Intellectual Affairs

Wise Saws and Modern Instances

Reaching your 50th birthday is nobody's idea of fun. Scott McLemee is just glad it only happens once.

May 8, 2013

On or very near your 50th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service will deliver a letter from the American Association of Retired Persons, inviting you to consider membership. And there is no escaping this. “A letter always reaches its destination,” as Lacan says in a different context. Opening it is the closest thing we have to ceremonially marking the passage from young adulthood (very broadly conceived, in a society where “40 is the new 30”) to the higher mysteries of middle age.

As of this writing, my invitation has not arrived. That’s probably just as well: I’ll retire when they pry the pen from my cold, dead fingers. (By then, assuming another 20 or 30 years of life, nobody will be using pens anymore. It will be a teachable moment for younger staff at the coroner’s office.) But this column is scheduled to run on the dreaded birthday in question -- and anyway, I prefer to think of it, not in terms of the AARP letter, but as the moment of transition between the fourth and fifth of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man.

The playwright’s account of aging is nuanced, if too gender-specific. The fourth age in his schema is “the soldier,” who is “jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel / seeking the bubble reputation / even in the cannon’s mouth.” Here the military imagery counts for less, as such, than his broader point about adult life as the arena of careerism and its ill-tempered complement, egotism. By contrast, the man who has reached the next, less combative period is called “the justice.” Sober as a judge, “with eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,” the fifth-age individual is “full of wise saws, and modern instances / and so he plays his part.”

He has earned his authority. He knows what’s what. He’s at the top of his game. Shakespeare comments on his “fair round belly,” which sounds disobligingly personal, though having one counted as a signifier of success and health in an era when getting enough to eat was more of a problem.

The fifth age is the best time of life, then, Just like the AARP says. Or it might be, if not for a disagreeable awareness that everything is downhill after that. With his “spectacles on nose” and “shrunk shank” (i.e., boney legs), the sixth-age man’s voice begins “turning again toward childish treble, pipes / and whistles in his sound.” In other words, you turn into Grandpa Simpson, pretty much. And the seventh age is full-blown senility -- the period of “second childishness and mere oblivion, / sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Come to think of it, even the fifth age might not be so appealing. I suspect that being “full of wise saws and modern instances” might be the euphemistic way of saying you turn into a sententious and garrulous old fart. The letter from AARP might as well be addressed to Polonius. On the bright side, you still have most of your teeth.

Speculating about the possible autobiographical implications of the “seven ages” speech is almost certainly a bad idea. It will just provoke angry comments from people who think that the plays and sonnets were the work of the Earl of Oxford, or possibly Francis Bacon.

This passage, from As You Like It, seems to me an example of the kind of thinking that kicks in circa fifty, when you need to come up with some kind of periodization that will render the course of your life more intelligible. It seems as if your deliberate choices, over time, would be distinct from the element of blind chance, but that’s not how it works. [See correction at end of article.]

But while working that out, there’s also what might be called a cognitive-affective short circuit to deal with. I mean the strong feeling – which an awareness of the arithmetic does not change – that it quite impossible you will be turning 50. No such dissonance seems to accompany the earlier birthdays ending in zero. Reaching 20 or 30 may make you happy or anxious. Hitting 40 can push you to take stock of the people and circumstances around you, to determine whether you want the status quo to remain in effect for the next ten years. But approaching 50 is a completely different order of experience -- perplexing and almost impossible to describe to anyone who hasn’t gone through it.

I have come to think of it as a state of irrational and involuntary disbelief – in particular, an inability to come to terms with even the possibility that so much time has passed. You have been alive for half of a century. This is mathematically obvious but hard to comprehend. Something happens to the metrics in your head; your perspective on time becomes foreshortened. A decade, which once felt like an enormous unit of time, becomes a diminishing fraction of experienced duration.

The feeling is especially weird. The most even-tempered person I have ever met tells me that it left her depressed; the most work-driven, that he couldn’t wait to get the birthday over with, in hopes of not having to think about it any more.

“Reflections at Fifty” by James T. Farrell is an autobiographical piece the novelist wrote in 1954 and reprinted in a collection of his essays by the same title, published the same year. It’s not an especially memorable piece, and in fact I forgot just about everything in it since last reading the book nine years ago, during the centennial of Farrell’s birth. I only remembered the title a few nights ago, while drifting off to sleep, and thought it might be worth revisiting. Unlike most twilight ideas, this one still made sense in the morning.

In a couple of the essays, Farrell recalls spending years writing a novel and then trying to figure out what to call it. Then one day he picked up a volume of poetry by Yeats. This was a good move. Yeats and Shakespeare must be the two poets writing in English whose work is most often pilfered by other authors in search of titles. From his description of the novel – a semi-autobiographical account set in Chicago at the start of the century – it seems likely that Farrell would have preferred to call it “The Remembrance of Things Past.” Proust’s translator had long since claimed that bit of Shakespeare, of course. but a phrase in the closing of Yeats’s “The Lamentations of the Old Pensioner” proved suitable. The final two lines read:

I spit into the face of Time

That has transfigured me.

And so it came to pass that the novel Farrell published his novel The Face of Time in 1953. He quoted the passage from Yeats again in “Reflections at Fifty,” the following year. It definitely seemed as if the poem had inspired some kind of epiphany he hoped would keep him going. (Farrell lived and wrote for another quarter century.)

Just reading the two lines in Farrell’s essay did nothing for me; they blasted down no locked doors. You have to spend some time with the whole poem to get any sense of the power and meaning in Yeats’s crystalline and highly concentrated language. By contrast, Farrell’s autobiographical musings are as prosy as they can be. But while waiting for the calendar to turn, and the letter to reach its destination, I find his thoughts serviceable to the needs of the moment.  

“I, too, spit in the face of time,” he says, “even though I am aware that this is merely a symbolic expression of a mood: Time slowly transfigures me just as it transfigures all of us. There is no security in an insecure world. There is no final home on a planet where we are homeless children. In different ways, we find a sense of security, of permanence, or of home – for a while. To me, impermanence renders everything good or beautiful all the more rare. It stimulates my ambition and it strengthens the stoicism which is at the root of my outlook about experience. Those were some of my thoughts and feelings as I approached my fiftieth birthday.”

They point, I think, in the right direction.


NOTE: In the first published version of this column, I proposed that the speech was composed while Shakespeare was actually in the fifth age, since it appeared in The Tempest, often taken to be his last play. A reader points out that this was wrong, since the scene is from As You Like It, a middle-period play. But I am not about to let factual evidence ruin such an elegant theory. It is too early to plead senility, but clearly memory is the first thing to go.


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