Forever Young: the gods, the damned, and Dorian Gray

As I drove home from the party where I had met the two young attorneys and asked my more elderly friends whether they would choose to live for 200 years in a young body, I found myself reaching back into literature for examples. If we try to imagine what it would be like to be forever young, the Greek gods leap to mind. They have power, beauty, strength, and everlasting good looks, and mostly they get to do whatever they want. What’s not to like? Indeed, the gods seem to have much in common with the paragons of success we have just mentioned—the movie stars, tycoons, and generalissimos propped up by makeovers, money, and medals—except that to them it comes naturally rather than by effort and design. The gods have it all. And they don’t even have to work for it. Plus, they’re immortal. Who wouldn’t want to be just like them?

Sebastiano Ricci, Zeus & Semele
Zeus & Semele, by Sebastiano Ricci

But this picture loses some luster when we look more closely at the actual life of the gods. Certainly they don’t lack for drama; they’re deeply involved in human life with all its passion and intrigue. But oddly, they don’t seem to learn anything from their experiences; they just keep doing the same things over and over. Zeus keeps seducing nymphs and mortals, getting them pregnant and then vanishing into the ether; he never matures into fatherhood, as if he were stuck in late adolescence—not unlike the tycoon with the sports car. Ares can’t stop waging war; he’s an old soldier who never dies but can’t fade away. Aphrodite can’t stop primping and having affairs, a Miss Havisham who never loses her looks (think how scary that would be!). Nothing that happens ever seems to register with the gods; you would think they’d get bored. And what is worse, they seem overly dependent on the adulation and rites of their worshippers, as if they needed constant reassurance.

Dore, Paolo & Francesca
Paolo & Francesca, by Gustav Doré

Perpetual youth begins to look even less attractive when we fast forward to the Christian era. In Dante’s Inferno we meet Paolo and Francesca, the murdered lovers whirled and battered by the hurricane of their deathless passion. They still have their looks and their love; they have each other. But they’re not having fun: they’re just going around in circles, suffering without learning. They can’t escape each other—hell, they don’t even talk to each other. Francesca ignores Paolo completely while spinning a heart-wrenching, self-serving tale of glamor, romance, and betrayal. Her attention is fixed on Date and Virgil. As for Paolo, all he can do is weep. This does not look like a very fulfilling relationship. Like everyone else in Hell, Paolo and Francesca are living in the past, obsessed with their earthly life and careers. Francesca talks and acts like a princess out of chivalric romance, idolized and irresistible, an icon of feminine charm. It’s this power that she worships, explaining to Dante that Love is an irresistible force that compels any one loved to love in return. She’s in love with Love, instead of with God. “It wasn’t our fault,” she complains. “Love made us do it. Why should we suffer for how we were made?” But the creepy thing about Francesca is that she doesn’t want to give up this adolescent feeling of power; she doesn’t want to grow out of it; she doesn’t believe there could be anything better. She can’t imagine—doesn’t want to imagine— what it might be like to be Beatrice.

Farinata 3
Farinata, by Gustav Doré

As Dante and Virgil go deeper into Hell, they meet more and more people who are still obsessed with their careers. Farinata, a famous general and statesman damned for denying the immortality of the soul, only wants to know Dante’s ancestry and party affiliation, as if these mattered any more; if he had any sense, he’d ask Dante what he’s doing in Hell, and whether he can help him get out—especially given the fact that he, Farinata, is burning, in blatant refutation of his earlier beliefs. But like everyone else in Hell, he doesn’t learn from experience. It’s the same for Brunetto Latini, Dante’s old professor, who’s amazed to see his ex-pupil favored with a guided tour but attributes it to political talent rather than divine grace. He, too, doesn’t ask for release, but instead urges Dante to remember his book—as if, given the circumstances, that would be a reliable guide to truth!

It isn’t until Dante gets to Purgatory that he meets people who have moved on from worldly accomplishment to embrace the challenge of spiritual growth. And what a change it is! People don’t want to dwell on the past but instead on the climb ahead; kings and rulers who might have waged war now comfort and encourage each other; Oderisi, famous for his illuminations, now cedes the future to painting and the glory to Giotto. Instead of claustrophobic darkness and torments we have clean air and sweeping views, with sunshine by day, starlight by night, and loving companions all the way. What could be better?

Dorian Gray woodcut
Dorian Gray, by Non-Factor

Moving toward our own day, whose worship of youth and vigor provide countless opportunities for decadence, we encounter Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s famous antihero who retains his youthful good looks even as his portrait grows older and uglier. Dorian soon discovers this miracle, but, rather than learn from it, he decides to exploit it. He hides the portrait away while using his charm for power and pleasure. A friend introduces him to J.K. Huysmans’ sensational novel À Rebours (“Against Nature”), whose wealthy protagonist embarks on a quest to explore every sensory pleasure while sequestered in his artfully engineered estate. Dorian takes that as his bible and before long has outdone its hero, Des Esseintes, in both depravity and excess. As the noose tightens around him, Dorian begins to hate the portrait, which exposes his true self.   Fearful that it might be discovered, he decides to destroy it, but when he slashes it, he mortally wounds himself.

These examples all show the danger of not moving on, which amounts to a kind of self-seduction. For youth is something to live through, not to cling to. It gives us strengths and opportunities to use for growth, not to clutch in despair. Learning of any kind depends on relinquishment; the new knowledge and understanding have to displace the old. For scholars this may be bitter medicine. We all hope that our work will last. But doesn’t the ongoing conversation of scholarship depend on both our work and our careers becoming obsolete?

Resistance to Elderhood

To contemplate the late stage of one’s career may seem as inviting as a root canal. What’s there to look forward to but pain, weakness, irrelevance, and decrepitude? Meanwhile, the culture bastes us relentlessly with images of youthful prosperity and vigor. “Forever young” has become the mantra of success. So it’s no wonder that we feel resistance to elderhood from both without and within.

Leonardo Self-Portrait-in-Old-Age
Leonardo

Recently, the New York Times Magazine reported an informal poll that asked subscribers, “If offered the chance to live for 200 years in a youthful body, would you accept?” The results were intriguing: about a third said yes, a third said no, and a third said they would have to think about it. I wondered what would make someone choose one or the other, so I began to ask around. My mother, who just turned 100, said she would certainly not want to live that long, and at 70 I felt the same way myself, no question; so did my oldest friend from grad school, whom I have always considered exceptionally wise. My daughter, at 29, initially said yes but then demurred, reflecting that she did not want to be alive when America and the planet went down in flames. At a party where most of the guests were seniors, people expressed mixed, shifting opinions. Two stylish young attorneys said they had no doubt that living 200 years in a 28-year old body would be great; a middle-aged carpenter said he would have to think about it; a barber in his 70’s said he had had a good life and would welcome whatever came next, although he was not enjoying the slow creep of infirmity; a retired college president, active in foundation work despite a recent heart attack, said it was an attractive idea. A university librarian, nearing retirement, said no way.

I left the party with more light but less clarity. Apparently, the question reveals more about the individual than about the population at large. And, on reflection, it’s purely academic. We know that every species has an allotted span: if you want to live, you have to die; you have to walk that lonesome valley by yourself.   But we can still dream, and what does our dream of being forever young have to teach? What can we learn from such an imaginary journey?

hefner
Hefner

I had asked the attorneys what they thought it would be like to have a young person’s body but an old person’s mind or, conversely, what it would feel like to date someone who looked young but felt old. When would they start to feel the disconnect? When would it give them the creeps? I couldn’t shake their confidence that living two centuries in a young body would be enviable and fulfilling. Of course, right now they were doing great both socially and professionally. Why wouldn’t they just want more of the same?

Castro w flag
Castro

And, to be fair, think of what culture serves up as role models for elderhood: silver-haired executives flaunting their sportscars and trophy wives, movie stars freezing their glamor with make-up, personal trainers, and plastic surgery, tycoons still chasing billion-dollar deals, bemedaled generals in palaces or gray-haired dictators in guerilla fatigues. We’re encouraged to believe that a successful life means reaching the top of your game and staying there forever. As if success really could work as a hedge against death.

But life and literature both offer alternative models along with abundant cautionary tales…

On the Threshold: Approaching Elderhood & Retirement

By age 50 you are a survivor. By age 60 you begin to contemplate the end of institutional life. By retirement you are done with the university with all its blandishments, banes, and blessings. Your academic career has reached its limits and borne its fruits; it’s history, and so are you. The question is, what now?

In late career we still experience the perennial, existential anxiety of living in a world of impermanence, flux, and mutability. But to this we now feel a new kind of anxiety: identity loss combined with incipient mortality. Earlier, ambition, achievements, and honors motivated and sustained us. We built programs, developed ideas, published our research, gathered disciples, made enemies, and garnered awards, all with varying degrees of satisfaction. We were supported by an institutional and professional identity. For better or worse, we had both a position and a reputation. But now, we are on our own, with a surfeit of both freedom and time.

Untitled 2William Maxwell, who wrote and edited fiction for the New Yorker, once remarked, “The view after seventy is breathtaking.” On a clear day that may be true. But consider a grad school acquaintance who recently confessed, “If I am no longer a professor at Stanford, what am I?” Another, retired for half a decade, explained that he had begun selling his books. Several of his colleagues were pushing eighty yet still teaching. It was important, he felt, not only to make room for younger scholars, but also to embrace the challenges and opportunities of a new phase of life.   To stay alive, he felt, it was necessary to learn how to be an elder, not only for the sake of the world, but for the sake of your soul. Otherwise you ran the risk of succumbing to bitterness and sterility.

So we arrive at elderhood in spite of ourselves, facing a breathtaking view yet curiously unsure what to do with it. Maxwell continues: “What is lacking is someone, anyone, of the older generation to whom you can turn when you want to satisfy your curiosity about some detail of the landscape of the past. There is no longer any older generation. You have become it, while your mind was mostly on other matters.”

Fortunately, there is scholarship and learning, which need not end when we exit the classroom. “Books are our grandparents,” says Gary Snyder. Maybe now we’ll learn to read them in a new way. And fortunately, we also have each other to serve as companions and guides. Maxwell’s breathtaking view goes in both directions.

So in the weeks ahead Staying Alive will be posting and inviting posts on elderhood and retirement. This is the last and least appreciated phase in the model of academic careers that we have been exploring. Institutions devote little imagination or resources to it, feeling that elders, being no longer “productive” or active in business as usual, are both obsolete and a burden. Elderhood is not something they want to pay for. The profession, likewise, may honor elders for past achievements but generally wants to hear more about the latest new theory or discovery. And for the person, elderhood feels especially complex, fraught, and ambiguous, attended with ambivalence and anxiety. And yet, if we can learn to see it more clearly, perhaps we’ll enjoy a kind of summit view. Stay tuned.

Elder Tales: the Old Woman and the Dynamics of Widsom

Now we come to the old woman, who holds the key. In this tale, the prince initiates and drives the action, but the old woman’s advice enables him to complete it. She’s the catalyst: without her, he’d get nowhere. The tale spotlights the dynamic between warriors and elders that leads to social change. In the process, both achieve meaning and success. The old woman helps save the realm, and the prince goes on to marry the princess and govern. Since the tale is called “The Prince and the Ogre,” we suppose it must be about him, that is, a warrior tale. But really it’s just as much about her.

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The Old Woman (photo by Vaggelis Fragiadakis)

The most salient fact about the old woman is that she’s old, but that’s not all: she’s also a woman, and she’s poor. She’s been living in the forest, scraping by (since the king has privatized her social security and the ogre’s rampages have crashed the value of her cottage and wiped out her 401k). She’s socially marginalized in multiple ways, so no one thinks to ask for her help. What does she know? She’s no expert; she doesn’t have an advanced degree or teach at a tier 1 university. And of course she’s not going to come forward and offer her services; she’ll just let them all suffer, because it’s what they deserve.

Interestingly, the old woman’s special power arises from her marginalized circumstances. We normally don’t think of abjection, poverty, and age as opportunities, but here they prove instrumental. The old woman has been around a long time and has noticed a lot of things. She knows how the world works. She understands magic and knows that power always comes with vulnerabilities that the powerful go to great lengths to hide and protect. Her marginal status means she’s overlooked or ignored; virtually invisible, she has had freedom to watch and observe. Because the powerful don’t see her, they don’t realize she’s looking at them; they forget how much their behavior can reveal to a seeing eye.

Of course, the old woman’s knowledge can’t help her directly, because she lacks the strength to act on it. But the prince has strength, and his generosity and compassion draw her out. Her resentment thaws; she gives him the wisdom he needs. Combined, they make a winning team. The old woman understands that administration is always an exercise in character; she judges, correctly, that the prince would make a good king. It’s in her interest to foster civil order and good government. After all, she’s been living in the forest. She knows the king and the ogre represent two sides of the same coin, taking all the gold and power for themselves at the expense of the people. They’re the ruling class. But the prince and the old woman, together, can take them on.

From this perspective we can see that both the king and the ogre are looking to the past. They’re determined to protect the status quo and carry on with business as usual, which includes not only dominating the country but competing with each other. Every ruler needs an enemy in order to justify clinging to power. Focusing on an external threat distracts the masses from your own failures and depredations. The old woman knows this, and that’s another reason she helps the prince. She’s investing in the future, banking on social change.

This tale illustrates the dynamics of wisdom as it plays out across the stages of a career. Young warriors must gain wisdom or perish, and, since they lack a depth of experience, they must receive it from elders. Mature citizens must use wisdom or fail in their duties; since they have authority and responsibility, they must activity seek wisdom as lifelong learners and put it into action. And elders, who have moved on from positions of strength and responsibility, must pass on their wisdom to warriors and citizens, or else they will wither; they’ll turn into bitter curmudgeons or hungry ghosts. Keeping wisdom for yourself is like keeping gold too long in the vault or food too long in the fridge. It does no good and soon goes bad. It only works when you take it out and pass it along.

Citizen Failures: the King and the Ogre

When the prince begins his quest, things look pretty hopeless. The kingdom is devastated, the government paralyzed. The ogre burns and pillages at will; his magical power, cruelty, and greed represent an alternative to the “legitimate” order. Like the king, the ogre has a castle, treasure, and lands; he’s set up on his own, and he’s making a go of it. He may be horrible, but he has a certain charisma; the king seems bland and faceless by comparison. Their conflict amounts to a civil war, in which the people on both sides come out losers. The whole situation, we might say, represents a failure of the adult world—the world of citizenship—to fulfill its responsibilities for protecting and nurturing the community.

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The Downcast King (by Randall Smith)

Look first at the king. He’s not getting good advice. His NSA can’t figure out the ogre or his magic. His Defense Department can’t protect the realm. Not only that, but he’s desperate enough to put his daughter up for sale. What kind of a father does that? No wonder he’s depressed. Still, he does try to rule and it’s to his credit that he has a daughter in the first place. He may be an ineffectual king, but he does have a trace of humanity.

Basically, the king fails to understand the relation between power and authority. He has come by his office through inheritance, which may make him legitimate but cannot deliver obedience or order in the realm. Believing that right makes might, he has failed to learn the lessons of King Lear and Machiavelli (unlike the Prince, he does not seem to have taken World Civ). The king believes that authority confers power, whereas in fact power is something that is granted by the people he governs; it represents a gift from the general will. That’s why newly minted second lieutenants or deans so often run into trouble with their constituents. “Pulling rank” only reveals their desperation and lack of leadership. To gain power and exert leadership, you have to convince the people that you have their best interests at heart and possess the skills necessary to protect and deliver. Administration is all about dealing with people.

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The Ogre (by QuakeOne)

Now consider the ogre. In many respects he seems the opposite of the king. He has no family; he’s greedy and cruel, a real bully. Moreover, he’s gained his power by separating his soul from his body. The motif of the external soul occurs frequently in heroic tales across cultures; it makes one invincible, but at the price of one’s humanity. Modern-day versions include the pact Faust makes with the Devil in Goethe’s drama or Mann’s novel, Sauron’s Ring of Power in Tolkien’s epic fantasy, or the horcruxes of Voldemort, the evil wizard in the Harry Potter books, who tries to escape mortality by splitting his soul and encasing the pieces in various objects. Each of these antagonists gain demonic, single-minded power but have to give up the ability to change, grow, love, or learn. These desperate individuals all embrace the “fixed mind” of Milton’s Satan. Like him they care more about their career than anything else, and they always choose power over love.

Like the king, the ogre is a failed citizen, because he cares more about himself than anyone else. He can’t govern; he can only terrorize. He can’t run a kingdom, he can only destroy one. Believing that might makes right, he focuses entirely on strengthening his own position: taking prisoners, amassing wealth, defending his fortress, and pursuing his goal with demonic single-mindedness. But if you split off your soul from your self and encase it in some object of desire, such as a talisman or a career, then you can’t adapt to changing circumstances, you lose your nimbleness and flexibility, and above all you cut yourself off from other people and the information or wisdom they might provide. When the Wheel of Fortune begins to turn, no one will come to your aid. But of course the ogre has had so much initial success that he has forgotten all about Fortune. He believes that he’s invincible, that the usual rules no longer apply. And so, like the Dark Lord Sauron, he fails to imagine that someone small and inconspicuous could penetrate his defenses and seize hold of his precious soul.

Of course, neither the king nor the ogre even notices the old woman or dreams that she might hold the key.

Privilege and Peril: a Warrior’s Tale

Looking more closely at this tale we can see how it turns on the interactions among people at various phases of their careers. Let’s start with the prince, who’s clearly at the warrior stage. He’s the protagonist as well; he initiates and drives the action. Of course he’s young, ambitious, brave, strong, and full of hormones; he just doesn’t know much about how the world works, and especially about magic and ogres. He’s full of good intentions and high aspirations; he’s willing to take a risk. But he’s not up to speed on the technical details.

 On the positive side, he has inner nobility. He’s a prince, after all; he’s been trained and educated. He enjoyed a life of privilege before he was exiled, but lately he’s had to learn how to fend for himself and live by his wits, both of which build character. He now knows that he can’t take anything for granted. But he also possesses innate qualities of generosity, mercy, humility, and compassion, as we see when he helps the old woman.

The Prince on his Quest (by Arthur Rackham)
The Prince on his Quest (by Arthur Rackham)

In fairy tales we tend to focus on what the characters do and say, but what they don’t say or do can be just as important. The prince has had a run of really bad luck, but we don’t hear him whine or complain. He doesn’t kvetch about losing his privilege; he doesn’t brood about injured merit. He’s not a snob; he doesn’t think it beneath him to help a distressed old woman. After all, he’s been working in kitchens and stables; he knows what it’s like to be poor. The stripping away of his royal privilege has allowed his true character to emerge.

 Notice, too, that the prince doesn’t try to second guess the old woman. He doesn’t ask what’s in it for her, or who else she might have told, or what she wants in return for her knowledge. Nor does he suspect her of being in league with the ogre or leading him into a trap. He’s not a calculating person. Now, some might call this naïve, and indeed the prince does put himself in danger by trusting her. After all, her information could be wrong. But once he gets to the castle and begins facing the perils, her intelligence checks out. He proceeds with greater and greater confidence toward victory. Any doubts he may have had at the outset he wisely keeps to himself. All told, it’s his kindness, respect, and trust that persuade the old woman to impart her secret knowledge

 By this point, then, the tale has already begun to redefine what it means to be a warrior. It takes more than a strong arm and royal blood to prevail. Character proves decisive. Strength must be combined with compassion, courage, and humility. You have to be willing to listen and learn. One lesson here for academic people is not to put too much faith in your pedigree; degree, position, indeed all past expertise may not help much in desperate situations. It’s wise to be able to think outside the box and, above all, to listen to elders and outliers, who may know a thing or two.

 In the next post we’ll take a look at the king and the ogre, both of whom represent failures of citizenship.

Warriors, Citizens, and Elders: A Fairy Tale

The relations between these three major career phases are captured succinctly in a fairy tale that occurs in many versions across cultures.  The hero is a young prince who has been forced into exile, living hand to mouth and taking menial jobs in kitchens and stables.  Eventually he wanders into a neighboring country that has been ravaged by a cruel and powerful ogre.  The king has dispatched his best fighters, but all have come back dead or maimed.  The ogre seems to have magic powers that give him both strength and invulnerability.  In despair the king proclaims that whoever can defeat the ogre will receive half the kingdom and his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Well, the prince figures he has nothing to lose.  After all, he’s been working in kitchens and stables; his career is in free fall.  And the daughter, naturally, is both rich and beautiful; he’s already fallen in love with her.  So he sets out for the ogre’s castle.  After crossing the devastated countryside,  he enters a forest, where he wanders for days, increasingly depressed.  He may be a prince, but he has only a common sword and no magic powers at all.  What good is his Ivy League degree?  How will he ever defeat the ogre?

Then he hears someone moaning and groaning in the woods and turns aside from his path. He comes upon an old person in need of  help—in some versions it’s a dwarf whose long beard has gotten stuck in a cleft log, in others it’s an old woman with a hurt leg, hungry and tired, bowed under a heavy bundle.  The prince shares his bread, lends a hand, and when the job is done the grateful old woman asks why someone so young and handsome would look so sad.

The Prince Aids the Old Woman (by Howard Pyle)
The Prince Aids the Old Woman (by Howard Pyle)

He tells her his tale of woe: career in ruins, hopelessly in love, facing an impossible task.  The old woman laughs.  Is that all, she asks?  Well, that sword you’re carrying will never defeat the ogre, because he’s invulnerable.  And I’ll tell you why: it’s because his soul is not in his body.  To kill him you have to get your hands on his soul.

Oh great!  says the prince.  Capture his soul; just like that!  It must be very well defended.  The old woman nods.  The ogre keeps it hidden deep in his castle, she says.  To find it you have to wait until he goes out on one of his rampages.  Then you have to break into the castle after crossing the moat of fire and pacifying the lions guarding the gate. She recites a long list of perils and obstacles but gives him directions for meeting each one.  Finally, in the very center of the castle is a well; down in the well is a duck; inside the duck is an egg; and inside the egg is the ogre’s soul. Get your hands on that egg, she says, and you can make him do anything.

The prince thanks her and hurries off.  He finds the castle and waits in the shrubbery until the ogre goes out.  Then he crosses the fiery moat, tosses a  steak to the lions, and heads inside.  After surmounting all perils he arrives at the center, dives into the well, grabs the duck, and squeezes it until the egg drops into his hand.  At this moment the ogre returns, bellowing that he smells a thief.  After raging all through the castle he finds the prince leaning nonchalantly against the well.  He grins horribly, flashing a set of really  bad teeth, and raises a huge hairy arm to bash in the prince’s head.

The Prince and the Ogre (by Arthur Rackham)
The Prince and the Ogre (by Arthur Rackham)

But the prince just reaches into his pocket and holds up the egg.  He cocks an eyebrow; the ogre freezes, then deflates, groveling at the prince’s feet.  The prince makes him open his dungeons and treasury, free all his prisoners, restore all the gold that he’s stolen, and clean up the farms and villages he’s destroyed.  When it’s all done, the ogre wipes the stinking sweat from his brow and falls on his knees, begging forgiveness.  And what does the prince do?  He breaks the egg.  Because, after all, he’s read Machiavelli (in Western Civ), and besides, you can’t trust an ogre.

Back at court the king and the princess are waiting anxiously for news.  The prince returns bearing the ogre’s head.  Amid general rejoicing, the king grants him half the kingdom with an option on the other half as soon as he marries the princess.  Everyone celebrates and lives happy ever after.

What does this tale have to do with academic life?  You can see right away that its characters embody three career stages that we have been discussing: warrior, citizen, and elder.  Stay tuned for subsequent posts as we unpack this tale and explore its implications.

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