Sunday, January 17, 2010

Middle-aged perspective

Earlier this month the icy weather kept me housebound for a day, and I appealed to my Facebook friends to help me decide what to read to fill the time. I eventually settled on Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, which I first read more than 20 years ago. Something in the chilly atmosphere made Wharton’s world of beautiful things and brittle people seem alluring, but what really sold me was a friend’s comment that she’d like to return to the book herself now that she has “a middle-aged perspective.” Whoa.

I’ve been comfortable thinking of myself as middle-aged for quite a while but I didn’t like the suggestion that my view of the world—and of literature—has started to wither along with the rest of me. That’s not really what my friend meant, of course, but that’s how I read her. “Middle-aged perspective” struck me as a polite way of saying sour, cynical, resigned, passionless, etc. So I plunged into The House of Mirth with a sort of half-conscious agenda, determined to enjoy it in the same way I had the first time around. I was going to relish Wharton’s ruthless dissection of society, and I was going to wallow in the tragedy of beautiful, useless Lily.

Unfortunately, I got about 40 pages in and had to abandon the book. As it turns out, I apparently have acquired a middle-aged perspective, and it has nothing to do with being sour or cynical. On the contrary, I found that I just couldn’t bear the cruelty of Lily’s fate, because I can’t feel superior to her anymore. My younger self pitied Lily’s weakness and her captivity in a vicious social order, but I didn’t feel any real empathy for her. I never saw myself as someone who might ever be trapped by illusion and the inexorable passage of time. Now life has taught me better. We’re all trapped, in one way or another. Some of us manage to work out a better ending for ourselves than Lily does, but we all share her costly addiction to self-delusion.

Edith Wharton was 43 when she wrote The House of Mirth, and she tells us in the book’s first pages that Lily is doomed. Actually, she lets Selden tell us:

“As he watched her hand, polished as a bit of old ivory, with its slender pink nails, and the sapphire bracelet slipping over her wrist, he was struck with the irony of suggesting to her such a life as his cousin Gertrude Farish had chosen. She was so evidently the victim of the civilisation which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”

I think that passage is Wharton’s invitation to us to feel Lily’s plight as our own. I didn’t see that twenty years ago and now I do. That’s middle-aged perspective.

Illustration by A.B. Wenzell from a 1905 edition of The House of Mirth


chayaruchama said...

I think I understand what you mean.

I've always believed that it is easier to know those difficult things about yourself, BEFORE anyone else brings them to your attention-

And I believe that what you describe arises from a seat of experience and compassion.

I find it sweet, comical, and sad, all at once-
When folks bristle at the appellation "middle-aged" ;-)

Even a dear friend and colleague- A geriatric specialist and psychiatrist for Alzheimer's patients-
Became very defensive when I referred to myself as 'middle-aged' !

[HOW OLD did she think I was going to live to be ?]

Great and provocative post, my dear one.

Julie H. Rose said...

Excellent post. In spite of my recent battles w/ bitterness (or more correctly, the fear of it), I've seen growing older as a process of becoming more compassionate.

I bristle at the term "middle-aged." I call myself that as a joke, not as a recognition of my age. When I say it, I'm thinking of many "shoulds." I should become complacent, resigned, more mature (which includes the willful resignation of idealism), less amused, more shut down. Ugh.

Everyone wants "experience" for jobs, but in life it's become terribly underrated.

chayaruchama said...

Julie- I see what you mean by
'shoulds ' ;-)

I don't do what I 'should' , either.
I have no intention of doing so ..;-)

There is a great deal our society doen't acknowledge or appreciate; experience and compassion are clearly not very popular.

[I hope we get to meet some day !]

BitterGrace said...

What we need is a better term. Words create meaning. "Middle-aged" is so damn clunky, but everything else I can think of is patronizing or silly.

Alyssa said...

Middle-aged is clunky, but I sort of like it. I hear "middle ages" in it, and then I start thinking it's related to all those old Beowulfish compound words.

Besides, that is where I am, or will be in another minute or two (I'm 40 in March). No longer able to claim I'm young (thank god), but definitely not yet old. So--where else but in the middle, the prime, the broad part of the open road...?

All that said, it's a lovely post Maria. Poor Lily. I've been thinking it's time to read Middlemarch again for similar reasons. This time I'll finally get all the ways that George Eliot was gently laughing at her young lovers.

BitterGrace said...

You're the second person to say this post inspired thoughts of Middlemarch, Alyssa. I must return to that book myself.

I like your connecting middle-aged to Middle Ages. It's an interesting parallel to ponder.

whoodoo said...

I like being middle aged. Although, at 53, I have fewer than half of my years to go, I'm sure. I also like being passionless, if by that you mean lacking physical desire for sex. The clarity and ease of mind! I suppose it would be a problem if I had a mate, but since I don't, it's a blessing and a release after years of being boy crazy and dominated by my hormones. I don't appreciate the aches and pains, but by and large, the older I get, the better I like it. I've always had poise, but never real equanimity till lately.

BitterGrace said...

Equanimity is good--maybe I'll get some once I'm past 50. Clarity would be nice, too.

By "passionless" I meant a general diminishment of joy. I can see how putting aside sex could be freeing. Putting aside the anxiety about one's allure certainly is.