Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Authentic Old Age by Ernst Bloch

On the whole, old age shows, like every earlier stage of life, completely possible, specific benefits which also compensate for the farewell to the previous stage of life. Thus growing old not only describes a desirable stretch of time in which as much as possible has been experienced and in which as much as possible can be learnt on the way out. Growing old can also describe a wishful image according to the situation: the wishful image of commanding view, or possibly of harvest. Voltaire says in the same vein, for the ignorant old age is like the winter, for the educated it is the gathering and pressing of grapes. This does not exclude youth, but includes it in the after-ripening; the wish to return to youth loses precisely its element of suffering thanks to this matured empathy with  what is coming, it compensates, fulfills itself with the footing it has gained, with simplicity and meaning. In general, a person’s later years will thus contain all the more youth, in the un-imitated sense, the more collection there already was to start with in his youth; the phases of life, and therefore also old age, then lose their isolated sharpness. The healthy wishful image of old age and in old age is that of thoroughly formed maturity; it feels more at home giving than taking.

To be able to be so collected means there must be no noise. A final wish permeates all the wishes of old age, an often not unquestionable one, for rest. It can be just as tormenting, even as hungry as the earlier pursuit of diversion.  The sexual flaring up, which especially in women is often reminiscent of early puberty, is also dampened by it. Even the possibly productive nature, related so closely to youth, so familiar with it, needs freedom from disturbance more than before (or even more freedom from disturbance). And every old man wishes to be allowed to be exhausted by life; even if he is caught up in the hurly-burly of the world, a part of him behaves as if he were not caught up in it.

Vanity is the last garment that a man removes, but only a very strange old man will give this garment a lot of hard wear at the expense of silence. The image of this silence is wonderfully embellished precisely in the non-embourgeoisement of old age, the image of the country instead of the city, the elapsion where the wet cloths are drying, where things are not very busy. In more important cases, the wish for rest subdues even the regret over previous omissions and mistakes; in old age the failures in his life seemed to Goethe almost unimportant in the long run, where they had not turned out well. Happiness refused, and particularly work unfinished, still rankle, but in  memory at least, rightly or wrongly, almost takes shape.

Jacob Grimm’s speech about old age, which he himself gave in his seventy-fifth year, throws light on all these friendly late wishes and late feelings. This speech, definitely more ‘nolens’[unwilling] than ‘volens’[willing], is sustained by the grateful awareness that growing old is a blessing. Physical debilities of the senses are mitigated in the general wish for rest, they even supplement its content. Even possible deafness, according to Grimm, has the advantage that superfluous talk, useless chatter can no longer interrupt us. Failing eye-sight causes many disturbing details to disappear; Grimm recalls the blind seer. And he describes the enjoyment which the solitary walk affords the old man, how feeling for nature is heightened in general. Man is alone with himself in nature, the chattering conversation of nutrient plants dies down, the world grows dark in the evening, but the water grows bright, the last drop of life is dedicated to contemplation. Past deprivation is no longer felt, past happiness is becalmed, renewed through memory, the chisel-blows of life have worked an essential shape, and what is essential can be seen by it better than ever before.

Nevertheless, of course, even this kind of separation from other stages of life, emphasized by the wish for rest and a kind of strolling standstill, is different in different periods. The  Biedermeier period* is long past where the old soul, even in much less pure forms than that of Jacob Grimm, repaired to its own breast and was served at the long table d’hote of memories. The late capitalist world is certainly not a Bank of Hope for old people. Even the winter rest of the middle class is seriously disturbed by the dwindling or the precariousness of the savings account. Only socialist society can fulfill the wishes of old age for leisure, yet even here this leisure, in a positive sense of course, is different than before, since the difference between generations is no longer so sharply divisive. Life at the moment is much more sharply delineated politically, it can no longer be said that old age, despite its reflectiveness, is simply reactionary, youth, despite its freshness, simply progressive. Often it is the other way around, and the wish of old age for rest, in a time where, to isolate one symptom, there are still fascist youth leagues with their heads thrown back, does not always coincide with the wish of old age to remain forever in the inertia of yesterday.

It has become easier than ever for old age to burn at both ends, namely with courage and experience together, with new consciousness and with that of a known inheritance. The man who grows old and who, sitting in the cool of evening on the bench outside his front door, turns over the pages of his spent life and nothing more – this feature of Grimm’s wishful image has gone out of circulation economically and in terms of content. Still in circulation, however, is the vigorous wish, so commensurate with the wish for silence, that the empty whirl of life round about should stop. Precisely love of silence can be more remote from the capitalist scramble than a youth which mistakes the scramble for life. Here old age (for which the bourgeois world no longer has any use) has the right –to be old-fashioned.

To be genteel, giving a lead, using words and casting commanding glances which are not of that day nor for that day. Embodying times in which as yet not everything was the bustle of commerce, and above all in which this bustle will cease again. This makes a striking and yet understandable connection for many an old man today, provided he has grown wise, with a new age, the age without cocky, sharp, heel-clicking wolves, i.e. the socialist age. Wish and ability to be without vulgar haste, to see what is important, to forget what is unimportant; all this is the authentic life of old age.

* Period of bourgeois culture in 19th century Germany from 1815 to 1848. Also an elaborate style of domestic art in this period.

The Principle of Hope (volume one), written 1938-47, revised 1953 & 1958; first American edition, translated by Basil Blackwell, Ltd, 1986; pages 38-41

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