Stuff I Read Tonight

Well, I decided to get cracking on my Gerontology class.

Our first reading is Simon de Beauvoir’s “The Coming of Age,” which opens with an exploration of Siddhartha’s encounter with old age and his astonishment at the world’s drive to hide it. She goes on to describe the doublethink that goes on around old age, comparing it to the euphamism of ‘dear departed’ for ‘dead.’ “Society looks upon old age as a kind of shameful secret that is unseemly to mention.” She wrote this essay — and, more, the book it prefaces — because society “treats the old as outcasts.” She contends that the elderly are denied their humanity. The question becomes complicated because there’s no ‘coming of age,’ no binary rite that swaps one from young to old. There’s an economic/Marxist angle here, for sure. She contends, however, that the aged lack ‘economic strength’ or a means of enforcing their rights; the immense power of the AARP in modern American political life (1 billion annual revenue, etc,) kind of puts a question mark on the end of that one. She concludes, though, that “either by their virture or by their degradation they stand outside humanity.” Some other interesting quotes:

“For in the old person that we must become, we refuse to recognize ourselves.” (p4)

“Then again the dead are nothing. This nothingness can bring about a metaphysical vertigo, but in a way it is comforting — it raises no problems. ‘I shall no longer exist.’ In a disappearance of this kind I retain my identity. Thinking of myself as an old person when I am twenty or forty means thinking of myself as someone else, as another than myself.” (5).

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Richard Freedman: “Sufficiently Decayed: Gerontophobia in English Literature”

This .pdf needed to be flipped. Freedman opens up by critiquing Beauvoir’s “feelings of disgust and fear of the aged themselves.” The intention of his essay or book is to “confront that treatment — as the Enemy — in some of its more eloquent and enduring literary manifestations.” Most interestingly, he seems to be saying that literature fails if it’s merely polemical and that its true greatness lies “in its ability to face unflinchingly the lowest, least “humane” instincts of human beings.” He restates his thesis when he says that “A confrontation of the literary response to aging at its most bracingly negative might be of some use in countering such glibly optimistic views of the role of the humanities.” He goes on to list some examples of old age getting harshed on in literature.

  1. The Way of the World, by Congreve, 1700, was about a 55 year old lady who wanted to sleep with some people. Freedman ascribes some of this anxiety to Freudian pathology.
  2. The Romans, especially Plautus and Terence, were very rude to the elderly, particularly old women.
  3. Jonathan Swift has the “Struldbruggs,” people who live forever. Their sexuality is portrayed as revolting. Freedman states that Swift’s motive here is to demonize a desire for the immortality of the body above the immortality of the soul.
  4. Frances Burney, a predecessor to Jane Austen, wrote Evelina, during which a bunch of rich young bloods make two 80+ year old women race each other.
  5. Jane Austen was mostly ambivalent — she was sympathetic to impatience with the elderly, but she also saw herself in them. c.f. Emma, Sense and Sensibility
  6. Gilbert + Sullivan’re consistently cruel to women.
  7. New realism, like in Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, can be just as cruel by detail rather than by moral.

I think his conclusions are a bit of an overreach, though — he seems to be ascribing the success of the above works in part to their gerontophobia, and I’m just not sure that’s it. Overall, a bit dull and kind of just a laundry list.

Gonna have to read the rest without notes, but here’s something I’m going to try to do when I have readings.

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