1972 Review: The Coming of Age by De Beauvoir

Recently, I came across an article by Maria Popova on Simone de Beauvoir’s views on Ageing. That is available alongside this post under the Ageing Category:
I forwarded this to Professor Jocelyn Chey in Sydney. Extraordinarily, she sent me the following 1972 review in the New York Times on de Beauvoir’s book “The Coming of Age”. Extraordinary because Jocelyn could hark back 50 years ago on the subject of Maria Popova’s article (in the Marginalian). Here it is:
Old age is different from the other woes of the world. Its existence is undeniable and its course irrevocable. Racism, poverty and war might lend themselves to a glorious extinction were it the will of society to turn its energy and thought in that direction. But old age is a sort of natural injustice; its cells are the very matter of life itself. It is a calamity, equitable in its relentless arrival to all who live long enough, but the poverty and pain of it are, of course, not impartially or justly spread about. Good luck, good health, certain prosperities of temperament and situation play a part — with the need for money looming over them all. The presence of money cannot always alleviate; its absence is a certain catastrophe. Everything positive that can be summoned is at best relatively helpful — a diminishment of suffering, a mitigation, a crutch that helps one to bear and to endure. There is no cure, no reversal, no hope.
In “The Coming of Age” Simone de Beauvoir has written an extraordinary, altogether engrossing, large… (digitisation error)
Elizabeth Hardwick is a literary and social critic and author of several books. work on growing old. I cannot take issue with it since in its sweep have learned all that I know about the matter. Personal experience and observation are confirmed and enriched at every point by the learned intensity of the book and the generosity of the feelings. A fluent use of history and literature, the portraits of great and humble persons who were given long life, the lessons of philosophy and the power of social indignation — these come together in a prodigious outburst of energy and imagination.
“The Coming of Age” is not at all like the usual sociological studies of tormented groups or refractory problems. And yet it includes the material of the social sciences and the findings of the social worker. In the interest of understanding and completeness everything is considered — medical evidence, thoughts on sexuality, psychological humiliation, fear, retreat, adjustments or the lack of them, geriatric fact and fancy. And we always return to the “bad health, poverty and solitude” that are the destiny of most old people.
Sympathy and concern for the old and a wish to make known the pitiable conditions in which so many of them live certainly played a great part in the undertaking of this book. And yet it is so much more. It is a work of cultural history, touching on every period. For me the most fascinating reward of the book lies in the large number of brilliant pertraits of gifted, powerful men and women who lived many years and left a record either in words or in action of their anxious frustrations, their distress and their fleeting consolations.
For Instance, in a few pages the turbulent, outrageous, painful last years of Tolstoy and his wife, Sophia, are condensed. The jealousies, miseries and dramatic, pulsing liveliness of the Tolstoys’ conflicts are made to seem a part of the whole history of strong old couples. The Countess Tolstoy’s rage and bitterness over the despised disciple, Chertkov, led to a frenzy that devastated the entire family. “She rushed out into the Moscow streets in bed?mom slippers and with her hair down, intending to die of cold in the snow …” She threatened to throw herself under a train, she came near to drowning herself in the river. Yet when Tolstoy was 67 and a disciple suggested a separation from Sophia, Tolstoy threatened him with a scythe and burst into tears. In the end he did run away in the night to die in a railway station. Thus this life of fame, goodness and conjugal passion ended.
The same domestic nightmare destroyed the peace of the long love between Victor Hugo and Juliette. Juliette had become Hugo’s mistress when he was 31 years old and his wife had taken an intense fancy for Saint?Beuve. Juliette and Hugo remained together until her death, exactly 50 years later, but her life was a prolonged agony of protest and prostration over Hugo’s unremitting adulteries. Her oriels echo the shrieks of the Countess Tolstoy. Juliette made scenes, she ran away; she tried to give up, not to care. Nothing helped except death. “My suffering comes from loving you too much,” she exclaimed over and over.
Simone de Beauvoir believes these jealousies and tempests increase with old age, as the discipline and optimism of the earlier years declines. “More than
Simone de Beauvoir believes these jealousies and tea(Continued on Page40) ever each demands love and protection; and each becomes less and less able to satisfy this demand. Their permanent state of dissatisfaction makes them insist upon always being together: it excites jealousy and even persecution. Separation may indeed be a mortal blow to those who literally cannot do without each other. But living together brings them more torment than happiness.”mpests increase with old age, as the discipline and optimism of the earlier years declines. “More than
Time—a baneful abstraction that surrounds the old like air filled with pestilence. “A limited future and a frozen past: such is the situation that the elderly have to face up to.” For writers, for thinkers, the naming and describing of their feelings as time begins to run out is a project, a challenge. Michel Leiris spoke of growing old as a kind of “asphyxia” in which one moves from the boundless to the bounded. Berenson wrote that “my most painful experience, as old age came nearer, was that of losing all sense of leisure.”
Modern life seems to have made old age more and more empty. The past and all its symbols are carelessly swept away—houses, estates, family traditions. The son will not step into the foot?prints left by the father. Experience of life, often in past history thought of as a valuable culmination, is more likely to be a harness. The very terms upon which things may be intelligently judged are changing, not subtly but radically. Even those older persons who define themselves through their property are in our time clutching something more and more unreal and impersonal. The relation to property becomes increasingly legal and institutional, and its drama is likely to be played out among accountants and lawyers. The opportunities for a direct exercise of power over the young and penniless that formed so vivid a part of family dramaturgy in the past are now often obsolete and dangerous to the stability of the property itself.
The old suffer and grieve and yet they retain a greed for life that causes children and even whole societies to grow weary. In “Alcestis,” the son about to die bitterly accuses his father: “Old people always say they long for death—their age crushes them—they have lived too long. All words! As soon as death comes near, not a single one wants to go, and age stops being a burden.” Plato’s republic is a gerontocracy. “The older must command; the young obey.” But Aristotle was not quite so drawn to the idea of the wisdom of age. “His view of old age led Aristotle to remove the elderly from power; for he looked upon them as beings on the wane. Furthermore, his political theory, which was very unlike Plato’s, did not put intellectuals, but a police force at the head of the city; the idea would be for all the citizens to be men of exalted virtue and for each to rule and to be ruled in turn.”
Iconography and literature naturally do not present a common image of old age at all times and in all cultures. Sometimes the vanities and follies of the old are the subject of ruthless comedies, and then again, as in the figure of Father Time and his scythe, the image is gentler — at least superficially. Father Time is thin and gray, often emaciated, but he is not portrayed as repulsive, merely as a figure of weakness. Simone de Beauvoir finds that in Christian art old age is a time for pondering salvation, but the attainment of age is not necessarily inspiring to the Christian world.
Indeed, the fascination with the birth and young manhood of Christ diminished the concentration upon the Father and the Holy Ghost. “A whole iconography was devoted to the theme of the childhood of Christ and to that of the Holy Family, which up until then had scarcely been treated at all. The effect of these evocations of Jesus’s life was to sanctify childhood, adolescence and above all maturity. Old age was forgotten.”
The distresses of old age are frequently ennobled in the lives of artists and superior beings. Their peculiar expressiveness and heightened self?absorption leave for posterity the richest and most complex pictures of individual longevity. The record, itself is a triumph over the misery of the content. Gide’s journals with their pitiful lyrics to insomnia and despair turn the reader’s apprehension of his suffering into a sort of admiration for his documentation of it. The aged artist still faithfully at his work is a subject of exhilarating fascination. In our own time, the magical collaboration of Robert Craft and Stravinsky is beautifully valuable in itself. Furthermore, the record of the great old master living out his life among us, in the American scene, is a rare contribution to a literature and cultural history, like our own, that is rather empty of such treasures.
When great creative artists are granted a long life, they appear to find some vital source within themselves that can set even the decrepitudes of age at a distance. Bitterness, pessimism or (rare) quiet acceptance — each of these moods and conditions is felt with an exaggerated force, and so one experiences both an envy and pity for these grand old souls bearing the passions and ambitions of youth, without abatement, to the grave. Merely to roll out the names moves the emotions: Michelangelo, Titian, Bellini; Bach, Verdi; Goethe, Sophocles. Goya’s “black paintings” were a rejuvenation in spite of their bitterness. “Franz Hals was eightyfive when he reached his topmost peak with The Regents. At the age of seventy?six Guardi painted The Grey Lagoon and The Burning of Saint Marcuola …Corot was eighty when he painted his most accomplished pictures… Ingress painted La Source at seventy?six… ”
With writers “generally speaking, great age is not favorable to literary creation.” The reasons for this are tangled and obscure. Simone de Beauvoir thinks it may have to do with the loss of interest in the purely imaginary. She says “the least suitable form of literature for the elderly writer is the novel, although in this field too there are exceptions.” Poetry, essays and history fare better because they do not exact the same removal from one’s real life into an imagined, manipulated, dreamed?of world.
Consolations are meager even for the most fortunate of the old. The nature of time has drastically altered for them. The past has faded and the future is fearful. The shrinking of the future darkens all of the projects of the mind. The pure present weighs heavily upon the spirit as well as upon the body. Some try, like Whitman, for a sort of official optimism about their condition. Claude’ wrote in his Journal: “Eighty years old! No eyes left, no ears, no teeth, no legs, no wind! And when all is said and done, how astonishingly well one does without them!” But most of the records we have betray a great, crippling sadness.
Some lives seem, by defects of character, to bring upon themselves a peculiarly miserable time. In “The Coming of Age” there are interesting pages on Chateaubriand and Lamartine—two men who courted and found disaster. Vanity and resentment of growing old caused Chateaubriand to fall apart. Lamartine’s ambitions led him into squandering his money on luxuries and into seeking political power that he could not sustain. Louis Blanc wrote about Lamartine’s last megalomaniac thrust for power in an election in which he was thoroughly defeated: “He lay down that night, believing that he had France at his bedside; he went to sleep drunk with self?esteem; he dreamt of Lamartine the dictator; he awoke—he was alone.”
In a general way the sufferings of old age can be increased by mistakes, by the rotten fruits of vanity and selfishness. On the other hand, probity and foresight and even goodness will not necessarily lessen the pains of the last years. It is the sameness of complaints, the universality of the losses that impress one as one reads this book with its many examples, its moving comments and conclusions.
About our life today, “The Coming of Age” is a fierce indictment of society’s indifference and cruelty toward old people. The degradation, the hatred of the elderly are scarcely recognized and their plight, shrouded not so much in ignorance as in the determination to ignore, is harsh beyond all necessity. “Indeed, it is old age, rather than death, that is to be contrasted with life. Old age is life’s parody, whereas death transforms life into a destiny. …” The only way to give old age decency is, in the author’s view, to give “value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, compassion.” The huge space between those privileged, either by talent or class, and the great body of mankind is at its most dishonorable and unjust in the case of the old. Millions of people are literally abandoned, “scrapped,” as if while still breathing they were already dead, buried alive.
The ruins of time—a tragic, inescapable subject.
#De Beauvoir, #Ageing