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Donald Hall on Growing Old and Our Cultural Attitude Toward the Elderly

“When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it asserts its power.”

Donald Hall on Growing Old and Our Cultural Attitude Toward the Elderly

“For old people,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in contemplating aging and the substance of our personhood, “beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young… It has to do with who the person is.” Life, Meghan Daum has written, “is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are.” And yet the great tragedy of our culture of appearances is that people seem to disappear from our scope of curiosity as they grow old. Animated by our unconscious social biases, despite our best intentions, we lose interest in “who the person is” and render the elderly invisible, denying them the dignity of being seen for the immutable parts of the human spirit that remain, in Maya Angelou’s unforgettable words, “innocent and shy as magnolias.”

The felt interiority of that disconnect is what poet Donald Hall (b. September 20, 1928) explores with unparalleled insight and rhetoric verve in Essays After Eighty (public library) — a magnificent volume of reflections on art, aging, and the dialogue between the two.

Donald Hall, 2015 (Photograph by Michael Maren courtesy of Dani Shapiro)
Donald Hall, 2015 (Photograph by Michael Maren courtesy of Dani Shapiro)

Eighty seems to be a singularly contemplative turning point — Oliver Sacks wrote beautifully about the redemptive rewards of old age upon turning eighty himself, as did Henry Miller in his decidedly optimistic reflection on life at eighty a generation earlier. But contrary to Sacks and Miller’s deliberate buoyancy, Hall doesn’t shy away from the heaviness of growing old, which he addresses with equal parts wistfulness and wry wit. He weaves the curmudgeonly, the comical, and the disarmingly earnest together into a tapestry of nuanced meditations on writing, the passage of time, and the continuity of personal identity.

In a sentiment that calls to mind C.S. Lewis’s admonition against treating children as a separate species, Hall — who outlived his beloved wife, the great poet and wise-woman Jane Kenyon, by decades — cautions against doing the same with the old:

After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other — thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty began to extend the bliss of fifty — and then came my cancers, Jane’s death, and over the years I traveled to another universe. However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying — in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way — but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.

People’s response to our separateness can be callous, can be goodhearted, and is always condescending… At a family dinner, my children and grandchildren pay fond attention to me; I may be peripheral, but I am not invisible. A grandchild’s college roommate, encountered for the first time, pulls a chair to sit with her back directly in front of me, cutting me off from the family circle: I don’t exist.

When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it asserts its power. Sometimes the reaction to antiquity becomes farce.

Art by Maurice Sendak for Robert Graves’s little-known children’s book

He illustrates this with an anecdote that bleeds into the grotesque — one that, were it not so heartbreaking, would be comical:

I go to Washington to receive the National Medal of Arts and arrive two days early to look at paintings. At the National Gallery of Art, Linda [Hall’s girlfriend] pushes me in a wheelchair from painting to painting. We stop by a Henry Moore carving. A museum guard, a man in his sixties with a small pepper-and-salt mustache, approaches us and helpfully tells us the name of the sculptor. I wrote a book about Moore and knew him well. Linda and I separately think of mentioning my connection but instantly suppress the notion — egotistic, and maybe embarrassing to the guard. A couple of hours later, we emerge from the cafeteria and see the same man, who asks Linda if she enjoyed her lunch. Then he bends over to address me, wags his finger, smiles a grotesque smile, and raises his voice to ask, “Did we have a nice din-din?”

(What is it about museum guards who so blatantly rattle identity?)

But buried beneath Hall’s lamentation is the assurance that the only adequate response to such dismissal — as the only adequate response to any dismissal and criticism — is to continue engaging with the creative impulse that animates our aliveness. He recounts another anecdote from the same trip:

On the day of the medal, [Linda] wheeled me from the Willard InterContinental Hotel to the White House. Waiting at the entrance to go through security, I looked up to see Philip Roth, whom I recognized from long ago. I loved his novels. He saw me in the hotel’s wheelchair — my enormous beard and erupting hair, my body wracked with antiquity — and said, “I haven’t seen you for fifty years!” How did he remember me? We had met in George Plimpton’s living room in the 1950s. I praised what he wrote about George in Exit Ghost. He seemed pleased, and glanced down at me in the chair. “How are you doing?” I told him fine, “I’m still writing.”

He said, “What else is there?”

Hall is still writing indeed: Essays After Eighty is both a product of a supreme testament to this sustaining force of creative vigor. Complement it with Grace Paley on the art of growing older, Oliver Sacks on the dignity of life’s final chapter, and legendary cellist Pablo Casals, at age ninety-three, on how working with love prolongs one’s life, then revisit Dani Shapiro’s befittingly titled manifesto for the creative life, Still Writing.

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Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on Human Dignity and the Nuanced Relationship Between Agency and Victimhood

“The victim shows us something about our own lives: we see that we too are vulnerable to misfortune, that we are not any different from the people whose fate we are watching…”

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on Human Dignity and the Nuanced Relationship Between Agency and Victimhood

“Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger,” Joseph Brodsky proclaimed in the greatest commencement address of all time, “for … a pointed finger is a victim’s logo.” But while there is tremendous truth in the poet’s words, as is often the case with grandiose proclamations, it is only a partial truth beneath which lies a far more nuanced reality.

Those nuances are what philosopher Martha Nussbaum examines in her 2001 book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (public library), titled after Proust’s conception of the emotions as “geologic upheavals of thought” — her terrific exploration of, among other perplexities, why embracing our neediness is essential for happiness and healthy relationships.

Martha Nussbaum

A generation after the great composer Leonard Bernstein defined democracy as “the difficult, slow method in which the dignity of A is acknowledged by B, without impairing the dignity of C,” Nussbaum turns an eye to classical Greek philosophy and tragedy to examine the mediating role of dignity in the question of agency and victimhood in a just society. She writes:

Compassion requires the judgment that there are serious bad things that happen to others through no fault of their own. In its classic tragic form, it imagines that a person possessed of basic human dignity has been injured by life on a grand scale. So it adopts a thoroughly anti-Stoic picture of the world, according to which human beings are both dignified and needy, and in which dignity and neediness interact in complex ways… The basic worth of a human being remains, even when the world has done its worst. But this does not mean that the human being has not been profoundly damaged, both outwardly and inwardly.

The society that incorporates the perspective of tragic compassion into its basic design thus begins with a general insight: people are dignified agents, but they are also, frequently, victims. Agency and victimhood are not incompatible: indeed, only the capacity for agency makes victimhood tragic. In American society today, by contrast, we often hear that we have a stark and binary choice, between regarding people as agents and regarding them as victims. We encounter this contrast when social welfare programs are debated: it is said that to give people various forms of social support is to treat them as victims of life’s ills, rather than to respect them as agents, capable of working to better their own lot.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Writing a decade and a half before today’s crescendoing debates about the societal complexities surrounding rape and the criminal justice system, Nussbaum critiques how this “stark and binary choice” between agency and victimhood is keeping us from establishing a foundation of basic human dignity upon which to build our society:

We find the same contrast in recent feminist debates, where we are told that respecting women as agents is incompatible with a strong concern to protect them from rape, sexual harassment, and other forms of unequal treatment. To protect women is to presume that they can’t fight on their own against this ill treatment; this, in turn, is to treat them like mere victims and to undermine their dignity.

[…]

We are offered the same contrast, again, in debates about criminal sentencing, where we are urged to think that any sympathy shown to a criminal defendant on account of a deprived social background or other misfortune such as child sexual abuse is, once again, a denial of the defendant’s human dignity. Justice Thomas, for example, went so far as to say, in a 1994 speech, that when black people and poor people are shown sympathy for their background when they commit crimes, they are being treated like children, “or even worse, treated like animals without a soul.”

But we confer these judgments selectively and the arbitrariness of these selections, Nussbaum points out, is itself suspect — we don’t, for instance, believe that we’re undermining artists’ and writers’ dignity by protecting their freedom of speech, nor do we believe that laws protecting personal property are turning property-owners into victims. Nussbaum poses a necessary question:

If, then, we hear political actors saying such things about women, and poor people, and racial minorities, we should first of all ask why they are being singled out: what is there about the situation of being poor, or female, or black that means that help is condescending, and compassion insulting?

Art by Andrea Dezsö for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

In this unease lies the seedbed of our conflicted relationship to agency and victimhood:

The victim shows us something about our own lives: we see that we too are vulnerable to misfortune, that we are not any different from the people whose fate we are watching, and we therefore have reason to fear a similar reversal.

Trauma and tragedy — the circumstances that create the basic framework of victimhood — force us to confront this dual nature of the human experience: we are at once agents of our own fate and vulnerable to the whims of a larger system over much of which we have no control. But discomfiting as this duality is, Nussbaum suggests, it holds our greatest opportunity for goodness:

Tragedy asks us … to walk a delicate line. We are to acknowledge that life’s miseries strike deep, striking to the heart of human agency itself. And yet we are also to insist that they do not remove humanity, that the capacity for goodness remains when all else has been removed.

Nussbaum considers how this understanding of tragedy can help us begin to foster such foundations for dignity:

If we understand that injustice can strike its roots into the personality itself, producing rage and resentment and the roots of bad character, we have even deeper incentives to commit ourselves to giving each child the material and social support that human dignity requires. A compassionate society … is one that takes the full measure of the harms that can befall citizens beyond their own doing; compassion thus provides a motive to secure to all the basic support that will undergird and protect human dignity.

Upheavals of Thought, it bears repeating, is a remarkable and dimensionally rewarding read. Complement this particular portion with Nietzsche on how to become master of yourself and this lovely illustrated reminder that we are separated from those less fortunate than us by little more than unmerited cosmic odds.

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Beloved Poet and Philosopher Kahlil Gibran on the Seeming Self vs. the Authentic Self and the Liberating Madness of Casting Our Masks Aside

“I have found both freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.”

Beloved Poet and Philosopher Kahlil Gibran on the Seeming Self vs. the Authentic Self and the Liberating Madness of Casting Our Masks Aside

In 1918, the great Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) published a collection of parables and poems titled The Madman (public library | free ebook), which endures as a trove of timeless beauty and wisdom on such core human concerns as identity and belonging, love and faith, sorrow and happiness.

Nowhere does Gibran’s genius shine more luminously than in his exploration of identity and the masks behind which we hide our innermost selves from others — and even from ourselves; the authentic, vulnerable self that he so beautifully describes as “a human chaos, a nebula of confused elements,” “a green seed of unfulfilled passion, a mad tempest that seeketh neither east nor west, a bewildered fragment from a burnt planet.”

Half a century before Hannah Arendt’s magnificent meditation on being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-display, Gibran explores the interplay between our seeming selves and our being selves:

My friend, I am not what I seem. Seeming is but a garment I wear — a care-woven garment that protects me from thy questionings and thee from my negligence. The “I” in me, my friend, dwells in the house of silence, and therein it shall remain for ever more, unperceived, unapproachable.

The “friend” Gibran addresses is the idealized self, the self we present to the world, the aspirational self of who we would like to be rather than who we are — a self that invariably obscures our incompleteness and imperfection, which are the wellspring of our richest humanity. Gibran writes:

My friend, thou art good and cautious and wise; nay, thou art perfect — and I, too, speak with thee wisely and cautiously. And yet I am mad. But I mask my madness. I would be mad alone. My friend, thou art not my friend, but how shall I make thee understand? My path is not thy path, yet together we walk, hand in hand.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

In another piece in the book, which calls to mind Tom Stoppard’s supreme definition of love as “the mask slipped from the face,” Gibran serenades the liberating madness of casting our masks aside:

You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen, — the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives, — I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, “Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.”

Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me.

And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a house-top cried, “He is a madman.” I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time. For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, “Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks.”

Thus I became a madman.

And I have found both freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.

But let me not be too proud of my safety. Even a Thief in a jail is safe from another thief.

The Madman is a revelatory read in its totality and the source of Gibran’s enduring wisdom on the absurdity of our self-righteousness. Complement this particular fragment with Alan Watts (who shares a birthday with Gibran thirty-two years apart) on becoming what you really are, Amin Maalouf on the genes of the soul, and Aldous Huxley on who we are.

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