This is a seriously thoughtful book about being old. Not much wrong with being old, as my mother used to say – it’s just hard work. Here, feminist scholar Lynne Segal tells us a great deal about why that is so, and about the contradictory fears and emotions aroused as our bodily selves slowly wind down or fall apart.
Segal’s intention is not to inform us about ageing bodies and what to do with them, or to explore the growing body of literature on how to stay young. Instead, turning away from the binaries of progress or decline, ageing well or badly, she looks at the personal and political experience of old age as evidenced in literary narratives by ageing writers and poets, some of them her friends. Like Segal, her fellow baby boomers are producing a rich flora of literature on the subject. We live longer, some of us more prosperously, than previous generations, a state of affairs that causes new forms of generational rifts cynically exploited by market-dependent media and politicians in search of votes. But the always politically fractious baby boomers have never taken kindly to being pigeonholed, and they bristle as they experience first-hand the stigma of old age and become the stereotyped “other”. Out of Time reflects that indignation. A great deal of reading and reflecting has gone into it, and Segal’s detailed comments on her chosen literature are engagingly and evocatively written.
It is poetry that emerges from her analysis as the best route to personal solace. Perhaps poetry readings should be available free on the NHS
One of the themes running through these critical readings is that of personal identity and the associated issue of personal integrity. As Segal repeatedly finds in these texts, being old may be a fact of chronology, but growing older is a process that starts the minute we are born. In the beginning we count the years proudly, and then decades fly past with surprising speed until towards the end we count the years again. As a child we feel pleased to be told that we have changed, but as an older person we see it as a compliment to be told that we have not changed at all. Throughout this transformation we are at some indefinable core the same person. In old age we retain traces of previous selves with whom we have regular exchanges of memory and recognition, but also self-disgust, loss and guilt. Memory fails, but, as Freud observed, it also distorts at some considerable psychic cost, leaving debilitating anxiety and repressed anger. In the absence of cross-generational and other forms of recognition, this personal core is easily lost and with it personal dignity, our most precious asset and the ultimate barrier against abuse.
Another of the book’s themes is that of the multifariousness of the experience of growing old. Sexual liberation lay at the heart of many ideological battles fought by Segal’s generation as it questioned the relationship between the personal and the political. In her chapter on “The perils of desire”, older gender tensions re‑emerge. Philip Roth’s and Martin Amis’ anxiety about declining phallic prowess seems to have been constant over time; in contrast, Simone de Beauvoir, like many other female writers cited, changed her mind over time about sexuality and the desires and desirability of the ageing body. Segal’s speculation that in old age women are more accepting than men of alternative sexualities, including celibacy, and therefore less distressed about physical decline, looks plausible in view of the evidence presented here. But it is difficult to share her view entirely that the phallocentric anxieties of Roth and Amis in old age are less authentic – or are an indication of what was wrong with them in the first place – than the memoirs of ageing feminists trying to retain the intimacy of bodily love in new ways. There are other male writers whose views of ageing masculinity do not fit such stereotypes, and there may be many reasons why women seem more contented as they age.
Out of Time’s cultural-studies approach brings its own epistemological problems. There is an occasional confusion between the literary discussions of persons and texts on the one hand and a rather weakly evidenced reference to generalised reality on the other. Arguably what is missing, in this overview of the reflections of intellectuals, is a more than passing reference to the fears and indignities to which ordinary people are subject. The more sociologically and psychologically oriented evidence behind which some of those people are hidden is too readily treated as epistemologically problematic “bean counting”, or the results of artificial experiments or dubious “well-being” surveys. It is true that not everyone turns to social science when seeking solace, but that is no reason to belittle its capacity to be both qualitatively and quantitatively insightful about old age. This matters in the absence of discussion of some serious issues: euthanasia, anxiety in public spaces, pain management, being cared for in uncaring and miserably resourced circumstances, loss of one’s own home. Moreover, there is little here about the legacy of broken families or how loved offspring will fare in the harsher economic climates of the future. Issues related to religion, as a solace or source of anxiety and guilt, are also absent. Considering these subjects might put fears about losing sex and intimacy in old age into perspective.
In the end, Out of Time offers little solace. We may be impressed by the creative resurgences of the “late style” of a Beethoven, Freud or Edward Said, but few of us had a creative style worth considering to begin with. Those with a craft skill such as music, embroidery or carpentry may have a means of productively filling their time, but only as long as eyes and hands hold out. With the gradual loss of friends, partners and relatives as well as once-familiar physical spaces, a subject to which Segal devotes her most moving chapter, she advises the fostering of forward-looking good relations with younger generations. This is wise counsel, but they are a rather noisy lot with pressures of their own. It is hard to trust their promise to look after us when dementia and incontinence set in, nor would we necessarily want to be left in their care. Political engagement is another “resistance” worth pursuing in making sense of a worthwhile life. But it is poetry – by Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney or any of the other poets Segal cites – that emerges from her analysis as the best route to personal solace and a space for complex and ultimately unbearable emotions. Perhaps poetry readings, along with blood pressure pills and flu jabs, should be available free on the NHS.
It would be futile to try to sum up the literary breadth of Segal’s valuable contribution to the debate on old age or the insights it offers by dint of its sheer argumentativeness. Instead, let me quote a few self-reflecting lines by Dorothy Parker: “Her mind lives in a quiet room/A narrow room, and tall/With pretty lamps to quench the gloom/And mottoes on the wall…Her mind lives tidily, apart/From cold and noise and pain,/And bolts the door against her heart,/Out wailing in the rain.” When we are out of time, we can but wail. Old age will never be a rose garden, but as Segal has shown, its thorns can be made a bit more visible.
“Like many older people, gardening is now my great hobby,” says Lynne Segal, anniversary professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck, University of London.
“For a Londoner, I am lucky enough to have a real garden and, although it’s often a little wild, it’s always green and usually has something (Antipodean) blooming. Also like my fellow Aussies (at least before the great melanoma scares) I’m a true sun-worshipper, so I can often be spied in my garden in states of relative undress even as the indoor heating blasts out – although never without books and my laptop teetering somewhere nearby. Of course my gardening remains amateur, but that adds to its surprises.”
Born in Sydney, Segal was “the middle child, born in the middle of wartime, squeezed between an older and younger sibling, with each of us barely a year apart. But this was hardly the only reason that my endlessly busy working mother had little time to do more than blow us a huge goodnight kiss before lights out. I was also a skinny, sickly, asthmatic child, which was seen then as something of a psychosomatic disgrace.”
Of her native land, she observes: “Australia in the middle of the 20th century seemed to be an especially conformist and hypocritical nation, imbued with moral anxieties, Cold War fears and xenophobia. There is always much contingency in who and what impacts most upon us, but I think I was lucky in my timing more than my location: encountering Sixties radicalism at my coming of age, Seventies feminism when I became a mother, and academic life just when, in the polytechnics, we were freer to experiment with what we taught.”
Segal lives in North London, and adds: “I have always liked living in Islington, but I liked it best in the 1970s when it was a genuinely cross-class and ethnically hybrid borough. Then I felt securely rooted in a locally based, extremely vibrant political community of feminists and Left libertarians, forever pestering our council for better services and provision for all. Today, the shrinking of public housing and endless rise of house prices sicken me, keeping everybody but bankers, pornographers or property magnates from moving in to my neighbourhood. I long to see more cheap housing built around me.”
If she could live anywhere else, it would be “somewhere warmer. Sydney is beautiful, so I could always return ‘home’, although since I like to burrow in deeply wherever I am, I fear I would now be something of a stranger there.”
As a child, she says, “I always read. But this was more as food for my daydreams than anything you could call seriously scholarly. In my family we were all pushed strongly towards high achievement in school and beyond, and I knew that for us it was literally a type of shame not to come ‘top of the class’, as my mother and brother always had in every exam they ever sat.
“But I would not call this any sort of preparation for what I consider a scholarly life; if anything, it was the reverse. It was only my later political engagements that made me genuinely interested in scholarship, usually via evening classes in feminism or women’s studies, looking for the voices of those sidelined, or worse, in history. Then I had genuine reasons for seeking knowledge other than the need to show off, or please my parents. I also early on had a critical interest in psychoanalytic thought, the shadow area of conflicting mental states, hatred and repression, which mainstream psychology had tried so hard to expel with its narrow focus on the measurable attributes of universal man.”
Birkbeck has been good an experience for her as for its students, she thinks. “Coming to work at Birkbeck in my late middle age was, job-wise, the best thing that ever happened to me. I loved its origins as the first ‘working men’s’ university, founded almost two centuries ago, and its accessibility to those who had usually been excluded from higher education, its strong tradition of interdisciplinarity and, above all, its inclusion of so many older people and, especially on my own courses, older women.
“Of course not enough is being done to encourage older people to take degrees today. However, since the reigning idea of our current education policy is to encourage us to seek knowledge for purely instrumental reasons to facilitate our subsequent suitability for market ends, the intellectual development of anybody without wealth or good cultural resources is being poorly served nowadays.
“I do nevertheless agree that older people often have a particular need and interest in taking up or returning to scholarly and creative concerns. I want to see this taken up as a significant educational issue, but fear it will not be outside the voluntary sector, such as the University of the Third Age. The Coalition government love to praise voluntary activity while at the same time undermining the infrastructures to support it, such as subsidised places for people to meet or other forms of necessary government encouragement and facilitation.”
Asked whether Australian former prime minister Julia Gillard’s passionate and impactful October 2012 speech on misogyny in politics, or the perceived need for it, tells us more about Australia and women, Segal suggests that “both are equally informative. Clearly there is a vicious form of misogyny in the Australian ruling elite, nowhere more so, it seems, than in its misnamed Liberal Party, with all its blatant racism and sexism. Gillard’s speech was wonderful, and hugely appreciated internationally.
“That she was able to deliver it also tells us something about the success of professional women in scrambling into the professional elite, both because of and despite all the residual sexism. Misogyny, sadly, seems only to have grown with the success of these professional women, so the struggle continues, hopefully opening further spaces for women to have more control over their jobs and their lives, at all levels of society. That’s the really challenging issue, but as the media and parliamentary mistreatment and abuse of Gillard shows, feminist struggle is as necessary as ever.”
Segal has spoken and written on the issue of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. Asked if she is optimistic at the prospect of peace in the region, she says: “Oh dear. The resources for hope are not easy to find, whether we look at either the Israeli government or what there is of official Palestinian leaderships. Israel has only stepped up its long, illegal march into Palestinian territory since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin almost two decades ago. There has been no serious pressure on Israel to prevent this, but only ever increasing military funding from the US government.
“What can I say? It is my firm view that such settler intransigence only further endangers Israel. You cannot forcefully subjugate and curtail the movements of another people until the end of time. I see impressive peace activists on both sides of this conflict, especially in non-violent, grassroots Palestinian resistance to Israeli encroachment on their land and their lives, as well as in the committed support work for this by the smaller Jewish Israeli peace movement. However, the will to establish a just peace could not be less evident in the only place that has the power to make it happen, the Israeli state. I am currently less hopeful that peace is on the horizon, yet I know that in the end these two people must live together in peace. There really is no alternative.”
As for gender issues in the UK or around the world, Segal says: “I’ve always been hopeful about the prospects for gender equality, both in the UK and, to varying degrees, worldwide. But equality is a baggy concept, crisscrossed by many other axes of power, even as male dominance and frequent dismissal of, if not contempt for, women, is stubbornly persistent. So while some women have been able to move into positions of privilege and authority (although never free from residues of sexism), other women are firmly held back by overlapping constraints of class, race and ethnicity. What we have not seen is the workplace made more compatible with the demands of love, caring and commitment necessary to sustain us all, but especially children and other dependent people. Indeed, the opposite has happened. It is because women have been and largely remain the primary caregivers that gender equality remains so distant for many of us.”
Asked what she would choose if she could magically acquire a skill – academic, linguistic, artistic or otherwise – that she does not now possess, Segal replies simply: “My skills are so limited, my desires so vast. I would just wish to be able to listen more carefully and to give and receive solace, love and support more effectively.”
Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing
By Lynne Segal
Verso, 320pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781781681398 and 81954 (e-book)
Published 7 November 2013