Half Full or Half Empty
Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Aging
By Lynne Segal
New York: Verso, 2013, 320 pp., $26.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Alix Kates Shulman
II was walking on a crowded Manhattan sidewalk on my way to see the new Woody Allen movie when a guy on a bike plowed his way among the pedestrians. I shouted out that he shouldn’t be riding on the sidewalk but in the street. “Seriously?” he said, peering down at me, then he examined my face and spat out, “Old hag!” This was a first for me, so it took a moment before I realized my opportunity and shouted back “Ageist!” I doubt that the young man cycling away knew the word, if he even heard me, but for a moment I felt that old activist rush of triumph all the same.
Near the end of Lynne Segal’s Out of Time, her thoughtful meditation on aging in the West, she briefly discusses political resistance as but one possible strategy for dealing with the indignities of old age. A longstanding socialist-feminist, activist, and intellectual, she is “mainly concerned with the ways in which conceptions of the elderly impact upon self-perception, sapping confidence and making it harder to feel that we remain in charge of our lives as we age.” Part reporter on generational friction and cultural trends, part psychological interpreter of internal responses to aging (the “pleasures and perils” of her subtitle), Segal focuses on how aging affects the psyche and body politic rather than the physical or chronological body.
Her main method of inquiry is to examine the literature of aging, quoting freely from dozens of authors, female and male, on a wide range of concerns, with interpretive commentary of her own. She draws insight chiefly from literature (fiction and memoir), philosophy, and psychoanalysis, preferring them to social science, history, or surveys. To me, this approach makes Out of Time deeper and more thought provoking than many of the other books—some facile, some polemical—in the burgeoning library of aging. She derives the richest insights from those authors she considers at the greatest length—among them Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth, May Sarton, and Jacques Derrida. From other witnesses her quotations are sometimes too brief to give a sense of the complexity of their thought or even the main import of the work she cites. Still, her method of summoning many voices and texts creates a welcome air of open mindedness and generosity. Rather than a sustained argument, her book is an engaged conversation with mostly contemporary writers about their personal, literary, and theoretical takes on many aspects of aging and old age.
In successive chapters she explores: the inner sense of age, intergenerational conflict, aging and sexual desire, aging and interdependency (including brief discussions of several works of mine), ways of resisting ageism and, finally, coming to terms with old age and the loneliness it often entails by “affirming life.” But many more aspects of aging than I can list here are examined within each chapter, and the chapters overlap, expanding the conversation.
Now in her sixties, Segal does not define “old,” citing writers as young as their late thirties (Rosalind Belbin) and as old as their nineties as witnesses to the feelings about aging she discusses. To me this makes sense, if by “old” one means feeling marginalized by age. When I was in my thirties, before I became a feminist, I felt older (in the sense of over the hill), less confident, and less in charge of my life than I do now in my eighties. Segal’s book is an exploration of “the possibilities for and impediments to staying alive to life, whatever our age.”
In her first chapter, called “How Old Am I?” Segal considers the strange fluidity of time, whereby each of us encounters at once all the ages and experiences we have lived through: “in our minds, we race around, moving seamlessly between childhood, old age, and back again,” which makes it difficult to feel our age. She observes that we vary greatly in the way we view the relation between our past and present selves, some of us lamenting the passage of time, some of us denying it, some celebrating it, and some, like the writers she most admires, able to “simply affirm [old age] as a significant part of life.” Later, Segal quotes Doris Lessing, echoing Simone de Beauvoir, describing “our sense that we have some unchanging inner core, making us never able to feel simply the age we are,” and a number of respected writers attesting to similar feelings of timelessness. Yet, surprisingly, throughout the book she also considers the difficulty we have feeling our age to be a denial or disavowal: “It is this noxious slide between old age, dependency, inadequacy, and invisibility that is surely one of the reasons why old people so forcefully insist they ‘do not feel old,’ making old age something to be disavowed.”
Segal tries admirably to be evenhanded and fair minded, listening sympathetically to an array of writers on most of the issues she raises, ever alert to the paradoxes inherent in the interplay of so many disparate voices. A professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck College of the University of London, she offers subtle psychological insight in her discussions of many of the points of view expressed. But while she is ready to accept as simply true the testimony of those with whom she is temperamentally in tune, she tends to psychologize the feelings and attitudes of those with whom she is not, refusing to take their testimony at face value. Usually, this means siding with the pessimists in what she allows are “the battles between the optimists and pessimists addressing ageing and old age.” Thus, she doesn’t question the pessimism of Philip Roth, John Updike, and Martin Amis, who write of aging men’s loss of sexual power as a universal male disaster, and similarly accepts at face value (and universalizes) the bitterness and sorrow of Simone de Beauvoir and Doris Lessing over their (presumed) loss of sexual attractiveness to men. But when it comes to Germaine Greer, Eva Figes, Alice Walker, and many other women who report feelings of freedom and relief that they are done with sex and sexual desire, she invokes such psychological mechanisms as denial and “self-protective renunciation” to explain away such emotions. She voices similar skepticism and suspicions of denial about those who claim to love their solitude—cautioning, “solitude can be wonderful, so long as we have some sort of community that will welcome our return”—or who embrace their aging with gusto, chiding, “it is a form of imaginative impoverishment to refuse to accept the tragic”—as if any mortal could!
Using adjectives like “upbeat” and “cheerful” as slurs, she seems to find the perils of aging more believable than the pleasures. This universalizing of some feelings and distrust of others, even those widely voiced, strikes me as an unacknowledged temperamental bias, of which each of us probably has at least one. Such biases, because so deeply ingrained, are hard to recognize, much less acknowledge or overcome; I recognize Segal’s because hers is the opposite of mine. Fortunately, neither optimism nor pessimism, in their eternally noncolliding orbits, has a corner on virtue; equally adaptive, equally “true,” they simply follow different paths, though this too is difficult to recognize from inside one’s orbit.
The hallmark and strength of a book on aging written with Segal’s temperament (and her left political sympathies and experience, which I share) is its compassion for the lonely, the forgotten, and the vulnerable. But how, given her temperament, will she pull off the promise of her concluding chapter title, “Affirming Survival”? How will she walk the “very fine line” she finds “hard to tread even at the close of this book, in trying to acknowledge the actual vicissitudes of old age while also affirming its dignity and, at times, grace or even joyfulness”? (Note that unconvinced “even.”) She does it by reaffirming the values, the “essential elements of a good life,” she has expressed throughout the book: friendship, mutual love, community, strong feeling—including the negative feelings of pain, anger, sorrow, and grief. Or, in words Segal quotes from Beauvoir, “One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, compassion.” Admitting with some embarrassment that the life goals she lists as essential are “the usual comforting clichés,” and also conceding that old people frequently lack opportunities to pursue them, Segal is brave enough to embrace them anyway.
Alix Kates Shulmanis the author of fourteen books. Her fifth novel, Ménage, and the collection A Marriage Agreement and Other Essays: Four Decades of Feminist Writing were published in 2012. Contact her through her website, www.AlixKShulman.com.