A short time ago, on reaching the age of 80, Jane Brody published an essay called “How to Age Gracefully” in the New York Times. Feedback on the discussion board, which now numbers over 1700 comments, has been overwhelmingly positive, but there are also occasional exasperated and even a few outright irritated responses asserting pointedly that the notion of “aging well” is a narcissistic illusion of upper middle-class privilege. Aging well is not an option if you have not had the luck of (so far) avoiding major health problems and do not have a good deal of financial security. I do not share the exasperation or irritation, but I see the point. The appropriate response, though, should be that if people are denied the option of aging well, we need to begin changing society. A society in which all people without exception do not have at least minimal financial security and access to adequate health care is a disgrace.
Surely, however, we ought to be embarking also on a project of re-imagining old age, if only because we have so much more of it than ever before in history. Dramatically increased lifespans combined with the aging of my generation of baby boomers has left us facing what has been called a “grey tsunami” of elderly people. Having reached the age of 70 this year, I feel I have acquired sufficient personal credentials to examine the imagination’s perspective not just on old age but on the whole process of aging and the phases of human life. And besides, well, I have a horse in this race.
The depth psychologist C.G. Jung has an essay titled “The Stages of Life” whose central question has always haunted me. What is the purpose of the second half of life, from mid-life to death? The goals of the first half of life are obvious, formulated in the United States as the American Dream. Jung lists them as “money-making, social achievement, family and posterity.” But he goes on to point out that these are largely accomplished by the average person by middle age: the children are grown and off with families of their own, and, while your career may be far from over, it has probably reached its apex. Can an entire second half of life be filled by no more than spoiling the grandchildren and various “senior activities”?
I have always been a bit bemused by Jung’s essay because it was in fact ahead of its time. In the United States, the average life expectancy in 1900 was 46.3 for men, 48.3 for women. What second half? Mind you, an appalling infant and child mortality rate has no doubt been factored into these shockingly low numbers. Yet even so, life expectancy was low until the twentieth century: Shakespeare died at 52, middle age to us, at least incipient old age to the Renaissance. But Jung was trained as a doctor, and he was perhaps looking at statistics and extrapolating. By 1930, when he published the first version of his essay, life expectancy had increased to 58.1 for men, 61.6 for women. By the next year, when he published a revised version, those numbers had leaped to 59.4 and 63.1 respectively. By 2020, life expectancy for the total population of the United States was 77.3, and that is down from 78.8 in 2019 as a result of the pandemic. Improved diet and working conditions combined with the advent of modern medicine have produced an unprecedented spike in life expectancy within a short time—largely, since my parents were born.
Our first reaction to all this might be to wonder how the human race in past eras ever accomplished anything given that we winked out like mayflies. But then we think of the roster of geniuses who died young. Keats dead at 25, Shelley at 29, Byron at 36, Schiller at 46, Mozart at 35, Dylan Thomas at 39, not to mention the youthful warriors from Achilles to Alexander the Great: one myth the imagination has constructed about human life in time is that of precocious achievement that blazes and triumphs in the face of early death. Shakespeare wrote his 37 plays by his late 40’s. In the sciences, it is if anything even worse: I have read that mathematicians typically do their important work by the time they are 30; the computer revolution was created by a couple of whiz kids in their garages. It is possible to wonder whether the threat of early mortality did not in fact create a new form of carpe diem, a pressure to get one’s work accomplished while there was still time, in ages that were not favorable to slow learners and late bloomers. As Samuel Johnson said, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. In class I used to joke that by my age Shakespeare had been dead for [fill in blank] years, until the number got so great that it was just too depressing.
There were of course elders who beat the odds. Nestor in Homer’s Iliad, who claims he’s known three generations of men, is the oldest man on the battlefield, and when we meet him again in the Odyssey he is ten years older. Shakespeare gives us King Lear, who must be pushing 80, although Lear is perhaps literature’s most famous example of aging gracelessly. But they were exceptions. One reason elders were revered is that there were so few of them: they seemed favored by the gods.
But literature offers an alternative perspective to that of early blossoming and early death, one that comes closer to addressing Jung’s question about the purpose of the second half of life. When historians tell us that life expectancy in the Middle Ages was about 40, I wonder how to reconcile this with something like the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which begins, in the words of its famous first line, “Midway in the journey of our life.” If you look at the footnotes, they will doubtless inform you that “midway” means half the proverbial Biblical lifespan of three score years and ten (Psalm 90), and Dante was in fact 35 in 1300, when the events of the narrative purportedly took place (Dante died at 56, by the way, so he didn’t in fact live out the full proverbial span). The Divine Comedy is one of the most famous instances of an imaginative myth of aging that begins with a crisis, often in mid-life, and moves towards a self-renewal through a symbolic death to an old identity and the birth of a new one. In the middle of his life, Dante’s love Beatrice is dead and he finds that he has “lost the way.” The epic is Dante’s personal story of redemption, but of course it exemplifies the Christian vision, exemplified in the symbolism of Baptism and by Paul’s contrast between the “natural self” that dies and the “spiritual self” that is born from it.
Dante did not invent the pattern: it is present in the Odyssey, as I talked about just last week in my Expanding Eyes podcast. Odysseus rejects the nymph Calypso’s offer of immortality, suggesting that the death-and-rebirth pattern does not necessarily entail commitment to the supernatural as it does in Dante. Instead, at the age of something like 40, he undergoes a series of ordeals, including a descent to the Underworld (and a re-emergence in the east, “where the sun has its rising”), that amount to a symbolic death and rebirth. He tells the Cyclops his name is “Nobody,” and by the time, exactly halfway through the epic, that he is washed up naked after a hurricane on the shore of the people who will take him back home he has lost everything. But from that point, he will make a spectacular return and regain his identity, his family, and his island. The mood at the end is not “happily ever after”: Odysseus and his wife Penelope are re-united, but they have lost 20 years, and Odysseus’s mother has died from grieving over his absence. He has lost his male companions, whom he meets miserable in the Underworld. But there is a clear sense that he is more at the end than just the last man standing. He has not just been proved by his long ordeal, but somehow transformed.
I am suggesting that the answer to Jung’s question is that the purpose of the second half of life may be to undergo a symbolic death to the self we have struggled so hard to fashion in our younger days, seeking the birth of a new, greater identity. After all, the mid-life crisis occurs because on some level we are aware that we are eventually going to lose that self. In fact, we, like Odysseus, are going to lose everything. Our bodies progressively decline; our children leave the nest and fly away (including, if we teach, our former students); the job world eventually finds us superfluous; if we write, we are likely to find that our books are out of fashion and eventually out of mind; everyone that we know dies one by one; and if we live long enough we find that the entire world we grew up in has vanished as if it had never been. This is one version of what, in The Productions of Time, I call the decreative mode of the imagination, the vision that shows us that, in the words of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity,” where the word translated “vanity” has a metaphorical meaning of fog or mist. In Eastern terms, all is maya, illusion. In old age, we begin to see through it, as we see through a ghost. “It is an illusion we were ever alive,” as Wallace Stevens says in a late poem. Therefore we must learn to let go, to accept the eventual transience of all things. I am not suggesting for a moment that I have succeeded in doing this. I just know what the requirements are.
If I ever do succeed, I do not think it will be because I have finally adopted an attitude of Stoic resignation, or even of the kind of Epicurean hedonism that concentrates on enjoying my sunset years as much as possible while I can. Nothing wrong with that, and the Stoic Epicureanism of Montaigne in his great essay “Of Experience” is for me a kind of self-help attitude that will, I hope, get me through the eventual ordeals of old age that have to be endured as gracefully as we can, whatever reward we might hope lies on the other side. But to me such an attitude is, in the end, no pun intended, necessary yet not sufficient. Jung concludes his essay with this:
To the psychotherapist an old man who cannot bid farewell to life appears feeble and sickly as a young man who is unable to embrace it. And as a matter of fact, it is in many cases a question of the selfsame childish greediness, the same fear, the same defiance and wilfulness, in the one as in the other. As a doctor I am convinced that it is hygienic—if I may use the word—to discover in death a goal towards which one can strive, and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose. I therefore consider that all religions with a supramundane goal are eminently reasonable from the point of view of psychic hygiene….From the standpoint of psychotherapy it would therefore be desirable to think of death as only a transition, as part of a process whose extent and duration are beyond our knowledge.
Of course this will not satisfy everybody. Dante would have snorted to hear of the myth of Christianity reduced to “psychic hygiene,” and Jung’s former partner Freud would have murmured—as in fact he did murmur—of the future of an illusion. But between literal belief and literal disbelief lies another path. Shakespeare’s final four plays, the romances, are also known significantly as “tragicomedies.” In all four we find the same pattern of an ordeal that stretches across a lifetime, from mid-life to the threshold of old age, one marked by loss, suffering, and the expiation of guilt for the wrongs the central character has perpetrated.
Shakespeare is elusive in the romances, as in all his plays, leaving the question suspended of whether there is another reality that might appear when “the great globe itself” will someday disappear and “leave not a wrack behind.” I think that by doing so he is suggesting that either-or questions imply that we know more than we actually know. We do not know that a reality beyond natural life in time exists; we also do not know that it does not. And about the latter choice, it should be added that, in an ironic age like ours, perhaps the hardest faith to question is faith in our own skepticism, to admit that we are confronted with genuine mystery beyond all the obvious wish-fulfilments. Shakespeare’s repeated code words in the romances for that mystery are “strange” and “wonder.”
That is also how I read what I think of as one of the great modern novels, William Kennedy’s Ironweed. It too portrays the second half of life as an ordeal whose purpose is to replay its first half, come to terms with its mistakes and tragedies, make amends where possible, and by doing so purge one’s identity and one’s life of the flaws and corruptions that have crippled it. Two puns in one sentence. “Replay,” because the protagonist, Francis Phelan, used to be a gifted baseball player before he abandoned his family to become a hard-drinking homeless person for 22 years out of guilt for having accidentally killed his infant son by dropping him. “Purged” because the story takes place over the three-day period between Halloween and All Souls Day, and is filled with references to Dante. Purgatory, the location of the middle third of the Divine Comedy, is in Catholic belief a place in which the souls of the dead undergo ordeals that not only punish but also rehabilitate them. But St. Augustine declared that we do not have to wait until the afterlife: life itself is purgatorial. As Francis Phelan wanders through the three-day festival of the dead, he meets the ghosts of friends who are not merely dead, and tries his best to help out living friends and lovers who are choosing death. In the grip of some mysterious process, he is reliving and passing judgment on his whole life, decreating or purging what is dead in it, bringing to new birth what is alive. When he has done that, he is ready to return home to his wife and family, who, as he “rounded the bases,” have been waiting for 22 years in what I am fairly sure is a covert reference to the Odyssey.
The moral of all these stories is that “aging well,” raised to a level beyond pop-psych platitudes, opens out into a vision of an ordeal of self-transformation in which we, aided perhaps by some mystery beyond us, pass a last judgment on ourselves, decreating what is evil into the illusion that it finally is, recreating or bringing to birth what is alive and capable of loving and being loved. “What thou lov’st well remains,” says Ezra Pound in a moving moment in his Cantos. The “process of individuation” is a Jungian translation of this pattern, constructed by Jung not just out of empirical data, myth, and literature but out of his own life. His own mid-life crisis began at 36 when he published his breakthrough book that ended his friendship with Freud and began to undergo the series of visions that he called his “encounter with the unconscious.”
For some of us, writing is a vehicle for the process of dying to an old identity and being reborn into a new one. Every new work is a new death and rebirth. Old age is a time of the writing of memoirs, looking back upon one’s life from a vantage point where its total pattern becomes clear. Some very great works of literature in what is called the Bildungsroman tradition raise this to high art. A typical plot pattern of the Bildungsroman, exemplified in Wordsworth’s Prelude, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (or, translated literally, In Search of Lost Time), recounts the artist-protagonist’s life up to the point of his epiphany that his vocation is to be a writer, at which point he is ready to sit down and begin writing the very work that the reader has just read. As with Odysseus or Francis Phelan, the narrative comes full circle, rounding the bases.
What we have been exploring may seem to indicate that individuation is a belated phenomenon. Abraham Maslow says of his similar process of self-actualization that he rarely found a fully self-actualized person under the age of about 50. But I suspect that the process to some degree transcends the limits of time, at least in its profounder and more intense versions. Lives cut tragically short are not necessarily deprived of self-actualization. Keats wrote of a “vale of soul making.” His poetry, written by the age of 24, not to mention his extraordinary letters, shows evidence of more soul-making than most people manage in a long life. As a matter of fact, Wordsworth wrote almost all his good poetry by 37 and was more or less dead after that, poetically and personally, although he lived until 80.
But I do not want to end with this focus on the titans. While great works of art may offer role models helping to lift the notion of aging gracefully free of the danger of banality, this should be counterbalanced (everything in life should be counterbalanced) by a democratization that comes full circle to what I said in the beginning, that aging gracefully—whatever age one dies at—should be a right available to all. The divide between the genius and the ordinary person is to a certain extent not innate but socially constructed. Maslow insisted that all sorts of people have peak experiences, not just rare visionaries or geniuses.
As for the role of writing in self-transformation, no, for most of us it is not profitable to choose the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past as a model to emulate. But in an age in which digitalization is theoretically able to preserve both texts and pictures indefinitely and with no limit of size or storage space, large numbers of people might be encouraged to create a detailed, permanent record of their lives. Who would care? Ask any historian. What if we had such records of Shakespeare’s time, of Homer’s? It would be the next best thing to a time machine. Studs Terkel was intuiting along these lines in his series of oral histories. On the Voyager satellites, we sent a Golden Record of humanity out into the dark seas of interstellar space, a message in a bottle to whoever might find it. As I said in my first real piece of writing, when I was 16, all writing is a message in a bottle. However we age, gracefully or raging against the dying of the light, I like the idea that something of us might be archived for whoever might stumble across it. Loren Eiseley has a wonderful poem about being moved by the words of a lonely Sumerian 4000 years ago. You never know to whom your loneliness might matter.
Jane Brody, “How to Age Gracefully,” New York Times, September 13, 2021.
C. G. Jung, “The Stages of Life,” in volume 8 of The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, also in The Portable Jung, edited by Joseph Campbell.
Life Expectancy in 1930 and 1931:
Life Expectancy in 2019 and 2020:
For an examination of imaginative perspectives on aging historically, see Andrea Charise, The Aesthetics of Senescence: Aging, Population, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel (SUNY, 2020).