|thoughts about aging
||[Sep. 24th, 2010|01:31 pm]
things that decay, things that rust
Thinking about aging and death.|
The figure from Greek myth who aged but did not die first comes to mind. It is a common fairytale 'trick,' a variation on the trope of wish fulfillment that brings not joy but pain and downfall to the wisher : when you ask for immortality, be sure to ask for freedom from the process of aging as well. The pitiful voice asking to die that Eliot quotes at the start of the wasteland, or the shriveled Ursula in 100 Years of Solitude, blind, nearly deaf, a powerful matriarch reduced to infantile impotence, no larger than a fetus when she dies at an impossibly old age.
But then, what is aging? This is what I am asking myself. If to age without dying is pitiful, a kind of infinity, ever diminishing but never extinguishing, the desired state of immortality turned into a nauseous fever dream from which the dreamer cannot wake into death . . . then what is life without aging? I am immediately reminded of another fairytale standby: Peter Pan. I do not mean the sunny Disney vision, but Barrie's original text where, I think, Pan's monstrosity is too near the surface, too little of subtext and too much of text, for us to think it is meant to be missed.
Peter Pan is an eternal being, but he never ages. Near the end of the novel he returns to visit a grown-up Wendy, who has left Neverland and now has a young daughter of her own. Peter Pan's memory is fitfully, unspecific, untrustworthy. Wendy asks about Pan's former nemesis, Hook, who had been dispatched via crocodile (or was it alligator?) at the climax of the novel -- and Peter Pan cannot remember who Captain Hook is. Wendy provides some context, and he dismisses the subject, simply saying that he forgets them after he has killed them. Rather than an important accomplishment, a triumph that gives color and meaning to the life that follows, Peter Pan becomes quite simply an unthinking killing machine, moving from nemesis to nemesis. This is because to age is to remember -- it is the accruing of meaning and understanding.
But I have diverged. In my first paragraph I spoke of aging as a purely physical thing -- the abject who never die, who are on a trajectory of infinite degrade. In the second, I tried to envision an eternal life free from aging, and my exemplar is not only ageless but also disturbingly mindless, or, more correctly, memory-less. To establish these are counterpoints I must admit that the infinitely increasing decrepitude of those-who-age-but-do-not-die must be matched by a similar infinitely increasing understanding, knowledge, and memory. The physical diminishing and the mental expansion would, in theory, meet at their infinities, producing a point both infinitely small and infinitely knowing where a person had been -- in short, aging might then be the slow deification of the human, cut quite short by death, but remaining the beginnings of a long, terrifying process.
But this is not so. There are a lot of problems with equating mental development with physical decline; not the least of which is that a cartesian mind-body dualism is necessary to even consider this inverse relationship. Mind and body inter-relate, and many experience aging not only as a physical diminishing, but also as a mental or cognitive diminishing. I had two grandmothers; one kept her mind but was made immobile by arthritis, the other remained more or less mobile but spent the last portion of her life in an increasing miasma of dementia. The neat relationship I've traced above doesn't work at all.