The problem with old age

December 10, 2009

Hour by hour, and week by week, the thing upon the canvas was growing old. It might escape the hideousness of sin, but the hideousness of age was in store for it. The cheeks would become hollow or flaccid. Yellow crow’s-feet would creep round the fading eyes and make them horrible. The hair would lose its brightness, the mouth would gape or droop, would be foolish or gross, as the mouths of old men are. There would be the wrinkled throat, the cold, blue-veined hands, the twisted body, that he remembered in the grandfather who had been so stern to him in his boyhood. The picture had to be concealed. There was no help for it.

(Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891)

Living in the Western world, we are constantly confronted with images of the perfect body or commodities that promise to give us what we can never have. Two ingredients feed this false ideology. One is an obsession with youth; the other is an inherent fear of our own mortality. Neither of these are new phenomena. Oscar Wilde’s fictional Dorian Gray was obsessed with the idea over a hundred years ago. Photography’s history also provides us with an insight around the same time. The Victorian’s used photography to record dead children as angelic sleeping babies, thereby coming to terms with mortality in their own way. It can be seen as a sort of embalming tool for a world they had little comprehension of, one where death seemed a little more reasoned. Lewis Carroll used photography to record childhood as an innocent fairy tale, albeit a highly sexualized fairy tale. His ‘Alice in Wonderland’ accounts for the cultural fantasies of a growing girl struggling in a small world. His photographs of young girls served only himself it seems, as fetishised objects of girls that never grew up, that could forever be young, embalmed and present.

Alice Liddell - Lewis Carroll

Alice Liddell - Lewis Carroll

Childhood and youth is a stage that has always seen to be important. On the flip side, growing old was seen as something to be rejected; to be, as Dorian Gray felt, concealed. The mechanical process of photography seems to have been used as a tool to mythically halt the advancement of time itself. It provided the means to avoid the unavoidable for the Victorians and for some cultural theorists. André Bazin describes the subjects of the Victorian family albums as being “freed from their destiny”.[1] Some saw it as death itself. Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, which can be described as a form of grieving, constantly refers to the subject as being dead, but forever there, present. Photography provided Barthes a reprieve in the grieving of the death of his mother, finding a photograph that was a suitable likeness, for fear he would forget. Ironically, he only found her likeness or “the splendor of her truth” in a photograph when she was aged five, and not as she was when she died: an old woman. Freezing, embalming time is of course as impossible as the myth of never growing old, yet photography continues to function in this myth. It plays a pivotal role in the twenty first century in keeping this myth alive, with advertising that promises a young healthy beautiful body and everything else that makes the advertising machine work: the production of desire.

In modern times, we are presented with the pervasive glossy magazine that keeps this production line active and alive. David Green argued how the “presentness” of the images in the contemporary glossy magazine is merely a veneer behind which we try to shelter from the inevitable.[2] This veneer is what offers us the chance to remain young and beautiful. This veneer is what nurtures the belief that old is ugly. It seems only logical then that the idea that old-as-beautiful is something that can never be part of the consumer culture. It is after all in the interest of the media to promote ageing as something that is ugly and avoidable at all costs.

To understand the background into the media’s under-representation of this important social group, it is important to understand some history, a sociological history, so that we can make some sense of why the older members of our community are perceived in a different and sometimes, negative and unbalanced way. To begin therefore with a question: what exactly is ‘old’?

The life stages that we are so accustomed to in the West are nothing but social constructions. That is to say that they do not necessarily simply exist in other cultures. Middle-age or old-age are not naturally occurring organic concepts. Sudhir Kakar highlighted this in his article The Search for Middle Age in India, when he went asking diverse and random people in India what they thought was ‘middle-aged’. He only found people who were aware of the concept at a cocktail party of upper class people well versed in the English language and Western concepts.

Within each life stage, a series of rules, regulations and etiquette must be adhered to in order for us to fit in to what is expected, to what is normal. These too are social constructions, and evolve from generation to generation. The sociologist and historian Norbert Elias traced the evolution of manners in The Civilizing Process from the twelfth century to the twentieth century using courtesy manuals as his map. His theories detail the complexity of how the social body was shaped. For example he details how table manners evolved, on how to properly pass wind (in either direction)[3], on how the knife and fork came to be common utensils in our eating habits or how natural bodily functions became regarded as improper and impolite and thus privatized to a special room with special equipment. The Civilizing Process maps out the growth of civilization in Western Europe as a slow complex evolutionary process. The privatization and therefore taboo and stigma associated with natural bodily functions can often afflict the life of a senior citizen. As our bodies grow old, societal rules and regulations can often burden us with feelings of embarrassment and shame when certain organs fail to function as they should.

The varying perceptions of senior citizens in Western societies are therefore deeply rooted in historical, sociological and cultural discourses. The ever complex and evolving social body is never static. Retirement can bring joy and celebration, yet the social effects of retirement invariably have an effect on how the social category of ‘senior citizens’ is perceived. As is often the case, they are rarely represented in the world’s myriad types of media in a fair and balanced way. Our obsession with youth and glamour, and our inherent fear of mortality feeds this under and misrepresentation.

Viewing the 21st century with a contemporary lens, the obsession with youth invariably points us to an ignorance of death and all that goes with it. The consumer culture that is very present and visible in today’s society will always silently avoid the unavoidable that people like Barthes and Bazin openly discuss. The obsession with youth is certainly not a simple turn of events.  Rather it is complex and layered in centuries of history. The Western world is driven by this obsession and the desire to remain forever young, socially tipping the seesaw of life too far for Nature to balance. Everyone will get older, and with that, the Western perception that everyone will get more ugly will inevitably hold true. It seems the only remedy to the bitter aftertaste of old age is to change social attitudes, towards the elderly, towards dying, towards mortality; to alter the perception that because one ages does not mean one becomes ugly; to alter the perception that because one ages and slows down does not make one stupid or less intelligent than before. These are monumental social issues that were formed over thousands and thousands of years and it is unlikely that these attitudes will change anytime soon.

[1] Bazin, André, What is Cinema?, University of California Press, London, 1967, p. 14

[2] Greed, David, ‘Marking Time: Photography, Film and Temporalities of the Image’ in Stillness and Time: Photography and the Moving Image by David Green (ed.), Photoforum and Photoworks, 2006, p. 13

[3] In relation to farting as an example, Elias found a quotation from 1530 from a courtesy manual, that describes the best approach according to Aethon’s epigrams. “Even through he [Aethon] had to be careful not to fart explosively in the holy place, he nevertheless prayed to Zeus, though with compressed buttocks. The sound of farting, especially of those who stand on elevated ground, is horrible. One should make sacrifices with the buttocks firmly pressed together”. In a different era, two hundred years later, the same topic was raised, this time in 1729 where it was considered “very impolite to emit wind from your body when in company, either from above or from below, even if it is done without noise”. Along with farting now being a very private matter, the language itself has been privatized preferring the term wind to farting, and making it shameful and indecent to do it in a way where others hear it.

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