The 72-year-old British actor Bill Nighy recently told The Guardian that he thinks about death some 35 times a day.
“Wow” I thought—“only 35 times!”
It’s autumn, and we’ve just passed another Day of the Dead, an occasion for everyone to dwell on the end of life. Out here on Long Island, the brown and withered tree leaves are falling thick and fast, days get shorter and shorter, and nights are long, quiet, and dark.
What better time to turn to Simone de Beauvoir’s meditation on old age and its accompanying drawbacks, The Coming of Age? I have previously dipped into this 584-page disquisition and found it surprisingly engrossing. The author looks at the inevitable human process with a dispassionate glance: She considers aging from the perspective of biology, ethnology, history, and sociology. She quotes reflections on age delivered by everyone from Aristotle and Hippocrates to a U.S. National Health Survey administered in the 1950s.
And like the historian Eric Hobsbawm, she piles on the fascinating trivia. Here is some:
*The idea that illness results from an imbalance in the four humours—blood, phlegm, choler, and black choler—dates from the ancient Greeks and was respected in Europe well into the 19th century. (You may have encountered this idea in Chaucer, but Pythagoras was actually to blame.) For centuries there was very little progress in medicine and science. The one exception was in anatomy, where advances began in the 15th century, largely as a result of the work of Leonardo da Vinci.
*Physiological changes related to age include the whitening of hair (for reasons unknown), the loss of teeth accompanied by a shortening of the lower part of the face, a thickening of the eyelids along with an increase of the size of the earlobe, muscular atrophy, and an “involution” of the sexual organs.
*As with wild apes, in many human communities the aged are kicked out, starved, isolated, and abandoned to die on their own. They are viewed as an unproductive burden. For example, among the Hopi, the Creek, and the Crow Indians, and the Bushmen of South Africa, it is customary to take old people to specially built huts away from the villages, where they are left with little in the way of sustenance. Among some Greenland native peoples, the aged kill themselves when they feel they have become a drain on the community.
*The coming of post-scarcity, modern society meant a lessening of such brutal treatment of the aged—although, de Beauvoir notes, “it is almost tautological to say ‘old and poor’ [as] most exceedingly poor people are old.” The bourgeois revolution meant that the key social division was no longer between young and old, but between rich and poor. And as the privileged few included elderly folk, it was they and not others who decided just who was superfluous to society.
I have only scratched the surface here of de Beauvoir’s massive work. Meanwhile, the latest MIT Technology Review looks at a related matter: the possibility of reversing the aging process. “How to Become Young Again” considers the medical rejuvenation research at such places as the richly financed Altos Labs. There, scientists are looking at how to reset the epigenome—“chemical marks on DNA that control which genes are turned on or off in a cell.” Comments one Harvard researcher: “There is no reason we couldn’t live 200 years.”
Dinner tonight: turkey chili and a kale, cheddar, and almonds salad.
Tonight’s entertainment: more episodes of the silly Britcom “Lovesick” along with the 1946 noir film The Blue Dahlia.