Susan Jacoby's new book fell into my hands the other day. It is entitled Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age (Pantheon, 2011). Although I noticed some things in the first chapter that are clearly true and worth pointing out, the preface raised my critical eyebrows a bit. But I agree with Jacoby's realism:
. . . to suggest that ninety may soon become the new fifty -- the premise of a panel at the widely publicized annual World Science Festival held in New York City in 2008 -- is to engage in magical thinking. (5)
Surely she is right about that. In the preface she writes,
I hope that this book about the genuine battles of growing old will provide support for all who draw their strength and courage from reality, however daunting that reality may be, rather than from platitudes about “defying old age.” This commonly used phrase in the annals of the so-called new old age ﬁlls me with rage, because the proximity of old age to death is not only undeﬁable but undeniable. Anger, by the way, is another emotion considered inappropriate in the old; the dubious notion of the “wisdom of old age” rests on the belief that elders can, and should, transcend the passions, vaulting ambition, and competitiveness of their younger adult lives and arrive at some sort of peace that passeth all understanding.
It is no doubt silly to speak of 'defying old age,' but why should this phrase elicit rage in the 63 year old Boomer? And then, half-perceiving the inappropriateness of rage over such a thing, especially in a 63 year old, she opines that it is dubious that as we age we can and should transcend the passions, give up ambition, and set aside our youthful competitiveness. Finally, making matters worse, she adduces a religious phrase that she doesn't understand.
On the contrary, I say
1. To live enslaved to one's passions is obviously bad and has been seen as bad in all the major wisdom traditions. It is precisely one of the compensations of old age, which I take to begin at 60, that it is easier and easier to free oneself from the grip of passion. The fire down below begins to subside, to mention the central and most delusive passion. The Buddhist injunction, "Conquer desire and aversion," is much easier to implement once the fires of lust have damped down. Self-mastery is something within our power and something we ought to pursue. As I see it, Jacoby rightly opposes one form of contemporary nonsense, the Forever Young nonsense, only to succumb to another form of contemporary nonsense, namely, that passion is good.
2. As for ambition, lack of ambition in the young is rightly seen as a defect. But when the old are still driven by their old ambitions, none of which were of too lofty a nature, are they not fools? For the old ambitions, appropriate as they were in youth, have become absurd in old age. Life is, or at least ought to be, progressive disillusionment, a growing insight into the ultimate nullity of name and fame, status and position, loot and lucre. Or, as I put it in an aphorism:
The young, astride their steeds of ambition, should gallop boldly into the fray. But the old should know when to quit the game and dismount into dis-illusion. Homo ludens, when sapient, knows when to become de-luded.
3. The same goes for competitiveness. You waste your old age if you don't use it to see through "finite competitive selfhood" to borrow a fine phrase from A. E. Taylor. What baubles and trinkets are you competing for, old man? What are they worth? You were once a child but then you put aside childish things. Why do you cling still to the toys of adulthood?
4. At the end of the above-quoted passage Jacoby adduces a New Testament phrase that she obviously does not understand. At Philippians 4:7 in the King James Version, we read "And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." So typical of a secularist to mock religion and then twist a line of religious provenience around to her own purposes! This misuse of religious language is something that ought to be opposed.
And particularly block-headed is her reference to William Wordsworth at the end of her preface:
Anyone who has outlived his or her passions has lived too long. Wordsworth got it exactly right, at the tender age of thirty-seven, in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”: O joy! That in our embers / Is something that doth live, / That nature yet remembers / What was so fugitive!
If she had read the Ode carefully she would have known that it is deeply otherworldly and Platonic in inspiration. It is about experiences that some of us had as children, experiences in which hints of our higher origin were vouchsafed to us. It has nothing to do with "The search for new, earthbound ways to express lifelong passions . . . ."
I am reminded of Georg Lichtenberg's aphorism, Ein Buch ist ein Spiegel, wenn ein Affe hineinguckt, so kann freilich kein Apostel heraus sehen. "A book is a mirror: if an ape looks in, no apostle will look out."