The disturbing mystery of old age

The disturbing mystery of old age
The disturbing mystery of old age

While young people do not realize that they will be old one day, Older people, on the other hand, have difficulty realizing that they have become old. To this constitutive mystery of old age, Simone de Beauvoir tried to provide an explanation where it intersects Freud, Proust and capitalism.


Antoine de Caunes, 70 years old, has just launched Vieux, “the magazine we’ll all end up reading”. A curious slogan, whose humor comes from the fact that it teaches us something as necessary and inevitable as it is difficult to realize: we are getting old. Simone de Beauvoir deals with such a paradox in Old age (1970). “To die prematurely or to grow old: there is no other alternative. And yet, as Goethe wrote: ‘Age seizes us by surprise.'” […] What baffles us is that the unfolding of universal time has resulted in a personal metamorphosis. We are getting old, we are sure of it, but we do not know it – this is perhaps the strangest mystery of old age.

It is always others who confront me with my own aging.

We get old but we don’t feel old. We are old but we do not believe it. Beauvoir explains this by the gap between our objective biological age and the way we perceive ourselves. Nothing, in fact, in our personal experience tells us our age. The process of human aging being very slow, progressive and therefore imperceptible except in fits and starts, it can only be revealed to us from the outside, like an accident.

Read also : The day I got old

When it is pointed out to us: “I shuddered”said Beauvoir, “When an American student told me a friend’s remark: “But then, Simone de Beauvoir, she’s old!”

When our own face becomes foreign to us: we observe ourselves in the mirror, as if we were looking at someone else, an unknown person, or, on the contrary, as if it were someone else who was looking at us.

Or, finally, when we realize that those around us have become old. To see an old acquaintance again is to be struck at once by the entirety of the time that has passed. It has become “visible to the naked eye,” Beauvoir says, quoting Proust. At the very end of The research, The narrator, torn, finds at a reception his friends and acquaintances of yesteryear disfigured by the years. An experience that is no less moving for us, readers, because if decades have passed in the diegesis, it is thousands of pages, hundreds of hours of reading and often several years of our lives that separate us from our first contact with the characters of the novel.

“On the figure of Bloch I saw this feeble and nodding expression superimposed, these frail nods of the head which so quickly find their stop, and in which I would have recognized the learned fatigue of amiable old people, if on the other hand, I had not recognized my friend before me and if my memories did not animate him with this youthful and uninterrupted enthusiasm of which he currently seemed dispossessed”

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Timetome 7, Recovered time1922

It’s here “complex truth of old age […] In me it is the other who is old, that is to say the one I am for others: and this other is me”concludes Simone de Beauvoir.

Denial of old age

Why are these violent shocks necessary? PWhy, without them, do we fail to become aware of our aging? It is because “We are stumbling upon a kind of intellectual scandal: we must assume a reality which is undoubtedly ourselves, even though it reaches us from outside and remains elusive. There is an insurmountable contradiction between the intimate evidence which guarantees our permanence and the objective certainty of our metamorphosis.”

Faced with the inevitable passage of time and the decline of our physical envelope, we are in what psychiatrists call a “crisis of identification”, which would be common to other periods of life, notably the passage from childhood to adolescence. But Beauvoir distinguishes very clearly the two situations, which are different: first, the adolescent’s body is transformed brutally, bothering him and making him physically feel that he is going through a period of transition; the old man, on the contrary, “feels old through others without having experienced serious changes; internally, he does not adhere to the label that sticks to him: he no longer knows who he is”.

How can we explain this asymmetry? Beauvoir, in reference to Freudexplains that our blindness to old age is due to the activity of our unconscious. Indeed, the latter does not distinguish between true and false, what exists and what is fictitious or fantasized. The unconscious is a structured set of desires which, without us realizing it, can or cannot, depending on the case, obstruct reflection and the grasp of reality. However, the unconscious does not desire old age. If the passage from adolescence to adulthood is not affected by the same denial, it is to the extent that it will allow boys and girls to satisfy their fantasies of virility and femininity. “On the contrary, adults associate old age with fantasies of castration.” So, he “maintains the illusion of eternal youth”. This explains “this surprise, this disbelief, this scandal” which constitutes any revelation of our age, and the true one “depressive psychosis” which may result from it.

So young people no less than old people live in illusion. Some believe they will never grow old; others no longer recognize themselves. Being young means being able to maintain one’s illusion without society contradicting it; being old means seeing it constantly waver without being able to get rid of it, via the gaze of an otherness that one cannot embrace.

Old age is above all a political question

This is why Beauvoir explains that what is most important, when we think about old age, it is its social and political dimension. Not only because it is always others who make us realize that we have aged (or ourselves provided with the gaze of a third party), which makes it crucial to work on our representations, but also because this denial has disastrous consequences on the lives of the elderly, on the mistreatment, the exclusions that we make them suffer. They send us back the image, which we do not want to see, of what we will be. So we make them into monsters, toothless bus-riders who can no longer be saved – or on the contrary hermits, ascetics who need neither company nor money, a reclusive and destitute life suiting their wisdom.

➤ Also read: When Simone de Beauvoir was concerned about the condition of “old people”

We turn a deaf ear to what they are demanding, blind to their sorrows, when old age should be a major political concern. Especially since those we prefer to call “seniors” today are the first victims of capitalism.

“Exploited, alienated individuals, when their strength leaves them, inevitably become ‘rejects’, ‘waste’. […] By the fate it assigns to its inactive members, society unmasks itself; it has always considered them as material. It admits that for it only profit counts and that its ‘humanism’ is pure facade.

Simone de Beauvoir, Old age1970

Hence Beauvoir’s radical thesis, according to which the problem of old age can only be resolved by an exit from capitalism.

“When we understand the condition of the elderly, we cannot be satisfied with demanding a more generous ‘old age policy’, an increase in pensions, healthy housing, organised leisure activities. The whole system is at stake and the demand can only be radical: to change life.”

Ibid.

And also find our big 2021 report: How do you know you’ve aged?

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