It is not old age as such, but the abandonment of character that dooms later years to ugliness. We can’t imagine aging’s beauty because we look only through the eyes of physiology. As Aristotle said, “The soul’s beauty is harder to see than beauty of the body.”
Hillman, James (2012-11-07). The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life (Kindle Locations 558-560). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The further back you can reach in imagination, the more extended you become.
Her character must consist in several characters—“ partial personalities,” as psychology calls these figures who stir your impulses and enter your dreams, figures who would dare what you would not, who push and pull you off the beaten track, whose truth breaks through after a carafe of wine in a strange town. Character is characters; our nature is a plural complexity, a multiphasic polysemous weave, a bundle, a tangle, a sleeve. That’s why we need a long old age: to ravel out the snarls and set things straight.
Access to character comes through the study of images, not the examination of morals.
This is why the idea of character is so needed in a culture: It nourishes imagination. Without the idea we have no perplexing, comprehensive, and long-lasting framework to ponder; instead we have mere collections of people whose quirks have no depth, whose images have no resonance, and who are distinguishable only in terms of collective categories: occupation, age, gender, religion, nationality, income, IQ, diagnosis.
Old is one of the deepest sources of pleasure humans know. Part of the misery of disasters like floods and fires is the irrecoverable loss of the old, just as one of the causes of suburban subdivision depression— and aging and death— is the similar loss of the old, exchanged for a brand-new house and yard.
Time is not only destructive; it toughens as well as weakens. Time lasts; it keeps on going and going and going and therefore is no enemy of age or of old. But time is indeed destructive to youth, which it eats away and finally stops dead. So when we hear of the corruption caused by time, we are listening to youth speaking, not age.
Certainly you know of someone that you'd describe as a "tough old bird".
In old age, interest shifts from information to intelligence. By this I mean that information brings news, while intelligence searches it for insight.
The words describing our approach will change: instead of “explanation,” “understanding”; instead of “new studies,” “old texts”; instead of “improvement,” “necessity”; instead of “health,” “soul”; instead of “experiment” and “statistic,” “philosophy”; instead of “information,” “intelligence,” “insight,” and “vision”; and instead of “empowerment” and “entitlement,” “idiosyncrasy,” “passion,” and “folly”.
All human evil comes from this, man’s inability to sit still in a room.
Dry souls are wisest and best.
“It seems, as one becomes older, / That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence,” wrote T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets, which meditates on time, age, and memory, goes on to say, “We had the experience but missed the meaning, / And approach to the meaning restores the experience / In a different form, beyond any meaning.”
The willful amnesia afflicting the sciences in general contrasts sharply with the importance given to memory by the humanities. Literature, philosophy, politics, and the visual arts, including photography and filmmaking, feed on memory. Practitioners of the humanities need memory to deepen and refine their thinking.
Memory is always first of all imagination, secondarily qualified by time.
All the while we are losing acuity, we are intensifying Yeats’s “fantastical eye.” We can spin out from one wild strawberry a whole northern summer, from one tasty tea cake a vast French novel.
Robert Butler, the eminent researcher of old age, makes this telling point about heightened aesthetics in last years: “The elemental things in life— children, plants, nature, human touching (physical and emotional), color, shape— may assume greater significance as people sort out the more important from the less important.” Importance does not result from sensation only, or from simplicity. If it did, we would still prefer sugary childhood candies and the salty goo of fast-food pizza to the subtleties concocted by multistarred chefs. “Importance,” which Alfred North Whitehead placed among the first principles for understanding all human endeavors, governs our choices among values. “Importance is derived from the immanence of infinitude in the finite.”
Contrition redeems no faults. It is wholly an inward act, relieving guilt to the past by reliving guilt for the past, an appeasement of ghosts. It is not the past that is tempered by contrition, but the gnawing guilt about it.
I like the way my favorite philosopher, Plotinus, makes the contrast, because his metaphysical speculations are more psychological. Plotinus says that “the forward path is characteristic of the body”; “the body tend[ s] toward the straight line.” The soul, however, moves in circles. It circles “towards itself, the movement of self-concentrated awareness, of intellection, of the living of its life, reaching to all things so that nothing shall lie outside of it, nothing anywhere but [is] within its scope.” Because of these different kinds of movements, the soul “restrains” the body’s forwardness, says Plotinus.
As our bodies shrivel, we become our faces. Feet, hams, arms, and shoulders lose their shapeliness, while the face gains distinction, even beauty. The old naked body is unsightly, yet its naked face is a subject for long contemplation.
|Exhibit A: Rembrandt self-portrait|
“After a certain age,” said Proust, “the more one becomes oneself, the more obvious one’s family traits become.” Owning our own faces = becoming more individualized = owning our ancestry.
To be left. This possibility haunts any intimate union, especially the close friendships that marriages often become.
I think the true agenda of the old is the agenda of the left: more fairness and less profit; more restoration and less development; community care, not more prescriptions; restoration of nature, not more harvesting from it; less wrangling over Medicare and more genuine nursing; more public transportation, fewer private enclaves; investment in schools to teach the young, not prisons that let them languish; more friendliness with people rather than user-friendly electronics; and peace, not guns.
In [character’s] place a bevy of substitutes appeared: the will, the individual, the subject, the personality, the ego. Each is a way of speaking about a characterless, unified subjective agent. This Objective Observer is what we believe to be our center of consciousness. The substitutes for character come empty. They are deliberately abstract, whereas the old idea of character presented rich and recognizable traits, a crowd of qualities.
The one death that has caused so much death in the past century is the death of character. — The corpse invites an autopsy. It is hard, however, to isolate a single cause of death.
This is a mighty tall statement, but one that demands careful investigation. If found true, it demands serious change.
Current deficiencies of character, both as an idea and in behavior, result from epistemology, the study of how we know. If the character of the knower is irrelevant to knowing, or even interferes with truest knowing, then character does not belong within philosophy’s purview. Then knowledge and the methods of gaining knowledge can proceed unhampered by the character of the knower and by issues of value that are inescapably implied by the idea of character. Result: knowledge without value; valueless knowledge, which is euphemistically dubbed “objectivity.”
To know the world “out there,” philosophy constructed a knowing subject “in here.” As the world was conceived to be, ultimately, a characterless abstraction of space, time, and motion, so the knower had to be equally transcendent and objectified, that is, shorn of characteristics. The method of knowing the world had to be purified; otherwise our human observations would be all-too-human, qualified by individual subjectivity, merely anecdotal, therefore unreliable, therefore untrue. The ideal human as knower of truth must be a vacant mirror of purified consciousness.
Adjectives and adverbs are the actual forces at work in perceiving the world and in our behavior. Our speech would return to a correspondence with the world, which does not show a sheer unqualified cloud, a shrub, a mouse, but each cloud shaped, still or moving, related to the land below and to other clouds; each shrub a species and one of a kind; that particular mouse doing its thing in its singular way. Language would be creatively imagined to equal the imagination of the creation.
“The most salient characteristic of most of the languages of the North American Indians is the care they take to express concrete details which our languages leave understood or unexpressed.”
In keeping with a characteristically American priority— judgment before curiosity— we still declare a phenomenon good or bad before we become interested in it. This shelters our innocence from deeper engagement.