The Shock of the Old: Simone de Beauvoir on Aging and Freedom
So this is something I wrote that I turned into a paper for a conference. Only this is an early draft … the conference thing was shorter, but this is the Internet, so there’s room to wax on. And why not.
(i.e what this post is all about, in less than 200 words)
When she was in her mid-50s, Simone de Beauvoir decided her life was all but over. Everything that mattered to her was in the past: her work, her looks, her lovers. When she looked in the mirror, she wrote in her autobiography, “I see my face as it was, attacked by the pox of time for which there is no cure.” What did she mean by “my face as it was”? In this paper, I follow Beauvoir (and Sartre’s) conception of aging as an “unrealisable” that is imposed on us from outside in order to investigate this alienation from the self that comes with growing older. Why and how is it that we no longer identify with the face we see in the mirror? Which of our younger selves do we consider a “truer” self — and why? Scholars have rightly questioned whether Beauvoir’s existentialist understanding of human freedom was undermined by her later writing on aging, and while she did identify myriad ways in which aging shrinks horizons and confines futures, I argue her understanding of aging as an “unrealisable” also reveals avenues of escape — particularly for women. (Editor’s note: or not…)
The Shock of the Old: Simone de Beauvoir on Aging and Freedom
When she was in her mid 50s, Simone de Beauvoir decided her life was all but over. Everything that mattered to her was in the past: her work, her lovers, her looks:
While I was able to look at my face without displeasure I gave it no thought, it could look after itself. The wheel eventually stops. I loathe my appearance now: the eyebrows slipping down toward the eyes, the bags underneath, the excessive fullness of the cheeks, and that air of sadness around the mouth that wrinkles always bring. Perhaps the people in the street see merely a woman in her fifties who simply looks her age, no more, no less. But when I look, I see my face as it was, attacked by the pox of time for which there is no cure. (Hard Times: Force of Circumstance II, p. 378)
Such despair, such hopelessness — and from such a woman as she — and in her 50s, no less — came as a shock to many of her readers, myself among them. What chance for the rest of us if bags and wrinkles and sliding eyebrows can fell Simone de Beauvoir? Surely the life of the mind trumps that of the face? And, anyway, just what did she mean by “my face as it was” (“mon ancienne bête” in the original French)? As it was when? At 15, at 20, at 35? Why is one face more “me” than another?
In The Second Sex, Beauvoir called this estrangement from oneself a “depersonalisation”, which she described like this:
I am not the old woman the mirror shows me. The woman who ‘never felt so young’ and who never saw herself so old is not able to reconcile these two aspects of herself. (The Second Sex, p. 638)
She is a creature whose “double no longer resembles her”. As well as being an incurable disease — a pox — this estrangement is also a kind of madness, a rending of the psyche into unrecognisable parts, a self that cannot fight off this unwanted metamorphosis that is imposed on it from outside itself.
But was there ever a time of satisfaction with, and recognition of the face in the mirror? Of “yes, this is the true me, right here, right now”? Or is it rather, as Beauvoir suggests, something that doesn’t arise until it’s a problem, until the apparent recognition taken for granted is irretrievably gone. Perhaps only then does one look back and sees the former face as the truer face, or the preferable face. And so I come back to my question: Why that face, of all the faces?
Beauvoir doesn’t directly ask or try to answer that question and her somewhat scattered analysis of just why aging is experienced as it is — the phenomenology of aging, if you will — is unsatisfying. Perhaps she felt her account of woman as “Other” in The Second Sex was explanation enough. That woman is not only “Other” to “Man”, the default sex, but, as she ages, she also becomes “Other” to herself.
It’s an explanation she suggests in Old Age, writing:
“Since it is the Other within us who is old, it is natural that the revelation of our age should come to us from outside — from others.” (p. 320.)
And yet, so much of ourselves is handed to us this way, or imposed upon us from the external gaze, this explanation seems inadequate to the task of explaining why, for Beauvoir at least, Old Age was unique among them.
The the answer I’m going to give lies in the Existentialist — particularly Sartre’s — account of being, in his 1943 work Being and Nothingness to which Beauvoir appeals when she tells us just what species of thing aging actually is. (Note, for those of you who want more of this book, I have ordered the new — at last!! — translation and I’m going to embark on another of those chapter by chapter readings/bloggings. That’s some heavy shit though, so I might fail!)
If you’ll bear with me, then, while I offer a brief account of Sartrean-Beauvoirian ontology which will also explain their conception of human freedom, since it’s through the lens of freedom — or its limits — that Beauvoir understands the experience of aging.
It also, by the way, underpins her account of the oppression of women in The Second Sex, though I’m not going to go into that here. (As y’all know, you can read my rereading of The Second Sex, chapter by chapter, at this very blog.)
For Beauvoir and Sartre, human consciousness is freedom. And it’s a freedom that springs from the fact that this consciousness is, at it’s core, a lack or a “no-thing.” It is thrust into the world as a nothingness relative to things or objects in the world. There is no consciousness until consciousness relates to the world — the Husserlian idea that “all consciousness is consciousness of something”.
So, consciousness exists through this relating, this reaching out toward a goal or an end, which phenomenologists also refer to as “intentionality.” It is this mode of being — our human mode of being — Sartre calls “being-for-itself” (pour-soi).
I am always in the process of making myself something, always about-to-be something. I live by means of continually projecting myself into the future; I am my possibilities but only, as Sartre says, in the mode of not yet being them. (Being and Nothingness, p. 121)
By contrast, things or objects, like apples, trees, even cats, exist in the mode of “being-in-itself” (or en-soi). These non-conscious existents are stuck with themselves as they are, they have fixed essences, they are fully themselves — (the opposite of nothingness).
The third mode of being important for this talk is the being-for-others, (pour l’autre) which is essentially as it sounds: the me that I am for others. The being I am to you, as you try to pin me down and define me: boring, interesting, stupid, smart, nervous, ugly, middle-aged, Pākehā. My being-for-others is a mode of being I would very much like to control — and can’t help but constantly try to do so, mostly in vain. And even though it comes at us from outside, it, too, is always and everywhere a constitutive of me, part of me, even as I am to myself.
Finally, for the purposes of this paper, there’s one more Sartre-Beauvoirian idea to look at and that is what Sartre in Being and Nothingness calls the “unrealisables”. This is the most important idea for my case here because according to both Beauvoir and Sartre, aging is one of these, an unrealisable. It’s through analysing this that I think one can start to make some sense of the Shock of the Old Face in the Mirror question.
So what is this thing? An unrealisable?
This thing is not another mode of being, but a limit to our freedom. Indeed, amid the radical freedom promised by Existentialism, there are many limits to overcome. Not objects, or things in the “in-itself” mode, but other human beings and their creations.
To put it another way, only freedom can restrict freedom. Our freedom isn’t limited by mere things because what they are to us depends on us.
If my goal is to reach the top of the mountain, a sheer cliff wall and waterfall in my path become an obstacle, but if I am sightseeing, they are things of beauty that I want to photograph.
Again, limits or obstacles, as well as meaning, come into view only after we have chosen a project or action to pursue, they depend on our intentionality — one cannot exist without the other.
But of course we are born into a human-made world, filled with situations that look a whole lot like limits. Whether I am born into a country at war, into poverty, into racism. These things are part of what Sartre calls Facticity — the human-made concrete situation that surrounds us.
Then there are the things specifically about myself, also human made, that are imposed on me from the outside, things like my being, to quote Sartre, a “Jew, Aryan, ugly, handsome, kind, a civil servant, untouchable, etc.” (Being and Nothingness, p. 675).
I am in fact commanded to submit to these characteristics or attributes, I can’t avoid them, and nor can I ever fully realise them. To do that would make me into a thing, an object with a fixed essence.
Yet even as I am obliged to submit, my freedom lies in how I do so. Sartre puts it this way, using being Jewish as his example:
A Jew is not a Jew first in order to be subsequently ashamed or proud; it is his pride of being a Jew, his shame, or his indifference which will reveal to him his being-a-Jew; and this being-a-Jew is nothing outside the free manner of adopting it. (Being and Nothingness, p. 677).
Let’s replace being-a-Jew with being an Old Woman:
An Old Woman is not an Old Woman first in order to be subsequently ashamed or proud; it is her pride of being an Old Woman, her shame, or her indifference which will reveal to her her being-an-Old Woman; and this being-an-Old Woman is nothing outside the free manner of adopting it.
Unfortunately, Beauvoir doesn’t spend a lot of time on this aspect of the analysis, which I find surprising. But since it’s key to answering my question, it’s worth hitting you with the most substantial passage in which she does address it, which is from her primary text on the topic, called ‘Old Age’ (in French, La Vieillesse).
Whether we like it or not, in the end we submit to the outsider’s point of view…. We must assume a reality that is certainly ourselves although it reaches us from the outside and although we cannot grasp it. There is an insoluble contradiction between the obvious clarity of the inward feeling that guarantees our unchanging quality and the objective certainty of our transformation. All we can do is waver from the one to the other, never managing to hold them both firmly together. The reason for this is that old age belongs to that category which Sartre calls the unrealisables. … It is impossible for us to experience what we are for others in the for-itself mode: the unrealisable is ‘my being seen from without which bounds all my choices and which constitutes their reverse aspect.’ (Old Age, pp. 323-4.)
In our society the elderly person is pointed out as such by custom, by the behavior of others and by the vocabulary itself: he is required to take this reality upon himself. There is an infinite number of ways of doing so: but not one of them will allow me myself to coincide with the reality that I assume. Old age is something beyond my life, outside it — something of which I cannot have any full inward experience. (Old Age, p. 324.)
SO, WE’RE NOT FREE AFTER ALL?
Together with some of what she wrote at the end of Force of Circumstance, Beauvoir’s account of aging in Old Age raises questions about just how well her seemingly much more optimistic account of freedom itself aged along with her.
We cannot not be free, we are condemned to be free, the Existentialist says. Except when we’re old?
Several scholars have raised this issue. In a 2006 paper “Ageing And Existentialism: Simone De Beauvoir And The Limits Of Freedom” Shannon Mussett points out that many were shocked at the Beauvoir they discovered at the end of Force of Circumstance. What happened to the woman for whom the future was always open and beckoning. Apparently it had closed. And yet nowhere in her ethics had she prepared us — or apparently herself — for that possibility.
Mussett argues that surgely aging should not set limits on the world any more than any other aspect of one’s facticity “as the world of possibilities is always infinite”. (Mussett, p 237)
Perhaps even more shocking is the extent to which Beauvoir, a freedom freak, appears to preclude the possibility of any chance of the Old Woman enjoying a fully free human existence — of being able to “surpass the given toward an open future”.
She does this, as Mussett notes, by placing the blame for the situation “almost entirely on social factors” (Mussett, 239) or external factors — and far more so than she does in The Second Sex with respect to women, where she often points to the myriad way we, as women, are complicit in our own oppression. Much less so, the Old Woman, even though a good case could be made that we are at least as complicit there, too. First because societal attitudes don’t emerge out of thin air — we all play a part in bringing them to life, and feeding them; and second, per Beauvoir’s own conception of aging as an unrealizable, while I am not free not to be considered Old, I have some latitude in how I adopt or inhabit this characteristic.
One take away from Beauvoir’s apparent change is to wonder how much of her earlier account of freedom was shot through with her own privilege. For it seems in the case of the the earlier Beauvoir, the Beauvoir “at the prime of her life”, most every limiting situation could be overcome, or at least ameliorated, depending on the project one chose to engage in, and how one engaged in it. Whatever the obstacles, the younger Beauvoir was always able to “surpass the given toward an open future.”
It is true, there are issues with the “open future” as one ages, but even if one accepts the idea that the future actually shrinks (or becomes less open), it’s not enough to explain what’s going on here. (In any case, time is a huge issue that, well, I don’t have enough, er, time to get into.)
In the end, I think one can say that for Beauvoir being old was a singular limitation, unique in its universality and that getting old was the first such limitation she herself felt quite so strongly.
THE ‘SHOCK OF THE OLD FACE IN THE MIRROR’ PROBLEM
But it’s time to return to the Shock of the Old Face in the Mirror Problem. Now, I think, we can pull together something of an explanation of what’s going on here.
1. No Face Can Be More Me than Any Other:
First, no one face is or can be more “me” than any other face. That’s because no face can ever possibly fully represent or realise “me”.
It is simply the face — seen by the other, and seen by me as if through the eyes of the other — that is attached to a person who has done this or that, and is seen as having these or those attributes: happy, thin, wrinkly, successful, poor, pretty, old, and so on. But it is not me, it does not fully realize me in any way, nor I it.
Why then do I find one face more alien than another?
This idea, this notion, this experience described by Beauvoir and many others — this shock of unrecognisability — does not come from within me, it comes from outside, from the Other, internalised. Beauvoir says:
Within me it is the Other — that is to say the person I am for the outsider — who is old: and that Other is myself. (Old Age, pp. 316.)
Since it is the Other within us who is old, it is natural that the revelation of our age should come to us from outside — from others. (Old Age, 320.)
None of these ‘unrealisables’ including Old Age fully determine me, because if they did, I would be “a thing” — a being-in-itself. Maurice Merleau-Ponty a contemporary of Sartre and Beauvoir, puts it like this:
In returning to the core of his consciousness, everyone feels himself to be beyond his particular characteristics and so resigns himself to them. They are the price we pay, without even thinking about it, for being in the world. (Phenomenology of Perception, p. 458.)
2. The Face of Freedom.
Beauvoir argues that the unrealisability, the being for other, that is Old Age has much more power to determine me than any other such characteristic — or at least, more so than any other she has encountered. She says as much in her book, Old Age:
In most cases, for the rest of the world our being is as many-sided as the rest of the world itself. Any observation made about us may be challenged on the basis of some differing opinion. But in this particular instance no challenge is permissible: the words ‘a sixty-year-old’ interpret the same fact for everybody. (Old Age, p. 316.)
I think one could challenge her claim here that the words “a sixty-year-old” interpret the same fact for everyone, but either way it’s clear that for her, Old Age, was the unrealisable of unrealisables, if you will.
That the aging face traps me much more firmly inside who I am for Others — in the being-for-Other mode of being — than any other characteristic that might attach to me. For Beauvoir, being called a woman, French, bourgeois, white, — all are open to different interpretations, are open to challenge. But not being called Old.
It’s a small step, then, to see that the Old(er) Face that Beauvoir saw in the mirror rendered the person attached to it less free than she had been in her 20s or 30s.
So, it’s not that that, at some point in my 20s or 30s, I looked in the mirror and recognised ‘my true face,’ and now, this older face is less ‘me’. But it is the case that when I looked in the mirror at my 24 or 34 year old face, it did not come with this particular constraint attached to it. Something I only understand when I see the Old Face.
If you’re looking for a prescription for retaining the freedom of youth in old age, Beauvoir doesn’t help much.
As the philosopher Penelope Deutscher puts it in her article “Bodies, lost and found: Simone de Beauvoir from The Second Sex to Old Age”:
We expect her to tell us that we should not understand ourselves as determined either by its [old age] physiological facts (which we only experience in interconnection with our interpretation of them), or by societal attitudes (which, while negative and an imposition on our freedom, may still be resisted). (Deutscher, p. 8).
However, Beauvoir does use this analysis of Old Age to offer up one Do and quite a few Donts, as well as some consolation prizes:
1. Giving Less of a Shit: The first consolation is that the initial Shock of the Old will pass, and one will adjust to the face, perhaps ultimately finding it less alien. For Beauvoir, one gets the sense this is at least partly because she’s getting used to her new constraints, rather than overcoming them. In the final volume of her autobiography she writes this:
“For the time being the passage of the years has come to a halt for me: as I see it, there is not much difference between being sixty-three and fifty-three; whereas when I was fifty-three I felt at a staggering distance from forty-three. Now I mind little about my personal appearance: I take care of it out of consideration for those around me. In short, I see myself as settled into old age. Like everybody else, I am incapable of an inner experience of it: age is one of the things that cannot be realised. Seeing that my health is good, my body gives me no token of age, I am sixty-three: and this truth remains foreign to me.” (All Said and Done, p. 30)
One might sum this up, unphilosophically speaking, as Giving Less of a Shit. Commanded to accept the outside world’s definition, one gives in to it, with a kind of ‘let them think what the hell they want’, attitude.
2. A second, and related consolation prize is a bit of bonus freedom, that springs from society also Giving Less of a Shit about you. As Beauvoir puts it, the old “no longer have to make any effort, they are allowed to be idle.” (Old Age, p. 513.)
Being relegated to the fringe of humanity means escaping from the obligations and the alienations that are its portion; most old people do not take advantage of this opportunity, but it is held out to a certain number and some do grasp it. (Old Age, p. 542.)
3. Thirdly, there is a sweeping away of illusions — mainly that life was all about advancing toward some goal that could actually be reached and inhabited. But, no, goals are as elusive and unrealisable as everything else for creatures such as us. Here Beauvoir quotes Yeats: “Life is a long preparation for something that never happens.” She see this, too, as somewhat liberating. Though others might not.
Alongside the consolation prizes are some Don’ts.
(a) Don’t try to build any sort of “fixed, unchanging essence” in the face of your deteriorations. What might this look like?
Tirelessly they tell stories of this being that they were, this being that lives on inside them. Sometimes they choose to see themselves in the most flattering character; they are a perpetual ex-serviceman for ever, or an adored run-after woman, or a wonderful mother. (Old Age, p. 403.)
Besides being boring for everyone else, this is certainly an act of bad faith since whatever one might have done, one was never any fixed thing.
(b) Don’t take refuge in habit.
The old person escapes from the sickening quality of excessive leisure by filling it with tasks and duties that for him take on the form of obligations; and in this way he avoids having to ask himself the dreadful question, ‘What shall I do?’ There is something to be done every moment of the day. (Old Age, p. 519)
(c) Don’t believe the old line that you’re only as young as you feel. This is an act of bad faith: remember, you are obliged to submit to this situation — denying its reality is not an option.
THE ONLY ANSWER
In the end, Beauvoir says there is “only one solution” — and you can tell she doesn’t really think it’s much of a solution at all. Here’s what she says, and it’s the paragraph near the end of what is, in all honesty, an utterly depressing book:
There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning — devotion to individuals, to groups or to causes, social, political, intellectual or creative work. … People are often advised to ‘prepare’ for old age. But if this merely applies to setting aside money, choosing the place for retirement and laying on hobbies, we shall not be much the better for it when the day comes. It is far better not to think about it too much, but to live a fairly committed, fairly justified life so that one may go on in the same path even when all illusions have vanished and one’s zeal for life has died away. But these possibilities are granted only to a handful of privileged people. (Old Age, p. 601)
I’d like to conclude by turning back to what one could call the psychoanalytic aspect of Sartre and Beauvoir’s existentialism — that to understand a person, including ourselves, we need to understand that person’s projects.
Think back to the cliff and waterfall that could be an obstacle to us if we’re scaling the mountain or a thing of beauty if we’re on a trip taking photographs. That the characteristics applied to us, the unrealizables, the facticity of the time and place we’re born into — that all these things are obstacles to us, and indeed are made known to us, through whatever project we’re engaged in.
What, then, was Beauvoir’s project that made Old Age for her the impossible obstacle it was? And assuming we are among the handful of the privileged she talks about, what projects might we embrace such that this is not our fate?
Beauvoir, Simone de. (1970) Old Age. (P. O’Brian, Trans.). (1977. Harmondsworth, England. Penguin Books.)
Beauvoir, Simone de. (1972) All Said and Done. (P. O’Brian, Trans.) (1993. New York. Paragon House.)
Beauvoir, Simone de. (1963) Hard Times: Force of Circumstance II. (R. Howard, Trans.). (1992. New York. Paragon House.)
Beauvoir, Simone de. (1949) The Second Sex. (C. Borde & S. Malovany-Chevallier, Trans.). (2009. London. Jonathan Cape.)
Deutscher, P. (1999). Bodies, lost and found: Simone de Beauvoir from The Second Sex to Old Age. Radical Philosophy, 96, 6-16.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. (1945) Phenomenology of Perception. (D. A. Landes, Trans.). (2012. London, Routledge/Taylor Francis.) [Kindle version. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com]
Mussett, S. (2006) Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Freedom. In Death and Anti-Death, Vol. 4. Twenty Years After de Beauvoir, Thirty Years After Heidegger. Ed. Charles Tandy. (2006. Palo Alto, Calif. Ria University Press)
Sartre, Jean Paul. (1943) Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological essay on ontology. (H. Barnes, Trans.). (1953. New York. Pocket Books/Washington Square Press.)