“People ask: ‘Would you or would you not like to be young again?’ Of course, it is really one of those foolish questions that never should be asked, because they are impossible… You cannot unroll that snowball which is you: there is no ‘you’ except your life — lived.”
“In old age we should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in on ourselves,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote as she considered how to keep life from becoming a parody of itself, while across the English Channel the ever-sagacious Bertrand Russell was offering his prescription for how to grow old and across the Atlantic the vivacious elderly Henry Miller was distilling the secret to remaining young at heart as a matter of being able to “fall in love again and again… forgive as well as forget… keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical.”
The universal challenge of moving from youth to older age and the dialog between them within one lifetime or across generations has been approached by no one better than the great classicals scholar and Linguist. Jane Ellen Harrison (September 9, 1850–April 15, 1928), whose extraordinary life I came upon in Francesca Wade’s altogether scrumptious book Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars (public library) and whose work revolutionized the modern understanding of Ancient Greek culture by upending millennia of patriarchal revisionism with Harrison’s discovery of an entire class of “matriarchal, husbandless goddesses” central to community life and ritual.
In her sixty-fifth year, as World War I was breaking out, Harrison reflected in a letter that “work & friendship come to be the whole of life.” As the ledger of her life grew thick with decades, she never lost her intellectual vivacity, her lively intergenerational friendships, her active engagement with the ever-pulsating world of scholars and artists — in no small part because of the life and love she shared with her significantly younger partner: the poet, novelist, and translator Hope Mirrlees.
That same year, Harrison was startled to hear one of her young, talented colleagues at Trinity College proclaim that “no one over thirty is worth speaking to.” With her winking intelligence, she observed:
It is very fascinating and extremely valuable. Not a reasoned conclusion here, but real emotion, solid prejudice and an attitude of gifted Youth to Crabbed Aging. My job is to learn and understand. Let me know if you have any prejudices and I’ll be happy to help.
She adds, in a statement that should be the most important manifesto of intellectual and emotional humility, which is so desperately needed right now,
I’m long past the point of blaming and praising others, but, actually, I don’t yet have the ability to accept them. There is still so much that needs to be understood.
And so she set out to do just that in an entertaining, existentially profound essay titled “Crabbed Age and Youth,” published in her 1915 essay collection Alpha and Omega (public library).
Harrison considers the rudiments of maturity and what makes us who we are by examining the “relations between fairly mature youth and quite early middle age,” defining the latter as “anything completely or hopelessly grown up — anything, say, well over thirty,” winking at the relativity of age with the memory of a time when a person of fourteen appeared to her child-self “utterly grown up.” Reflecting on the young scholar’s remark, and noting in herself with even greater alarm a similar “counter-prejudice” against youth, she observes:
The reasons by which people back up their prejudices are mostly negligible — not reason at all at bottom, but just instinctive self-justifications; but prejudice, rising as it does in emotion, has its roots in life and reality.
She notes that while there is often great friction between the young and the old, this friction can, “if rightly understood and considerately handled on both sides, take the form of mutual stimulus and attraction” — for it most often springs from a lack of understanding of each other’s state of being and frame of reference. It is this friction that creates the extraordinary complementarity among the different life stages.
Crabbed age and youth are broadly defined as the opposite poles in human life, which is essential for any genuine vitality. However, they can be contrasted. Youth stands for rationalism*, for the intellect and its concomitants, egotism and individualism. Crabbed Age represents tradition and the emotions as well as their altruism. (*Note: Due allowance of course being made for the anti-intellectual reaction in the present generation.)
Living is about finding the right balance between these two tendencies. Virtues or vice are just labels that can be applied to specific forms of one of these tendencies. Of the two, egotism, self-assertion, are to the youth as necessary — sometimes, I sadly think, more necessary — to good living than altruism. The egotism in youth is inevitable and compulsory. However, age’s altruism is not.
A century before the selfing pandemic of social media, Harrison considers the chief handicap of the young — their tendency to “masquerade,” which calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s insight into being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-display, and Walt Whitman’s reflection on what trees teach us about being rather than seeming. She wrote:
Acting is sinking your own personality in order that you may mimic another’s. Masquerading is borrowing another’s personality, putting on the mask of another’s features, dress, experiences, emotions, and thereby enhancing your own… Youth, and especially shy Youth, is strongly possessed by the instinctive desire to masquerade.
Masquerading bores Crabbed Age. Why?
Simply because the impulse to imaginative self-enhancement dies down as soon as liberty to live is granted… Crabbed Age is busy living, not rehearsing, and living, if sometimes less amusing, is infinitely more absorbing. This takes so much of you.
Yet, the older have their way of oppressing young people. This is equally harmful to each of them and to our collective culture.
A waste of time is creating signposts to guide others that must travel along a different, but often better road. Information that is easily accumulated and communicated is often confusing for older people. KnowledgePlease see the following: ExperienceThe only thing that can be remembered is what you live.
However, the Old Age has worse things. It sins by trying to make its experiences a rule for youth. Parents try to impose their view of life on their children not merely or mostly to save those children from disaster — that to a certain extent and up to a certain age we must all do — but from possessiveness, from a desire, often unconscious, to fill the whole stage themselves.
Human nature is hard hit by the fact that this age has yet to see. This truth is that, in all matters that can be analyzed and known, Youth starts life on the shoulders of Age, and therefore… sees farther and is actually more likely to be right.
Across this divide youth and old age frustrate and bore each other — one excited about everything, especially the masquerade of the self, the other increasingly specialized and outward-focused in its excitations, and at times oppressively so. But eventually, Harrison observes, life intercedes and the young are forced — by falling in love, by creative self-actualization, by some great calamity or illness, by the demands of a career, by the demands of a family — to shed their masks and narrow their locus of concerns, growing more entwined with other selves:
Youth can take on responsibility and do some work. PartLife becomes an actual part of your life.
She writes in a remarkable passage that gives insight into life’s meat:
Real life — and here comes the important point — real life, as contrasted with life imagined and rehearsed, on the whole compels at least a certain measure of altruism. There are many ways to compel, including some that can be gentle or violent. These are the normal methods.
Normally, in the first place, life itself will lure you, catch you, and marry you, make a father or a mother of you, and your children will soon stop your masquerading, and teach you that you are not the centre of their universe — nay, compel you to revolve round the circumference of theirs. The lure of passion and love for one person can make you commit to service the entire race. The woman receives a greater education in altruism than the man.
Imagine you are able to evade the natural attraction of living. There is society waiting with its artificial lure — waiting to catch you and make an official of you, a functionary, a thing that is only half or a quarter perhaps yourself, and a large three-quarters that tool and mouthpiece of the collective conscience. How often one has seen a year’s officialdom turn a man’s spiritual hair grey! All officialdom does not have labels or honours. But it is about the sacrifice of individuals will. This society is ready to make a huge price. Even though officialdom can be a loss-making endeavor, it is still a source of great joy. Both are godly disciplines that help young men learn to not be at the center of their own universe.
She adds that she recognizes children can often be the clearest and most unambiguous version of adult confusions and puzzlements.
This being the centre of your own — of course, quite fictitious — universe is best seen in the extreme case of the megalomania of young children, as yet untaught by life. It is their own experiences that are always instructive.
Seven years of age is too young to be able to analyze. One must instead agonize. It is terrible to be young, or a child at all. You see things and feel them whole. It is not possible to experience such a devastating and debilitating feeling as being at the center, warmly sheltered and then suddenly to reach the outer circumference and to be asked to become a spectator and sympathizer around a newly formed centre.
We carry much of that primal self-centeredness, and the grief of its loss, well into young adulthood — a term, and concept, that didn’t exist in Harrison’s era. Eric Berne’s revolutionary framework of the Child, Parent, and Adult ego-states that live in each of us was still half a century away. With her own singular lens on how we become ourselves — and our selves — Harrison writes:
You can be anything you wish to be. As long you don’t specialize or become a functionary and you are not able to co-operate and understand the personality of other people, it doesn’t matter how long you live. You are only one of a great chorus, all masquerading, all shouting, “Me, Me—look at ME!” Once you specialize, once you become an actor with a PartIn life, you will need the help of all other actors. The play can’t go ahead without them. They are the ones who play a crucial role in your life. They are the MeIt is Use this site.
It is not true that the narrowing of individuality by specialization leads to individualism. In fact, it is nearly the only condition for true individualism. Through co-operation the sense of personality is born and nourished… The narrow, tedious people are those who are “living their own lives” and consciously “developing their own individualities” — trying to out-shout the other members of the chorus instead of singing in tune, playing their PartAct as part of a troupe.
Her image captures everything that it means to be a paradoxical being.
It is one of the tragic antinomies of life that you cannot at once live and have vision… Looking back on life I seem to see Youth as standing, a small, intensely-focused spot, outside a great globe or circle. The tiny spot becomes so focused that it believes it is at the center of the big circle. Slowly that small, burning spot is swallowed up with many others and engulfed in the great world. It is humbled by the experience of living, and realizes it is not the centre of all life. The individual, or speck of life, dies in Old Age. It is no longer burning, but it has not yet been consumed. Old Age is a time when we reflect on the great circle. At least partly, it’s visible from Old Age. However, this look back is very different than the one we do in Youth. Although it is more disillusioned than the looking forward to Youth, it is also far richer. Sometimes, I see glimpses of that vision. After a while, my vision blurs behind the torturing, blinding and blazing wheel. Although it looks odd, the vision is comforting and almost portentous.
The essay crowns a beautifully nuanced view of age. It is beautiful, necessary and difficult to ignore.
Someone who loves abstract discussion passionately, regardless of whether their hair is ever so gray or their hands are never so pink, is in spirit young. It isn’t something I consider an advantage. There is a way to remain young forever. There is a “time to grow old.”
People ask: “Would you or would you not like to be young again?” Of course, it is really one of those foolish questions that never should be asked, because they are impossible. You cannot be — you that are — young again. You cannot unroll that snowball which is you: there is no “you” except your life — lived. But apart from that, when you rise from what somebody calls “the banquet of life,” flushed with the wine of life, can you want to sit down again? Do you really want to climb the hill when the views are just beginning? It’s a thousand times NO! Whoever truly wants to feel young again, has not lived. Of course, if you never eat, you keep your appetite for dinner.
The day after Jane Harrison died — an unseasonable spring day of “bitter windy rain” — Virginia Woolf recorded in her diary that she had gone for a walk in the cemetery and run into Hope, Jane’s partner, distraught and “half sleep” with grief. Virginia Woolf, who was several months away from publishing Orlando — her four-century love letter to Vita, the great love of her own life — recounted her encounter with the brokenhearted Hope:
We kissed by Cromwell’s daughter’s grave, where Shelley used to walk, for Jane’s death. She lay dead outside the graveyard in that back room where we saw her lately raised on her pillows, like a very old person, whom life has tossed up, & left; exalted, satisfied, exhausted.
Hope was later sent a Virginia condolence letter. It contained one line. “It was more comforting than all my other letters put together,” she told a friend half a lifetime later. The message read:
Remember what you’ve had.
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