven thousand sheep, five hundred she-asses, seven sons and three daughters, one of whom is named Keren-happuch, which is said to mean ‘Box (or Horn) of Eye Paint’? His fate is as arbitrary as her name. As it happens, Job seems to die happy, ‘being old and full of days’. To die thus at just the right moment depends, in life, not on narrative logic but on what Bernard Williams calls ‘moral luck’. It is what enables a person to die when full of days, old but not in terminal misery, correctly mourned by a numerous and prosperous family. It is not an ending one can choose, it is a matter of aesthetics.

For instruction in the preferred ethical approach we must go back to Aristotle. Aristotle had high ethical standards. He believed children can’t be happy, since they are still incapable of noble acts. The mature, he thought, cannot expect to escape the misfortunes of their declining years. The old will suffer biological and intellectual decline. Even if they remain prosperous into old age they may then spoil the story as a whole by being struck down, like Priam. It is permissible to call old persons ‘prosperous’, but not ‘fortunate’, or at least not until they’ve died in a way appropriate to the description. So Aristotle in his Ethics; in the Rhetoric, probably written when he was younger, he is even more severe on the old.

Aristotle saw the particular difficulty of judging the conduct of old people whose powers are failing by the criteria of virtuous behaviour appropriate to maturity. King Lear being an obvious case in point, Small gives an elaborate account of it. Is Lear mentally and morally impaired when he divides his kingdom? If he is so, and continues to be so as the action proceeds, we should perhaps take the fact into account when we judge his life. Certainly, Lear uses his age and mental frailty as an excuse for his wild behaviour, but Cordelia’s answer when he offers himself for judgment is ‘No cause, no cause’ – she throws the case out of court. The Fool is constantly accusing and convicting Lear, but he does so with love. Indeed, for all its talk on and around the topic of justice, judgment in the play is either phantasmagorical (the mad trial of Goneril and Regan in the hovel) or corrupt, like Cornwall’s interrogation of Gloucester and the venality of the justices condemned by the raving Lear; or simply a matter of faith: ‘This shows you are above, you justicers.’ Judging is not what is asked of us. The allusions in the final scene to the Last Days and the universal judgment that will ensue further declare the irrelevance of temporal judgment. Here it doesn’t make any sense to judge. Pity is permitted; so ethics gives way to tragedy, something of which Small disapproves. She has an Aristotelian partiality to judgment.

This does not prevent her from making interesting variations on the theme of what nearly everybody feels about this play, but, surprisingly, she fails to consider Samuel Johnson’s moment of revulsion as a valid response. He obviously saw the play, or at any rate its treatment of Cordelia, as cruel, immoral and ‘contrary to the idea of natural justice’, and he might have added that the play is cruel even to its audience. Anyway, Johnson’s strongly ethical judgment takes precedence over the aesthetic, which is on the whole what Small prefers.

More generally, some of the proponents of narrative unity here considered believe that our lives make sense to us only in so far as they are seen to possess ‘the temporal logic of a narrative’. A life acquires such meaning as it has over time. Some say that a sense of the unity of a human life cannot be had without both a childhood and an old age. This condition satisfied, one may acquire a sense of selfhood; otherwise, without a beginning, a middle and an end ‘there would not be subjects of whom stories could be told.’ So Alasdair MacIntyre; but Small does not agree. As she remarks, few lives have the aesthetic dimensions of literary narratives. Nevertheless she asks whether stories can make some contribution to the debate, and analyses Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein to find out. This is a creative work of old age, written in the shadow of death, for which she has strong affection and respect. Her approval is of course anti-aesthetic: ‘In this novel, declining to describe our lives as unified stories until we absolutely have to (until, that is, we are on the point of dying) is the only way we can hope to live out our time other than as tragedy.’ She deals briefly with the ironies of Bellow’s actual old age: the writing of Ravelstein, the begetting of a daughter, the onset of Alzheimer’s. Estimating the value of those last five years – ‘their contribution to a good whole life’ – she merely echoes Michael Slote: ‘Less exacting criteria should apply.’

Again judgment, albeit merciful. Relevant to this clemency is Small’s honourable desire to claim for the old a fair share of social resources. In the course of her examination of the problem she studies Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons along with Le Père Goriot, and Adorno’s late lectures on metaphysics with The Old Curiosity Shop and Beckett’s Endgame. Adorno learned from Endgame that it ‘prepares us for a state of affairs in which everyone who lifts the lid of the nearest trashcan can expect to find his own parents in it’. This, he suggests, is the gerontology of late capitalism. Beckett himself condemned this ‘over-reading’, and told the actor Patrick Magee that Hamm was ‘the kind of man who likes things coming to an end but doesn’t want them to end just yet’ – a deeper insight than may at first appear. Small, as we might expect, thinks the most important words in Beckett’s play are: ‘Please, no pathos.’ That would allow tragedy, another surrender to the aesthetic.

In a final chapter she studies Michael Ignatieff’s novel Scar Tissue along with developments in evolutionary theory that affect old age. Peter Medawar argued that the effect of natural selection grows weaker with time, and that old age is ‘in effect a biological dumping ground’ – a ‘genetic dustbin’. But this will no longer do; interest has now settled on the phenomenon of the senescent ‘plateau’. There is evidence that in late life senescence can come to a halt: ‘Mortality rates become stable rather than (as one might expect) increasing incrementally.’ This decline in the mortality of the old seems to start at about 75. Normal actuarial tables are ‘not valid above that age’. Small thinks this plateau may help us to see old age as a phase of life and not as ‘an ever more precipitous slope of decline’. On the other hand, we may just have to look forward to becoming Struldbruggs rather than Old Fools. One wonders in what spirit the old will receive news of the plateau. It would probably have depressed Eliot and terrified Larkin. Small is more optimistic. She deserves to feel good, for she has argued tirelessly, written an impressively researched book, and commanded the interest of sceptics more than twice her age.