April 7, 2023
This newsletter appears on Good Friday, and is about rebirth. The Resurrection was a rebirth out of time, but the imagination also recognizes the mythical pattern of rebirth within time, the most obvious example of which is the cyclical rebirth of nature. Easter has borrowed the imagery of spring fertility festivals. Christ’s counterpart is the Easter Bunny, the rabbit with a basket of eggs, signifying fertility. The daffodils have opened like little suns, for spring rebirth is cosmological as well as biological: March 20 was the vernal equinox, when day and night are balanced opposites, inaugurating the constellation Aries, the fiery ram, the first sign of the zodiac and therefore, it was held, the sign in which the world was created. My birthday is March 31. Despite its being one precarious day from April Fool’s, I have always been glad that my birthday is in the spring, time of rebirth, of new beginnings.
Death-and-rebirth imagery runs all through mythology and is not limited to supernatural and natural cycles. Human life also moves through phases, marked by what the mythologists call rites of passage, each one a death-and-rebirth ritual. First, we are born into this world out of a mystery: in our culture, Baptism repeats but spiritualizes the original passage of the fetus through water and emergence into a new life. Baptism is the death of our merely natural identity and the birth of a new, spiritual identity. Its typological parallel in the Old Testament is the passage of the Hebrews through the Red Sea to be reborn as the Israelites, the people of God. Second, the passage from childhood to adulthood is via what are called rites of initiation. Girls and boys die to their childhood selves and are reborn as women and men, the men often having to undergo ordeals that may include symbolic deaths. Third, what is popularly called the midlife crisis may look like a merely neurotic crackup, but actually it is a crisis to be navigated, the transition from adulthood into the second half of life and eventually old age. The crackups may be failures to navigate, with marriages and careers splintered on the rocks, but latent within the crises could be a rebirth to a new identity. Famous examples include Dante finding he has “lost the way” when he is “midway in the journey of our life,” or 35, and Odysseus finding his way back home despite trials and tribulations when he is about 40. The pattern of Odysseus’s nostos, or return, is clearly one of death-and-rebirth, including a descent to the Underworld exactly in the center of the Odyssey, after which he is deposited on his long-lost island of Ithaca. The fourth and final passage is from death into a new life beyond death, so that the tomb, at least in English, is also a womb, again a transition from natural to spiritual life.
One of my touchstones for many years has been C.G. Jung’s essay “The Stages of Life,” which asks what the purpose is of the second half of life. By midlife, people have typically accomplished the two main tasks of natural life, a career and the raising of children. But at some point the children are grown up and retirement looms. Now what? According to Paul, we have both a natural and a spiritual self, and Jung’s view is that the task of the second half of life is to shift our identification increasingly from the one to the other. But I have my own question. Was there a second half of life before the recent, dramatic increase in longevity that occurred less than a century ago as a result of better diet, a move away from hard manual labor jobs, and, most of all, the advances of modern medicine? The average lifespan in the United States around 1900 was roughly 50. Shakespeare died at the age of 52, which was considered at least the threshold of old age at the time. Because of his all-involving participation in the Puritan revolution, Milton was delayed for 20 years in beginning his epic, and he was haunted by the fear that he would not live long enough to complete it, even though he was only 57 in 1665, the year of its publication. But in his era it was not an “only,” at least according to historians. Milton was 66 when he died in 1674, a ripe old age in those days.
On the other hand, Dante is 35 when the events of the Divine Comedy take place, and his “midway” is clearly an allusion to the Biblical “three score and ten.” What of that? It possibly refers to how long people might expect to live if they survived the appalling rate of infant and childhood mortality of early times into adulthood. Yet some historians dispute even that speculation. Their statistics show that it was not terribly common to live past the age of 50 until the middle of the 20th century. The whole argument is curiously up in the air, and it is hard to know what to make of it. Basically, proverbial and literary judgments of longevity accord with our ordinary view, supposing a traditional lifespan of about 70. At the age of 70, Nestor is the oldest man on the battlefield of the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad. Priam, king of Troy, is about 80 when he dies during the fall of Troy, as is Nestor 10 years later in the Odyssey. As is King Lear in Shakespeare. However, as I say, historians tend to be much more pessimistic. Dante himself did not make it to three score and ten: he died when he was 57.
But what I have been thinking about is the implications of the extraordinary increase in the average lifespan over the last 125 years or so. From 50 around 1900 and 68 around 1950, the average American lifespan leaped forward to 79 in 2019. Then it dropped, and in 2023 it is only 76. There are three major reasons for this: Covid; drug overdoses, especially from opioids; and suicide, especially by gun violence. These are all manifestations of one cause: right-wing politics. We are becoming less civilized than other parts of the world, and it is killing us. Yes, other nations had deaths from Covid, but antivax hysteria greatly increased the number of American deaths. However, while we are moving backward, much of the rest of the world continues an upward climb in life expectancy. In 2023, life expectancy in Canada is 83 years; in the UK, despite its many problems, 82 years; in Italy and Switzerland 84 years. But UN projections paint a more hopeful picture even for the United States: by 2100, life expectancy might reach almost 89 years. It seems to me that we are going to have to revise the way we think about the phases of life. How will the process of individuation be altered by all those extra years? I think it is beginning to be altered even now.
Every new phase of life involves a death to an old self and the birth of a new. The paradigm used to be one marriage that lasted a lifetime, with no divorce. It made for a lot of unhappy marriages between trapped people and a lot of subterfuge, such as Catholic “annulment,” but it was regarded as the norm. Now, I am perhaps, if not typical, at least not regarded as unusual in entering upon my fourth serious, permanently committed relationship at the age of 72. You are free to say it—no fool like an old fool. But a happy old fool, so I laugh with you and don’t care. I am hardly the first to notice that serial marriages or committed relationships are the actual norm in our time, due to a liberalization of divorce laws combined with the fact that people are living much longer and therefore outgrowing relationships they entered into when they were young. It used to be that only Hollywood actors could have four marriages or relationships: if you “failed” that many times, there must be something wrong with you. What it really means, at least some of the time, is simply that you were a different person at 20 than you are at 40 or 60. Sometimes a marriage has not failed but has served its purpose. The death of a marriage may be a rebirth in the perspective of the process of individuation.
And it may no longer be useful to think of a human life as a closed cycle: birth, childhood, youth, marriage and career, midlife crisis, old age, death. The famous speech on the Seven Ages of Man in Shakespeare’s As You Like It is delivered by Jacques, the resident cynic. Its pessimistic determinism implies that it doesn’t matter what part you have played upon the world’s stage: you end up in “second childishness and mere oblivion; / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” But this is the speech of a neurotic character who, as he says of himself, can “suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs” and who ends as a hermit: it is not Shakespeare’s philosophy of life. I think the richest lives tend to break out of the trap of a tick-the-boxes view of life’s stages. Yes, there are limits of economic circumstance and health, but the task of life is to keep reinventing yourself. I am supposed to be retired and divorced, but there is no way in hell I am going gentle into that good night. My role model is Odysseus, the polytropos or man of many turnings. Given his prim and reserved manner, it is easy to mistake T.S. Eliot for some of his characters, such as Prufrock who hardly dares eat a peach and the old man in “Gerontion.” But he is also the poet who wrote, in “East Coker,” that “Old men should be explorers.” Try something new and crazy. Like writing a newsletter.
By the time you reach my age you have died and come back to life so many times you lose count. If, by stubborn determination and good luck, you have managed to live life to the fullest, you look back on an almost overwhelming richness of memory. Lori and I have talked for hours, trying to give each other a sense of the life we have lived and how it has made us what we are—and there are still many things we have not yet had time to discuss. There is just so much. It makes me grateful for life lived. I do not mean it was a wonderful life. Some of it was bitter, some of it heartbreaking, some of it shameful. There were times I wanted to die to escape it. But, looking backward, life seems like a novel, and what it lacks in incident it makes up for in depth. It has died into memory, and been reborn as imagination, as myth. I am not exceptional: this is a democratic kind of mythmaking, true of everyone. Walt Whitman spoke of himself as “a kosmos,” (Song of Myself, 24), but he also said “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Song of Myself, 1). The more life we have lived, the greater the sense of its inexhaustible richness and depth. In that case, what happens when we live longer and longer?
Is there in fact a built-in limit to human longevity, a “natural” maximum lifespan? Once again the experts appear to be divided, with some saying yes and some no. Those who say yes often suggest a maximum of 125 years. I could live with that, no pun intended. It would mean I still have over 50 years left, and might even get all of my books read. What do I know, but I suspect that the upper limit of human longevity will turn out to be highly dependent on social conditions. The lifespan of wild animals like raccoons can almost double if they are raised in an environment protected from predators, cars, weather, and starvation. Not rocket science: the elite already live longer than poor people. But even in favorable conditions old age seems to result when bodily processes of cell renewal slowly stop functioning, perhaps as a means of preventing overpopulation. Some science fiction has imagined what might happen if this natural control could be eliminated, either through a chance mutation, as with Robert Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long, beginning in Methuselah’s Children (1941), or by “anti-aging drugs,” as in Kim Stanley Robinson’s celebrated Mars trilogy (Red Mars, 1992; Green Mars, 1993; Blue Mars, 1996). By the end of the trilogy, some of the characters are as much as 230 years old. Occasionally, a comic strip can produce an analogous effect merely by having a character age in very slow time. The longest currently running comic strip, Gasoline Alley, created by Frank King in 1918, was focused on a character named Walt Wallet who regarded himself as a confirmed bachelor until a foundling was left on his doorstep in 1921. Since then, Walt, who is now over 100, has become a patriarch whose extended family spans several generations. He is a bit forgetful, but still going strong. Skeezix, the foundling, is now in his 70’s.
Who wants to live so long? Unsurprisingly, some narcissistic billionaires: we hear stories of plans by the ultra-rich to have themselves cryogenically frozen until science has figured out the secret, not just of longevity, but of immortality. The elite are always tempted to become megalomaniacs regarding themselves as all-but-gods, and they are quite willing to fund research leading towards elimination of the ”all-but.” The elite are protected from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, in the words of Hamlet. They are above it all, and view the sufferings of common people with Olympian detachment, which accounts for their cruel indifference about the dire effects that income inequality is producing, including political destabilization. In Roger Zelazny’s classic story “The Graveyard Heart,” the rich are kept in cold storage and revived periodically only to attend certain prestigious galas, thus achieving both celebrity status and a kind of periodic quasi-immortality, remaining youthful while generations of the unprivileged pass away, but becoming more and more removed from reality in the process.
For those who are unprotected by privilege, life is all too often an ordeal, so that death becomes—again in the words of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “a consummation devoutly to be wished,” for Hamlet is contemplating suicide, and claims that no one would “grunt and sweat under fardels,” under life’s burdens, unless kept from suicide by the fear of something after death. If you are going to wish for longevity, let alone immortality, you must be careful to make sure it is part of a package deal including not just pleasant living conditions but youth and good health. There are plenty of object lessons about this: Swift’s Struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels, who are immortal but continue to age and therefore become grotesques, have precedents in Classical mythology. A quotation from Petronius’s Satyricon appears as an epigraph to Eliot’s The Waste Land: “I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered: ‘I want to die.’” There are already many such Sibyls figuratively caged within our nursing homes. Another cautionary tale is featured in Tennyson’s famous dramatic monologue “Tithonus,” again of a man granted immortality but not eternal youth. Aldous Huxley’s satiric novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939), about a Hollywood millionaire who hires a scientist to research the secret of longevity, takes its title from Tennyson’s poem.
In fantasy, the quest for immortality is revealed in undisplaced form as a power drive, of the kind that drives Voldemort in Harry Potter and the magician Cob in The Farthest Shore, the third volume of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy. Immortality as endless extension of life is, it becomes clear, an ironic parody of the real thing, a kind of curse, as with vampires, who are “undead” at the price of preying on ordinary lives.
Thus, some writers urge us to resign ourselves to a 70-and-out attitude. However, this seems to shut down on the possible good uses of longevity, as well as ignoring the fact that people are living longer already, with signs that average lifespan will continue to increase, no matter what we think of the matter. I do think that longevity made available to an unprepared general population would be more or less disastrous. Most people in the United States are imprisoned in a cycle of overwork and exhaustion, so that they are tempted to waste what leisure time they have in mindless distraction as a form of anesthetic. Capitalism actively seeks a status quo in which most people are wage slaves trapped by economic desperation. The elite are constantly trying to get rid of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid because the general population is expendable, and those too old to work should simply be flushed out of the system, not sustained at a great expense that acts as a limit on profits. These days they no longer even make great efforts to disguise the fact. So the whole basis of our society would have to change before the creative possibilities of longevity could begin to emerge. Presently, most people have not grown up in a way that gives them the inner resources to deal with extra time. Retirement, sometimes even just a vacation, becomes a problem to be solved.
Many of those positive possibilities grow out of a fact we have already touched upon, an expanded richness of experience. Erik Erickson’s theory of human development, though best known for its treatment of childhood, actually spans the whole of life in a series of 8 stages, each of which involves conflict and resolution in a manner analogous to what I am here calling a death-and-rebirth rhythm. Stage 8 of Erickson’s paradigm covers the period from age 65 to death, and is the subject of a book that he published in 1986, his 84th year, along with Joan Erickson and Helen Q. Kivnik, Vital Involvement in Old Age. The task of this phase is the achievement of what he calls Ego Integrity, which is a sense of completeness in looking back, seeing in one’s life in terms of a coherence and wholeness that is accepted as something that had to be. Failure to achieve this perspective leads to its opposite, bitterness and despair. The authors interview 29 octogenarians and also analyze Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries (1957), in which a professor on the verge of death achieves the kind of acceptance that Erickson calls Wisdom. Given its use of symbolic dreams, the film perhaps helps to provide a depth dimension that Erickson’s ego psychology elides. (Thanks to Lori for reminding me of Erickson’s importance here).
What would a greatly increased lifespan do to the reading experience of those of us who are lifelong readers? It depends on what one reads, and the framework of understanding within which one’s reading takes place. As Northrop Frye tried to explain in books like The Educated Imagination, a true literary education is not a random reading of book after book. Rather, everything one reads slowly builds up a total pattern in one’s imagination, what Frye called the order of words. Frye attempted to convey a sense of that total pattern in Anatomy of Criticism, and I took my own shot at it in The Productions of Time. But the sense of total pattern has an individualized counterpart. Blake spoke of seeing the world in a grain of sand. The literary equivalent of this is that anything I read, whether high culture or popular, becomes a center of literary experience, drawing the whole order of words to itself as a circumference. The Productions of Time was a sketch of the Big Picture. These newsletters reverse the procedure. Once I choose a subject, it sometimes amazes me how things gravitate to it from a lifetime of reading, as well as from life itself. I allow my mind to float in what Gaston Bachelard calls “reverie,” a state of relaxed receptiveness that will be the subject of a newsletter someday. Each newsletter seems to me a microcosm of the entire order of words, seen from a particular center. Despite post-structuralist accusations that centers are coercive, in fact the center is where you stand at the moment: You Are Here.
But the important point is not about me and my writing but about everyone’s verbal experience. One of the unexpected rewards of old age is a sense that everything I have ever read, even the junk, is part of a vision so vast that it can only be expressed as a mystery. I am grateful to have lived long enough to read so much. When we are young, much of the joy of reading is the discovery of texts for the first time, the equivalent of first love. When we are old, works take on deeper significance through rereading, through meditation that reveals new layers of meaning previously unsuspected, through connections with other works of literature as well as new life experiences that, again, open a text to new insights. There seems to be no limit to this endless recreation.
Moreover, the order of words in its social form as the literary canon also goes through a death-and-rebirth process. Our understanding of literature is changing as our values are changing to accommodate more diversity of all sorts than ever before. I have some hope that in the long run this will amount to more than the death of the Dead White Male classics and their replacement by works incorporating diversity. That would be a reductive, and I think ultimately sterile, version of the process. It is possible for “diversity” to become a new kind of uniformity. What I hope might happen instead would be comparable to the exploding of the old, closed Ptolemaic cosmos of the Middle Ages and the birth of the infinite cosmos of modern astronomy. Some people saw this merely as the loss of a meaningful order, but others saw it as the birth of wild possibility. These included not just visionary radicals like Giordano Bruno but also Milton, who is clearly attracted to the idea of a universe with many worlds with many inhabitants and ways of life, a universe new and strange, but full of wonder.
As our culture ages, not just American culture or even Western culture but world culture, a greatly lengthened historical perspective might come to inform the arts. Modern culture has been a youth culture. This has led to a curious obsession with geniuses who die young: lyric poets from Keats to Rimbaud, musicians from Mozart to Kurt Cobain. In an introduction to a novel by one such talent, Raymond Radiguet, who wrote The Devil and the Flesh and one other novel and died at 20, Aldous Huxley pointed out that youthful, doomed geniuses are more common in genres like lyric poetry, where emotional intensity counts for more than life experience. I read that introduction when I myself was a teenager, and I connected it immediately with a youthful prodigy who fascinated me, science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, most of whose early novels had an autobiographical subtext about prodigies. Delany himself published his first novel at 19, and it was the not the first one he had written. Now, Delany is 81 (and his birthday is actually on April Fool’s Day!). His most recent major work is a vast novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012), that takes its main character from the age of 16 to his late 80’s. It begins as realism, but, through the clever device of following his characters beyond the present into the near future, becomes near-future science fiction. Its theme is life in time, and is an eloquent statement of the richness of life lived. I wrote Delany a fan letter when I was only 18 and he only 27. I am glad I am around to read this testimony of a youthful genius who refused to burn out. I wonder whether increased longevity might lead to more literary experiments of this type—especially since it would breed readers with enough time to read them: Delany’s novel is 900 pages long!
How would longevity change our relationship to history? In Robinson’s Mars trilogy, characters live as long as 230 years. Someone who was 230 today would have lived through the entire 19th and 20th centuries and a quarter of the 21st. That is essentially the entire span of the modern era: a new mythology and a new, democratic ideology were born during the Romantic revolution around 1800. To alter the phrase slightly, those who do not remember history may be condemned to repeat it. An American born in the early 1800’s would remember the Civil War, would remember what slavery was like, would remember two world wars and the Great Depression. On the one hand, it would act as a fact check on attempts at historical revisionism. It would be harder to claim that slavery really wasn’t so bad when there would be people who actually remembered it, were there, even suffered from it. On the other hand, much of the destructive right-wing behavior of the present moment is reactionary, and what it is reacting to is the unprecedented pace of change in the last century. We live in a totally different world from that of my grandparents, and there are millions who feel completely disoriented and panicked by so much change, including change in things once thought to be changeless constants.
Longevity would have to be for everyone. No one wants to be like the character in Mary Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal” (1833), who outlives everyone he knew and loved. Heaven knows, that already happens to some people, as it happened to Shelley herself. But if longevity were universal, it would vastly expand the meaning of “extended family.” In heaven, Dante talks with his great-great grandfather Cacciaguida. In a long-lived world, that would become normal. If you had children at, say, 30, you would have enough descendants to populate a small county.
Is this just a silly parlor game? I think it is potentially a serious thought experiment. Unless climate change produces a world so harsh that life expectancy goes into reverse, it is entirely conceivable that the average lifespan could reach 100 within a century. Longevity could produce generations so frightened by the death-and-rebirth rhythm of life that they turn to authoritarian rule to make the change stop, return life to a comfortable and familiar stasis. That is not science fiction: that is us Baby Boomers, or at least it is a lot of us, Struldbrugs who refuse to get off the stage. But rather than focusing neurotically on all the negative possibilities, we need a counterbalancing utopianism.
That utopianism may well have a new kind of spiritual dimension. When Marxism calls religion the opiate of the masses, it has a point insofar as, in a world in which most people live lives of misery and unfulfillment, religion becomes otherworldly, offering the compensation of an afterworld, a world out of time. Or it becomes a nihilistic hope that some power will soon destroy this intolerable world in a final apocalypse. But longevity, at least within a society in which the good life is possible for more than a privileged few, might give rise to a this-worldly kind of religion, one that revives the sense of the spiritual world, what Jesus called the kingdom of heaven, as here and now. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says that the kingdom is spread out upon the earth, but people do not see it. Maybe if we recreate this world until it is worth living in, we will come to see it for what Dave Carter calls it in his song “Gentle Arms of Eden”: “The only sacred ground that I have ever known.” A place actually worth lingering in for 230 years. Or even a mere 100.