by Louis Proyect
Beauvoir, Simone de: The Coming of Age G.P. Putnam, New York, 1972, 585 pages. (No ISBN but Library of Congress number is 75-189781.)
(Swans - February 11, 2008) Simone de Beauvoir has always been ahead of her times. In 1949, she wrote The Second Sex, a groundbreaking feminist text that would eventually become necessary reading for the women's liberation movement two decades later. In 1970, just around the time that movement was taking to the streets, she wrote another book titled The Coming of Age that is equal to the first in terms of its profound understanding of the human condition. Now that many feminists weaned on The Second Sex have reached their sixties (Beauvoir was 62 when she wrote The Coming of Age) they might benefit from her wisdom, which as all wisdom deepens with age. This is not to speak of men of a certain age as well, who as members of the baby boomer generation are coping with the issues of aging.
On February 4, 2008, The New York Times published an article in the science section written by Jane E. Brody titled "A Heartfelt Appeal for a Graceful Exit" that defended assisted suicide. Brody, born in 1941, concludes:
I for one have made my wishes clear to my family. When the tortures of a continued existence with no hope of recovery outweigh the benefits of maintaining that existence, I want out. And I hope that those who love me will find a way to make that happen.
Although death is the climax of the aging process, Simone de Beauvoir's main focus is on old age itself rather than dying, which she accepts in good existential fashion as an inescapable fate, much like the rock that keeps rolling back on Sisyphus. Using the same combination of Marxist sociology, phenomenological philosophy, and Freudian psychology that served The Second Sex so well, Beauvoir ranges across centuries and continents to render the definitive statement on growing old. In her preface, she writes:
Old age is not a mere statistical fact; it is the prolongation and the last stage of a certain process. What does this process consist of? In other words, what does growing old mean? The notion is bound up with that of change. Yet the life of the foetus, of the new-born baby and of the child is one of continuous change. Must we therefore say, as some have said, that our life is a gradual death? Certainly not. A paradox of this kind disregards the basic truth of life -- life is an unstable system in which balance is continually lost and continually recovered: it is inertia that is synonymous with death.
It should be said at the outset that Beauvoir's prose, as obvious from the quote above, is as pellucid as a mountain stream. Despite her training in continental philosophy, nobody could ever mistake her writing with Merleau Ponty's or her long-time companion Jean-Paul Sartre. Although she is dealing with very complex subjects, often having contradictory aspects (and what can be more contradictory than the life/death duality?), she explains herself using language that should be a model for aspiring serious writers.
Just about every aspect of the aging process comes under scrutiny, including some of the physical changes affecting men and women that she looks at with the eye of a clinician. In order to have written passages such as these, Simone de Beauvoir obviously had to master the medical literature:
The growth of skin in the aged causes a thickening of the eyelids, while at the same time hollows appear beneath the eyes. The upper lip becomes thinner: the lobe of the ear increases in size. There are changes in the skeleton, too. With the compression of the spinal discs the vertebrae come closer together; the spine is bowed. Between forty-five and eighty-five men's chest measurements diminish by ten centimetres and women's by fifteen. The shoulders become less wide, the pelvis broader: the thorax tends to assume a sagittal shape, particularly in the case of women. Muscular atrophy and the sclerosis of the joints cause difficulties in working and movement. The skeleton suffers from osteoporosis: the dense part of the bone becomes spongy and fragile, and this is why a fracture of the head of the femur, which supports the body's weight, is a common accident.
Such detailed and unstinting attention is not only paid to the human body. Beauvoir also holds up societies dating back to the dawn of man and varying in complexity from hunting-and-gathering bands to the most modern technological societies under the microscope, all for the purpose of answering the crucial question of how they treat their old. After seeing Monty Python's alumnus Terry Jones debunk Roman "civilization" in the excellent documentary titled The Barbarians, I was not surprised to read that old people were considered a nuisance to be disposed with rather than valued as wise elders -- a point that Jones made himself. Beauvoir writes that it was probable that the Romans got rid of their old people by drowning them, since it was usual to speak of sending them ad pontem, Latin for place at the bridges.
Not surprisingly, the more primitive a society, the better it treats the old since they are a real asset in understanding the environment that provides food and shelter. Also, since a communal society has no interest whatsoever in profits or money, there is little incentive to throw "unproductive" members of the tribe to the wolves. "Close and affectionate" relationships are common among the Navajo elderly and their grandchildren. Their families are matrilinear and the women are respected. The Jivaro people have particular use for the elders since it is "thanks to their experience that the knowledge of animals and plants and also of pharmacology has been able to evolve."
Simone de Beauvoir's command of the anthropological and historical literature is really quite breathtaking. But it is in her treatment of artists, politicians, and other notables in their old age that the study begins to achieve an almost literary grandeur as she depicts them grappling with the universal aging process. I was particularly struck by her reference to Leon Trotsky, a figure who has always appeared overbearingly self-confident even when facing the insurmountable odds of the Kremlin and Joseph Stalin. Apparently, his own biological clock was even more intimidating:
Even if the body does send us signals, they are ambiguous. There is a temptation to confuse some curable disease with irreversible old age. Trotsky lived only for working and fighting, and he dreaded growing old: he was filled with anxiety when he remembered Turgenev's remark, one that Lenin often quoted -- "Do you know the worst of all vices? It is being over fifty-five." And in 1933, when he was exactly fifty-five himself, he wrote a letter to his wife, complaining of tiredness, lack of sleep, a failing memory; it seemed to him that his strength was going, and it worried him. "Can this be age that has come for good, or is it no more than a temporary, though sudden, decline that I shall recover from? We shall see." Sadly he called the past to mind: "I have a painful longing for your old photograph, the picture that shows us both when we were so young." He did get better and he took up all his activities again.
The brunt of Beauvoir's study is taken up with the tendency of modern, industrial societies to devalue old people, who become the ultimate object to use the term favored in existential literature. Taking into account the tendency of the capitalist system to view such people as a debit in the system's balance sheet, Beauvoir does not stop there. She is anxious to show how negative attitudes toward old people betray deeper psychological impulses that cannot be reduced to class. In her masterful synthesis of Freud, Sartre, and Marx, she is well-equipped to examine social prejudices on a number of levels. After making the case that a decent income goes a long way in making the elderly feel comfortable, Simone de Beauvoir goes on to say that material benefits are not always enough:
Yet even the well-to-do old people suffer from their uselessness. The paradox of our time is that the aged enjoy better health than they used to and that they remain "young" longer: this makes their idleness all the harder for them to bear. All gerontologists agree that living the last twenty years of one's life in a state of physical fitness but without any useful activity is psychologically and sociologically impossible. Those who live on must be given some reason for living: mere survival is worse than death. "You can't be retired and live," said a former mechanic when he was asked to explain what he had done -- without any apparent reason he had fired a gun at a policeman, wounding him badly.
In commemorating Simone de Beauvoir's 100th birthday, it is necessary to point to masterpieces such as The Coming of Age but also to acknowledge the crowning achievement of her generation. As a movement, the French existentialists of the left were the culmination of a century-old intellectual development that both expressed an age and marked its finale. As a school, French existentialism was eventually superseded by postmodernism, which was its inferior in every respect just based on the evidence of a work like The Coming of Age, which had no use for the wordplay, irony, and superficial brilliance of the books that appeared in its wake. By the time that the 1970s were in full swing, a reaction would be building in the French academy against "grand narratives" such as the kind that The Coming of Age represented. In its passionate devotion to the cause of society's superfluous members, this work was both political and philosophical. In attempting to get to the existential core of the condition of aging, Beauvoir entered dark, uncharted territory and came out of it all the wiser for the benefit of her readers.
If you find our work useful and appreciate its quality, please consider making aMoney is spent to pay for Internet costs, maintenance and upgrade of our computer network, and development of the site.