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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 27 December 2015

"Out of time" by Lynne Segal

I was delighted to receive for Xmas a book about getting old. It captured me from the off when it pointed out that very few old people thought that they were old ... so if I protest that I am not yet old enough for this book I suppose that means that I probably am. I am 58. Judge for yourself.

More challenging is that the book is written from a feminist perspective. I am a man. So I have to be careful not to feel alienated and to try to listen to what this book is saying with an open a mind as too much testosterone will allow. Well, I tried. But what annoyed me more than anything else was how slender her evidence base was when it came to making generalisations about all men: most of what she says about men is based on the work of a handful of novelists. A different selection may have given a different result although I feel sure that it would have changed her opinion: she believes men are obsessed with their penises and that this leaves them little room to think of anything else. Her discussion of ageing women, on the other hand, scarcely mentions vaginas.

Chapter One: How Old Am I?

Segal's refusal to cast her net wide is emphasised on page 13 when she points out that there are many terrifying old women in myth: "the hag, harridan, gorgon, witch or Medusa". Firstly, Medusa was a gorgon and therefore included in the list twice. Secondly, Ovid describes Medusa as a beautiful young woman and a brief glimpse of Google Images for Medusa confirms that she is generally thought of as young. Thirdly, why has Segal restricted herself to the myths of the classical ancient world? There are certainly old men (and old women) to be found in Voodoo; Odin is usually an old man.

I love the idea Segal floats on page 19 that old people have access to "all the selves we have been". She develops this idea on page 24 in gterms of people being haunted by their memories (and by the memories that others leave with us).

I am less happy with the ideas that old people are less creative and "educable" than young people. Segal mentions these myths without aligning herself for or against. How true are they? I am presently studying for a PhD at the age of 58 and I think I am learning as fast as I was when I was 20. I have more stamina than when I was younger, I am better at organising my time and I am more patient (although I am, perhaps, quicker to discontinue a non-productive activity so in a sense I am less patient; I think I am more easily bored whan I was; I certainly am less tolerant of trashy TV). I also have far more experience to compare new learning with; until a few years ago I could never have invoked the Voodoo counterexamples above and therefore I think that I can do the 'mix' bit of 'rip, mix and burn' learning better than I could. Since I believe that creativity is governed by similarly 'mixing' experiences, the more experiences that I have the more creative I can now be. At the same time, I am better able to endure the hard and boring work that is need to transform mixed ideas into burned new products.

On page 35, Segal says that on the whole "men see themselves faced with the challenge of how to keep desire visibly alive, many seeking assistance for maintaining the sexual potency of youth." It is certainly my experience that erections are slower to arrive and harder (not quite the right word!) to maintain as I get older. But desire, lust, is still strong. In fact, this year I have experienced upsurges in horniness such as I cannot recall since puberty (but perhaps that is just my autobioheimers kicking in).

Chapter Two: Generational Warfare

The inescapable truth is that the old are luckier than the young because the old have been young while the young might not grow old. This is not how Segal sees it.

She kicks off, in both senses of the phrase, by describing "the war between the generations, or the baiting of older people" (p 40), immediately signifying her bias. In Greek culture, she remarks (and it is surprising how monocultural her references seem to be), "all heroism, beauty and sweetness resided in youth" (p 41)although wisdom was seen as a preserve of the old. Perhaps different generations do indeed have different strengths.

But on the whole, in the past, old people were better respected than they are now. A reason for this might be that "where there is a mass of elderly people there is less respect than in societies where there are few, especially when in the past it was more likely to be only the relatively powerful and affluent who survived into old age." (p 40) That seems a valid point worth investigating.

A point she never makes is that all old people are enfranchised while many young people are not. Recent UK referenda point out the implications of this: the Scottish independence referendum controversially extended the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds on the basis that they would be affected by the decision; the UK/EU referendum will equally controversially deny the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds despite the fact that they will be affected by the decision. Perhaps we should remove the franchise from everyone over a certain age (85? 90?) on the basis that they will only be affected by any electoral decision for a very short time while young people might be affected for longer. If the argument is about competence to make decisions it might easily be argued that a bright 16 year old is more competent than a 90 year old suffering dementia.

But her arguments do not need evidence. To argue about the unfair representation of old women in Hollywood (p 43)she relies on three films made between 1950 and 1968: hardly a representative selection of the hundreds of films made during that period or the thousands made in the 47 years since.

She talks about the "chorus of men blaming women" for the deterioration in their privileged positions without realising that feminism itself represents a chorus of women blaming men: what is sauce for the goose is indeed sauce for the gander. Clearly it is more reasonable for those without power (eg women) to fight to gain power than for those with power to fight to hang on to it. And the voices of the weak are often louder and angrier than those of the strong. But is this not the very reason why young people at the moment are angry with the old: because the old tend to be wealthier and more powerful? There are clear biases in the UK political system towards the old. The 'triple lock' guarantees that pensions will rise faster than inflation but there is no such protection for young people on low wages who rely on benefits to help them (Segal remarks that "the issue of pensions is indeed one in need of serious attention" (p 48) but she wants even better pensions than now). And is not that the reason why young people have always been resentful of the old? Isn't this exactly what happened in the Sixties?

She believes that the activists of the Sixties were defeated. But were they? In some things they lost; Thatcherism saw to that. But in other areas they were triumphant. While racism still exists it is nothing like the blatant casual racism of fifty years ago. Whilst homosexuals still suffer homophobia, gay culture is celebrated and gay rights are enshrined in law. Sexually we are much more free than before the era of 'free love'. Women have much more power and wealth than they had. In my youth, every office had girly calendars. Nowadays they have been almost completely replaced by hunk calendars and male nudity on stage is now more common than female nudity. I am not saying that the journey is complete, only that we have come a long way.

Segal believes (p 57) that "Many boomers have no good fortune at all to feel guilty about". Well they should not feel guilty. But healthcare is far better than it ever was and this is reflected in the increased life expectancy. In my youth there were regular famines in India and Africa; now these famines are fewer. Far more households around the world have access to running water and in this country far more people have refrigerators. We are much better off than we were. To say we have "no good fortune at all" is ridiculous.

Chapter 3: The Perils of Desire
Segal turns her attention to sexual desire, focussing again on "those who have a far stronger sense of their extensive past than of how they should relate to their much shorter future" (p 77) which is a lovely way of saying 'the old'.

Although she does acknowledge that the 'mid-life crisis' is essentially male and involves "periods of dramatic self-doubt, anxiety and worthlessness" (p 79), some of which relates to retirement (or when still in employment being overtaken by younger men) she does spend a lot of time looking at men's "faltering erectile capacities" (p 78), the "useless 'spigot of wrinkled flesh' between their legs" (p 84), men as "lecherous mavericks" (p 85)  full of "phallic longings" (p 86), "mortified by the 'pathetic shrunken wreck' his beloved penis has become (p 87), "chronically depressed, self-destructive and, of course, impotent" (p 87) "as their erectile capacities falter" (p 89). In other words, she essentially defines masculinity in terms of sex. Old women, on the other hand, find themselves "free of the shackles of sexuality" (p 91); she claims that "Viagra wives" are not thrilled to be asked to resume sex lives (pp 94 - 95). Indeed, she seems to feel that while male homosexuals usually discover their homosexuality in their teenage years, lesbianism begins over a much wider age range and some seems to be a result of being less desired by men (just as some male homosexual behaviour is due to the denial of female company eg in prisons). (pp 117 - 118)

But Segal does quote Doris Lessing as suggesting that "Older women ... lose men of their own age to younger women, because such men are the inevitable prey of these younger women." (p 107)

Men, of course, kill themselves more than women. "Women on average are most miserable at age forty, whereas men's blues kick in when they hit fifty" (p 82) which may be something to do with the differing ages of menopause.

In other words, Segal's arguments on the effect of ageing on sexuality do not offer a clear cut message. Although for men ageing is all about impotence it is much more complicated for women. Again, I feel that Seghal is not even-handed. For example, her evidence about ageing men derives almost entirely from the fictional works of Roth, Updike and Amis whilst she has a much broader evidence base, both fictional and non-fictional, for women. And if men are essentially playthings of biology with the urge to reproduce at every opportunity, can we use that same biology to analyse women after reproduction is no longer possible? Segal doesn't attempt this.

Chapter 4: The Ties that Bind
I was less interested in this chapter although it was again noteworthy that her understanding of the male perspective relies entirely on her analysis of fiction writers, here expanded to include Julian Barnes, whilst her feminine perspective is largely based on factual writings, especially memoir. Why is there this difference? And to what extend does such a limited and anecdotal evidence base devalue the validity of her conclusions?

Chapter 5: Flags of Resistance
There were some very interesting points made, although the evidence base is still rather thin. Does she really think that a handful of novelists represent the spectrum of opinions across all men?

"Biologists have revealed that ... (Class) differences are clearly evident even at the cellular level." (p 175). I'd love to see the evidence for this. She cites Thomas von Zglinicki (ed) Aging at the Molecular Level, New York, Springer, 2003

"Striving for agelessness is thus in one sense a rejection of life ... it is also quintessentially shallow, self-centred and elitist in its refusal to engage with the suffering and helplessness of others ... It is a form of imaginative impoverishment to refuse to accept the tragic." (p 179) This is a nice counterblast to all those 'think positive' self-help people.

"pondering over all the ways the past has impacted upon the present." (p183)

"Contemplating ageing might include mourning the roads not taken." (p 183) It's not so much regret because it is not possible (nor desirable) to take every road but a gentle sense of the inevitability of one's limitations.

Take a stoic view: "the fleeting strength or beauty of youth ... Is best seen as something that never truly belongs to its bearer, who should remain indifferent to it." (p 190). Perhaps stoicism is a sensible, non-religious, westernised alternative to Buddhism. Perhaps I should read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Chapter 6: Affirming Survival
One of the problems of old age is that one's kids may have moved away and one's partner may have died; this of course is a fundamental flaw of the nuclear family and Segal explores alternative living arrangements, concluding that communal living rarely works after one has reached middle age. This reflects her own experience: she lived in a shared household (although she owned the house) until her son was in his late teens and about to move away when she started living in a couple with a man who, fifteen years later, left her to have his own children so she was then alone. She realises that 'coupledom' is what most people want (she rather regrets that gays want to get married) and hypothesises that "The comfort of marriage, or long-term partnerships, in so far as they remain monogamous, is precisely that they usually remove us from the intense jealousies that always shadow desire, even if they inevitably moderate or dramatically decrease desire in the process." (p 246)

She quotes Samuel Beckett: "Fail again. Fail better" (p 247)
and Quentin Crisp: "If at first you don't succeed, failure may be your style." (p 247)

"When you are seen as 'dependent' you are always in danger of being ignored, patronized or pitied, seen as having no secrets."  (p 260) It is this last that Segal most deplores.
She does recognise the difficulties involved in a son or daughter switching roles to become the carer which can be "all the more challenging if the earlier relationship with the parent was tense or ambivalent". (p 261)
Dependents "may feel simply a burden on those very people whose wellbeing was always dearest to them." (p 261)
She quotes John Moore, Thatcher's Secretary of State for Social Security as stating: "A climate of dependence can in time corrupt the human spirit. Everyone knows the sullen apathy of dependence and can compare it with the sheer delight of personal achievement." (p 262)

This book had some great points in it but it is a very personal viewpoint.

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