Image from Flickr via Abode of Chaos

It is when we are young that we are most obviously busy with the project of trying to construct a self we hope the world will appreciate, monitoring and rearranging the impressions we make upon others. Yet as we age, most of us are still trying to hold on to some sense of who and what we are, however hard this may become for those who start to feel increasingly invisible. Everywhere I look nowadays I see older people busily engaged with the world and eager, just as I am, to relate to others, while also struggling to shore up favored ways of seeing ourselves. However, the world in general is rarely sympathetic to these attempts, as though the time had come, or were long overdue, for the elderly to withdraw altogether from worrying about how they appear to others. In my view, such a time never comes, which means finding much better ways of affirming old age than those currently available.

The greying of the global population has not only been largely either disregarded or deplored, it has also amplified rather than diminished social antipathy towards the elderly.

The need to think again and to think more imaginatively about aging should be obvious once we confront the rapid increase in life expectancy around the globe. Despite deep disparities locally and globally, ever more people are living into old age, often very old age. In Britain, ten million people are currently over sixty-five years old, around a sixth of the population, with that number likely to double over the next few decades. The figures in the U.S. are equally arresting, where around forty million people are currently over sixty-five, some 13 percent of the total population, with that number also predicted to double by 2030, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the population. Yet this greying of the population has not only been largely either disregarded or deplored, it has also amplified rather than diminished social antipathy towards the elderly. Tellingly, in his parting statement to the British House of Lords as Archbishop of Canterbury at the close of 2012, Rowan Williams suggested that negative stereotypes of the aging population are fostering attitudes of contempt and leaving them vulnerable to verbal and physical abuse. There is thus aversion towards the very topic of aging.

Aging encompasses so much, and yet most people’s thoughts about it embrace so little. Against the dominant fixation, for instance, I write not primarily about aging bodies, with their rising demands, frequent embarrassments, and endless diversities—except that of course our bodies are there, in every move we make, or sometimes fail to complete. I have little to say, either, about the corrosions of dementia. It is telling nowadays how often those who address the topic of aging alight on dementia—often, paradoxically, in criticism of others who simply equate aging with decline, while doing just this themselves. For the faint-hearted, I need to point out that although the incidence of dementia will indeed accelerate in the age group now headed towards their nineties, even amongst the very oldest it will not predominate—though this information hardly eliminates our fear of such indisputable decline.

It is true, we may indeed remain healthy, but we will not stay young.

Conversely, I do not make, or not in quite the usual way, an exploration of those many narratives of resilience, which suggest that with care of the self, diligent monitoring, and attention to spiritual concerns we can postpone aging itself, at least until those final moments of very old age. On this view, we can stay healthy, fit and “young”—or youngish—performing our yoga, practicing Pilates, eating our greens, avoiding hazards and spurning envy and resentment. It is true, we may indeed remain healthy, but we will not stay young. “You are only as old as you feel,” though routinely offered as a jolly form of reassurance, carries its own disavowal of old age.

Aging faces, aging bodies, as we should know, are endlessly diverse. Many of them are beautifully expressive, once we choose to look—those eyes rarely lose their luster, when engrossed. However, I am primarily concerned with the possibilities for and impediments to staying alive to life itself, whatever our age. This takes me first of all to the temporal paradoxes of aging, and to enduring ways of remaining open and attached to the world.

As we age, changing year on year, we also retain, in one manifestation or another, traces of all the selves we have been, creating a type of temporal vertigo and rendering us psychically, in one sense, all ages and no age. “All ages and no age” is an expression once used by the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott to describe the wayward temporality of psychic life, writing of his sense of the multiple ages he could detect in those patients once arriving to lie on the couch at his clinic in Hampstead in London. Thus the older we are the more we encounter the world through complex layerings of identity, attempting to negotiate the shifting present while grappling with the disconcerting images of the old thrust so intrusively upon us. “Live in the layers, / not on the litter,” the North American poet, Stanley Kunitz, wrote in one of his beautiful poems penned in his seventies.

Many people are likely to mourn the passionate pleasures and perils of their younger life, fearing that never again can they recapture what they have lost. Yet, one way or another, for better and for worse, there are devious means by which we always live with those passions of the past in the strange mutations of mental life in the present, whatever our age. We do not have to be Marcel Proust to recapture traces of them without even trying, though it will surely be harder to find just the right words, or perhaps any language at all, to express our own everyday time-traveling.

Thus, on the one hand it can seem as though the self never ages; yet on the other we are forced to register our bodies and minds in constant transformation, especially by the impact we make upon others. As Virginia Woolf, always so concerned with issues of time, memory and sexual difference, wrote in her diary in 1932, just before reaching fifty: “I sometimes feel that I have lived 250 years already, & sometimes that I am still the youngest person on the omnibus.” This is exactly how I feel.

“I don’t feel old,” elderly informants repeatedly told the oral historian Paul Thompson. Their voices echo the words he’d read in his forays into published autobiography and archived interviews. Similarly, in the oral histories collected by the writer Ronald Blythe, an eighty-four-year-old ex-schoolmaster reflects: “I tend to look upon other old men as old men—and not include myself… My boyhood stays imperishable and is such a great part of me now. I feel it very strongly—more than ever before.”

“How can a 17-year-old, like me, suddenly be 81?” the exactingly scientific developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert asks in the opening sentences of his book on the surprising nature of old age, wryly entitled You’re Looking Very Well. Once again, this keen attachment to youth tells us a great deal about the stigma attending old age: “you’re looking old” would never be said, except to insult. On the one hand there can be a sense of continuous fluidity, as we travel through time; on the other, it is hard to ignore those distinct positions we find ourselves in as we age, whatever the temptation. I have been finding, however, that it becomes easier to face up to my own anxieties about aging after surveying the radical ambiguities in the speech or writing of others thinking about the topic, especially when they do so neither to lament nor to celebrate old age, but simply to affirm it as a significant part of life. This is the trigger for the words that follow, as I assemble different witnesses to help guide me through the thoughts that once kept me awake at night, pondering all the things that have mattered to me and wondering what difference aging makes to my continuing ties to them.

* * *

“I don’t feel old” may for differing reasons be one of the chief messages we hear from the old, often familiar to us in the words of aging relatives, friends, or perhaps an insistent voice arising from within. Yet sometimes, of course, now at the very close of my sixties writing this, I do feel old. But then my manner of displaying confidence, strength, and independence has from the beginning often been accompanied by an awareness of also feeling somewhat weak, fragile, and dependent—characteristics always attributed to the elderly and, not coincidentally, seen as prototypically “feminine.” Despite a rather paradoxical official eagerness nowadays to present an encouraging view of “successful” aging, I know that there are always competing voices, seemingly coming from within and without, conflicting with any sense of satisfaction that I might have in later life. For however we may feel “on the inside,” this has little impact on the abiding fears of aging that usually begin assaulting us from mid-life, seemingly from the outside.

Beauvoir’s point was that whatever our age we must also see the “old” within ourselves, even though—frighteningly—the face of the “old” we must be prepared to recognize ourselves in was in her description almost always a somewhat pitiable thing.

Turning to my first guide into the territory of old age, no one depicted the contradictions of aging more sharply than that intrepid feminist avatar, Simone de Beauvoir. Entering middle age, she felt she could not recover from the shock of realizing she was no longer young: “How is it that time, which has no form nor substance, can crush me with so huge a weight that I can no longer breathe?” Beauvoir was, of course, the preeminent inspiration for so many of my very particular “post-war” generation in our youth, rousing us to confront and resist the situation of women’s symbolic and social marginalization in, and as, The Second Sex. Fifteen years after publishing that rallying call, however, Beauvoir was unable to resist the searing sorrow she felt confronting her own aging when concluding her third autobiographical book recording her life and times, Force Of Circumstance, first published in 1963.

Beauvoir was just fifty-five when expressing her words of anguish in that book: we learn that she loathed observing her own face in the mirror, lamented finding herself without any lover, perhaps all the more so as she watched the oversupply of beautiful, desiring women flocking around the man she claimed as her own lifetime companion, the by then physically frail and fast deteriorating Jean-Paul Sartre. Most of all, she despaired that she would never again be able, never again be allowed, to experience any new desires, or to display her yearnings publicly. “Never again!” she laments, naming the passing of all the things now slipping away from her grasp. Listing her former joys, plans, and projects, she wrote: “It is not I who am saying goodbye to all those things I once enjoyed, it is they who are leaving me.”

I’ve read that same sentiment so many times from women, sometimes expressed piteously, other times more flippantly, as in the words of the north American novelist, Alison Lurie: “Soon after I reached 60 I was abandoned by Vogue magazine and all its clones… Without intending it I had permanently alienated them, simply by becoming old. From their point of view, I was now a hopeless case.” Beauvoir’s thoughts are much heavier when she closes her book with the cry: “Memories grow thin, myths crack and peel, projects rot in the bud; I am here, and around me circumstances. If this silence is to last, how long it seems, my short future!”

“Never again,” Beauvoir mourned, seemingly inconsolable, in her mid-fifties. Never again would she be in control of her life, able to realize or allowed to express desire, whereas once she had been “drawn into the future by all [her] new plans.” And yet, it turned out that Beauvoir would afterwards shift many times in relation to what, if anything, she was again able to do and to say. Indeed, her “never again” was a sentiment never again repeated in the same bleak way in any of her subsequent writing. Just under ten years later, writing All Said and Done (first published in 1974), we find that things were neither all said nor, even less so, all done. Beauvoir was busy taking control and making changes after all.

Thus, in another assertive contradiction of her title, we find that much had shifted in her life, along with changing political contexts and new personal attachments, among other things. Indeed, now in her sixties, Beauvoir had no new man, apparently, but interestingly she had found new joy, a new love, even a new sense of unity. This time it was not simply with Sartre (she never moved very far away from her attachment to him) but with a woman, Sylvie le Bon, who was thirty-three years her junior. Furthermore, she was committed to new projects and even had a new political identification, with feminism. “Today I’ve changed,” she said around this time, “I’ve really become a feminist.”

However, what is especially significant was that while Beauvoir herself had managed to make another turn in her life, by at least partly bonding and identifying herself with a much younger partner, she was nevertheless determined to document the plight of the old in her later writing (if no longer exactly her own plight). Beauvoir’s thoughts on aging explore the ways in which the old are positioned as culture’s subordinated and negated other; just as twenty years earlier she had once described women as symbolically always in a secondary position to men and masculinity.

The need to tackle her own very deep fear and horror of aging launched Beauvoir’s second major piece of theoretical research, La Vieillesse, published in 1970. She used her now familiar formula, once again contrasting the marginalized Other (the old) with the norm (the young and male). Here again, she insisted that the disparaged meanings attached to this abject or demeaned Other are not fixed in the body, but contingent upon a comprehensive cultural situation of neglect and disparagement: “Man never lives in a state of nature,” she wrote. Nor women either. Moreover, despite her own dread of aging, Beauvoir was not simply in denial, as we might say, when she set out to reclaim old age, and to speak on its behalf. Her point was that whatever our age we must also see the “old” within ourselves, even though—frighteningly—the face of the “old” we must be prepared to recognize ourselves in was in her description almost always a somewhat pitiable thing. It belonged to a creature whose situation, economically, socially and psychically, had mostly been, and remained, deplorable. Thus, on the one hand, Beauvoir insisted: “We must stop cheating: the whole meaning of our life is in question… let us recognize ourselves in this old man or that old woman.” On the other, she loathed the aging body, particularly her own. As we shall see, in her novels, she had portrayed the older, abandoned woman, with little sympathy.

So, Beauvoir recognized her aging self, and yet, simultaneously, she repudiated it. She dreamed, in her case quite literally, of escaping old age: “Often in my sleep I dream that in a dream I’m fifty-four [which at the time she is], I awake and find I’m only thirty. ‘What a terrible nightmare I had,’ says the woman who thinks she’s awake.” And then she finally wakes up. Sometimes, she added, “just before I come back to reality, a giant beast settles on my breast: ‘It’s true! It’s my nightmare of being more than fifty that’s come true!’” Beauvoir’s earlier analysis of the situation of women as men’s culturally disdained female “other” had not led her, as it would later lead some feminists, to repudiate men or masculinity, but instead to insist on women’s possible unity with them as “free and autonomous beings.” Similarly, Beauvoir’s analysis of the privileging of the young against the old did not lead her to criticize youth, but rather to work to establish forms of unity with a younger generation (both with a particular young woman, Sylvie, and with a new political movement, feminism), making her, she felt, young as well as old: “The better I knew Sylvie, the more akin I felt to her… There is such an interchange between us that I lose the sense of my age: she draws me forwards into her future, and there are times when the present recovers a dimension that it had lost.”

Old age is an other which lives within everyone, whatever our age, no matter how much we may try to distance ourselves from it. Recognizing the inevitability of aging could help us all to reconceptualize our responsibilities towards those we are so often inclined to reject.

Yet, however extreme her ambivalence about accepting her own age, what was critical about Beauvoir’s writing was her repeated insistence that “old age” is an “other” which lives within everyone, whatever our age. Short of premature death, no one can escape it, no matter how much we may try to distance ourselves from it. Moreover, and crucially, Beauvoir wondered whether recognizing the inevitability of aging could help us all to reconceptualize our responsibilities towards those we are so often inclined to reject.

This essay is adapted from the introduction to Lynne Segal’s Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing, published this month by Verso Books.

Lynne Segal
is Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck College. Her books include Is the Future Female? Troubled Thoughts on Contemporary Feminism; Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men; and Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure. She co-wrote Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism with Sheila Rowbotham and Hilary Wainwright.

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4 Comments on “All The Selves We Have Been

  1. Wonderful Professor Segal!
    As a youngish person (early 30s) I for one have a quiet fascination for the elderly that is almost akin to envy. I find the map of thier faces to be far more intriguing then the smooth faces of the young. When I express this to others I often get confused looks, not because they can’t see my point, but more because what I find beautiful they find unsettling, as if it’s a reminder of their own mortality.
    Throughout the stages of life, whether it be childhood or our late years, in each phase it seems we’re treated differently, as if the changing of our bodies has made us forget what we were previously and what we will be in the future. However, I believe (this is based on instinct more than anything) that what you ponder is true, we are always what we are and old age is only a collection of all those previous selves: that’s the beauty of the old. For instance, I remember being very aware as a child and thinking “this is something that will shape me,” I still have that same feeling as an adult and will probably have it at 65. Curiousity, imagination, etc. doesn’t seem to age, it’s only what we are “allowed” to do at certain phases in life that constrains these things.
    Even at my young age, I waver between being 250 years old and having seen it all to being ten again and discovering a concept for the first time. I doubt I am the only one with early time-traveling syndrome; it is a remarkable creative force.
    Thank you again for your thoughtful study and generously articulated feelings.

  2. A beautfifully nuanced piece that captures the exquisite ambivalence of aging. I am almost 71, and yet, inside, I feel young, especially sexually young. I can admire and want to make love to a pretty woman, whether young or old. Yet I know that I am invisible to most of them…I know this because, suddenly, women call me “Sir” and give me a wan, somewhat condescending smile, instead of showing their teeth and parting their lips. It is true that we carry our youth with us, but nobody sees it. So, we become vaguely offensive…..a young man can ogle a pretty girl, but an old man is a “dirty old man,” as if a firm breast and good legs are purely to be looked at by young men. Similarly, movies about old men in love with younger women invariably end badly, so that love becomes, at best, a duty, at worst, a pathetic story of loss. Love cannnot be thought of as joy. That’s why I love Paddy Chayevsky’s “Middle of the Night.” It celebrates an old man’s love for a lovely young woman and it ends in a glorious fireburst of passion. Now that’s what I call a happy ending.

  3. Oh my. I have a terminal illness at age 63. My treatment has stopped the cancer’s growth, but it is unlikely that I can totally remove it. So I am extremely grateful to be alive and hope I can watch my grandchildren celebrate many more birthdays. So I love being alive because I get to watch them and my children change. My energy and strength are very limited, but because I have spent my life teaching and reading poetry, I relish spending my time now reading, writing, or researching at my own pace and just following my own curiosity. I remember telling my grandmother when she was in her 60s that she was beautiful in order to make her feel better because of course she wasn’t beautiful in the classical sense, she was just my Grammy who I loved. Having been a very beautiful woman in her youth, she just smiled and said that kind of beauty fades so easily with a twinkle in her eyes and no sorrow or regret. Now I am her age and soft and dumpy. Having been a very beautiful woman in my youth as well, I understand what she meant. I find it a great relief to no longer have to live up to other people’s standards and criticisms. I enjoyed my mother’s beauty and my own, but all that seems like a school I once attended, I loved my professors and all I discovered, but I don’t want to go back and repeat it. I feel a greater freedom now to be who I am rather than to be who others need me to be. And I love watching my daughter and granddaughter’s beauty, it is truly breathtaking to watch it unfold. I am amazed at the contempt and arrogance of the young. But I was that way myself, I didn’t realize how wonderful it is to be old either. I want to solve all the world’s problems still, but I don’t have the energy or the intelligence, so I truly enjoy discovering bright younger people who I see stepping up to work on the issues I hold dear. I am learning so much about history now. There has been so much more archeological work since I was in school, and every day I check in on online classes, documentaries, or read books that are a true revelation of so many things I always suspected. Today I learned about lightening that shoots up, part of an electrical system which keeps our planet healthy. And I learned that Jerusalem was the site of an ancient threshing floor for Goddess worship before the pyramids were built. On the internet or telephone I talk with family every day and with people all around the world. But also, since I’ve been a mystic all my life and did my scholarly work and teaching centered around mystical poets, I feel like a bride planning her wedding, all the imagery of the New Jerusalem feels more and more real, death seems truly like a wedding feast that I have been invited to. I should end I think with Rilke’s poem on death, The Swan.

    This clumsy living that moves lumbering
    as if in ropes through what is not done,
    reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

    And to die, which is a letting go
    of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
    is like the swan when he nervously lets himself down

    into the water, which receives him gaily
    and which flows joyfully under
    and after him, wave after wave,
    while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
    is pleased to be carried, each minute more fully grown,
    more like a king, composed, farther and farther on.

    translated by Robert Bly

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