Historicizing the ageing self: Literature, medicine, psychology, law

SAMKUL Research Project October 2016 - September 2020

An interdisciplinary Approach to the Ageing Self

Ageing populations is a world wide challenge and calls for many different kinds of scholarly investigation to inform the public debate and current revisions of state policies.


The Three Ages of Woman
Gustav Klimt, The Three Ages of Woman (1905)


Project Description

The demographic changes in present societies require a more critical and nuanced approach to the different stages of human life, not least to definitions and cultural comprehensions of old age. This project will produce new knowledge about subjective and symbolic aspects of late life in different contexts, and contribute to a broader understanding of the cultural and scientific assumptions underlying past and present paradigms of ageing from early to late modernity in Western societies. On the basis of mostly literary, but also medical, psychological and legal discourses, it will provide detailed exemplifications of the psychologies, philosophies and rhetorics of senescence, especially in regard to shifting concepts of selfhood and identity. Accordingly, it will examine changing criteria for defining the various phases within late life in terms of the psychological, medical, social and legal status of the older person. Contributing in this way to a cultural history of the ageing self, the project will heighten awareness of the divergent conceptions of old age that exist side by side in today’s multicultural society, their continuities and discontinuities under the pressures of globalization and mass-mediatization. Through critical analysis of traditional and post-traditional representations of late life, it will provide tools and models for a humanistically informed reconstruction of the third and fourth age. As distinct from humanistic sub-disciplines of gerontology, this project’s interdisciplinary approach to ageing is rooted in the humanities, especially in literary studies and cultural history, but will also draw on gerontology, medicine, psychology and law. It will thus give a fresh and socially relevant focus to issues pertaining to the humanities, and contribute to the renewal of literary studies through cross-disciplinary approaches to human existence.

Today Ageing is often understood as a continuous biological and biographical process of transformation: more as the gradual process of growing older than as growing definitely old. The social concept of ageing has been subject to major historical change, not the least as a result of the revolution of statistical longevity. In contrast to the classical paradigm of fixed life-cycles, the limits and limitations of old age are being increasingly relativized. Whereas old age continues to be assumed as fixed for the purposes of employment, medical care, and other social benefits, identifying oneself as old today depends less on the number of years than on the individual's “biological age”, psychological attitude, economy, human and technological support, general culture, and level of activity. Prolonged senescence in richer societies has produced a new ideal of ageing as a period of freedom and self-development, in stark contrast to the continuing stigmatization of old age as decline, dependency and decrepitude. Today, huge resources are poured into the scientific quest to “cure ageing”, while more pessimistic voices predict huge differences between rich and poor elderly and between old and young, as the population of healthy retired people expands at the cost of the working. The contradictory discourses on ageing in this transitional period of its longue durée history have already attracted much scholarly attention.

Emerging from geriatric psychiatry and social psychology in the 1970s, a public concern about ageist attitudes has had great political resonance, leading to legislation against aged-based discrimination in many countries. While anti-ageism has evolved as a social movement, the multidisciplinary study of ageing, “the new gerontology”, has developed into a separate academic field, in which features of late life are now considered not only in the perspective of medicine, psychology, and social sciences, but also within history and culture. Today the urgency of defining societal strategies to ensure the rights and welfare of the elderly is widely recognized. But it is equally important to acknowledge the symbolic aspects of ageing, and the formative power of culture and society on public and private conceptions of the aged self. “Humanistic gerontology”[1] and “cultural gerontology”[2] have long challenged dehumanization in health care and medicine by applying methods and concepts from the humanities. “Narrative gerontology”[3] represents a newer specialization of the discipline, which focuses on the biographical dimensions and subjective experience of growing old as a way of redefining the meaning of ageing and improving not only the care of the elderly, but also their self-understanding, empowerment and public image.

With the works of among others Kathleen Woodward, Margaret Gullette, Mike Hepsworth and Anne M. Wyatt-Brown, “literary gerontology” has become a recognized field of study. Parallel to the recent “proliferation of novels about old age”[4], ageing has also emerged as a critical perspective for literary scholars, sometimes using interdisciplinary approaches, as Helen Small in her study, The Long Life.[5]  Several recent publications focus on the “late style” of certain authors, or on the topic of ageing in works selected from one particular language area or historical period.[6] These and other contributions to the on-going construction of a cultural history of old age will be important references for the present project.


What can an interdisciplinary approach to ageing, rooted in cultural history and literary studies, offer the by-now developed fields of gerontology that they do not already possess?

While it used to be more of a philosophical or religious issue, and in spite of the recent “humanistic turn” of gerontology, ageing continues to be understood as lying primarily within the provinces of biomedicine and social science. Demographic studies’ and gerontology’s approaches to ageing are largely statistical and based on the masses. Their priorities are to devise improved institutional means to meet the needs of a rapidly ageing population, and to promote healthy and “positive ageing”. Literary and historical approaches to ageing, as conceived by gerontologists (educated mostly at medical schools, schools of public health and social sciences), will often be predominantly thematic, or limited to the study of the last generations. Observing the limitations of representational realism and its content-based approaches to literary texts, Hannah Zeilig reminds us that stories of age and ageing are “most insightful when they are thoroughly contextualized, when the frame of reference is accounted for and when fiction as one in a range of cultural discourses is appreciated.”[7] Accordingly, this project will be wary of reducing the literary text to a direct reflection of reality, or a univocal social message. It will demonstrate the singular potential of literature to convey the contradictions and complexities of individualized ageing through form and content; and it will demonstrate the texts’ capacity to dialogue with writers and readers, past and present. The tools of literary criticism will be prominent in bringing out aspects of both classical and contemporary texts that have not yet (or not sufficiently) been studied in relation to ageing. It will add in-depth historical contextualization to aesthetic and philosophical analyses performed from the perspective of ageing selfhood. Late life identity will be studied historically and comparatively in literary texts, and in the light of medical, psychological and legal understandings of the thresholds of senescence. Based on this particular combination of discourses, and including several less studied language areas than the Anglophone, the project will bring out salient features of ageing in Western culture in a global perspective from early Modernity up to the present day. But given the great diversity of the historical sources, it is difficult to generalize and all the more important to continue to expose the local and individual varieties as well as the common humanity in the experience of ageing.[8] Exemplifying multiple concepts and configurations of the senescent self, the project will add a wide range of case studies to a cultural history of old age, and shed new light on the changing paradigms of ageing in contemporary society.

Selfhood philosophically construed continues to be a crucially significant topic in both the humanities and social sciences. Is selfhood in old age conceived as intrinsically different from those of the other stages of human life?

The project will have a particular focus on the ageing self, mainly as this notion is explored and construed, documented and imagined in fiction, poetry and different forms of self-writing. Through analysed examples, it will trace the historical development of certain models of senescence and draw attention to individual responses to these stereotypes. In this context, selfhood does not refer to any overarching theory, but denotes primarily a subject’s interest in itself, in its past, present and future, its whole relation to its own state of being. The literary examples will reflect and challenge dominant theories of the self, either as a substantial soul, an autonomous locus of rationality and judgement, or as a discontinuous, embodied process. How is the ageing self defined by its cultural and natural surroundings? How does it conceive of itself? How does it let go of its self?

Ageing selfhood is inextricable from the ageing person’s physiological, mental and legal status. The perspectives of medicine, psychology and law will be especially useful for comparing changing criteria that determine the natural and cultural thresholds of late life. In this context the concept of personhood construed as the whole human organism, and encompassing both the idea of a personal identity and a sense of self, will need further development as a tool to address these differently defined transitions that affect the individual during the last phases of life.

The self-understandings of the elderly offer exemplary comparative models for the study of selfhood, because of their particular perception of continuity in spite of change, or “oneself as another”. Selfhood in later life is perhaps not intrinsically different from that of the younger, but due to the tendency towards group segregation in present society, the ageing self may relate in characteristic ways to its environments. The philosophical privilege of pensioners’ otium is the out-sider gaze on society, combined with a longer retrospective and, with the growing “sense of an ending”, a potential for greater personal integrity (or despair). The ageing psyche, confronted with the inevitable loss of physical strength and a youthful appearance is, perhaps more than in other life-stages, under the pressure of consumerist drives. The elderly tend to be more vulnerable than other groups to the uniformizing and pathologizing effects of medical discourse and organized care. Subject to prosthetic enhancement, to a future of robot caretakers, aged people are already constantly interacting with the technological environment and will, in the future, experience increasingly “post-human” modes of being. Compared to younger individuals, the older and slower will tend to contrast more strikingly with high-speed society[9] and cultural change. The ageing body constitutes in itself a fundamental biological environment, decisive for self-apperception. Decreasing vitality may lead to a greater personal acceptance of this natural process, but in the collective consciousness it is contaminated and repressed by the general fear of decline and death. Supported by perspectives from the other mentioned disciplines, the project will show how ageing subjectivities in literary texts give unique access to the phenomenology and limits of selfhood, and to ageing as a continual human challenge.

In which ways can the concept of Narrativity be adapted as a framework for interdisciplinary ageing studies that seek to bring out the texts’ rhetorical specificities as well as their historical representativity, their aesthetic and cognitive potential as well as their critical charge?

The project will necessarily involve a variety of theoretical approaches to the ageing self as it is explored and construed in different epochs, cultures and discourses. To enable a fruitful collaboration between scholars of various disciplines and dispositions, the project will need to develop a flexible framework which appeals both to historical disciplines and to the more synchronically oriented sciences of medicine, psychology and law. As a starting point, this theoretical platform should be able to encompass ageing both as a cultural construction and as a natural human process, but also as a challenge to social justice and law.

Interdisciplinary practice will often mean using other disciplines for new purposes and necessitate a reconsideration of the disciplines’ primary goals. Literature and literary criticism have often been regarded as an end in themselves, so the word use may sometimes be negatively associated with an instrumental, uninformed conception of literary texts, which disregards their “literarity”. Consequently, literary scholars have criticized the way gerontologists have used literary texts naively as illustrations or proof of some extra-literary phenomenon, in the same way as early feminist studies tended to rely on the “image of women approach”.[10] In the name of common sense, scholars like Antoine Compagnon have attempted to free literary criticism from the excesses of hermeneutic suspicion, suggesting a middle-way between mimetic and anti-mimetic positions, and rehabilitating to a certain degree the concepts of representation and recognition.[11] Rita Felski proposes to liberate literary criticism from a similar binary: on one hand the theological view of literature as an absolute and ineffable value, cut off from this world; on the other hand the ideological view which makes literature a secondary symptom of social structures or instrument for political cause.[12] Both acknowledge Ricoeur's more confident hermeneutics as a non-reductionist way of reconnecting literature to reality by means of narrative and metaphor, and as a theoretical basis for a more complex and creative concept of self. Correspondingly, this project adheres to readings of Aristoteles which accentuate, not the idea of identical imitation, but the active, creative aspects of mimesis as a fundamental instrument of human cognition and self-construction. In Time and Narrative, Ricœur insists on the connection between mimesis and the world and on mimesis's inscription in time, the most profound common reference of all narratives. For him mimesis is a creative activity closely related to muthos: plot-making, which again is inseparable from the experience of time. Ricœur has also given new attention to the Aristotelian concept of anagnorisis: as it occurs both in the fictional protagonist and in the reader. For Ricœur mimetic and mythical intelligence is recognition.

Ricœur’s hermeneutics of narrative and time have been of great importance not only for medical humanities, humanistic gerontology and psychology, but for what has been termed “the ethical turn” in literary studies since the start of the 21st century.[13] The current revalorization of the ethical force of literature, largely ignored by anti-mimetic theory, often refers to Ricœur’s concept of identity as narrative, and the idea that subjective responsibility and continuity, as well as ethical conduct depend on narrative. Helen Small has investigated both narrative and anti-narrative life models in relation to philosophies and literatures of ageing[14] (Small 89-118). In a similar line, this project does not wish to prioritize texts that confirm a chronological or teleological life story model.

Ricœur may represent a common ground for this project’s disciplines; his key concepts are obviously relevant to the project: narrative identity, metaphor, selfhood, time, memory, oblivion. The ethical turn is in many ways a return to narrative: the way it can stage moral dilemmas, existential problems, and show how they are solved or not solved, understood and misunderstood. How to live a good life? What is a worthy/worthless life? are fundamental ethical questions raised by literature and with special relevance for ageing. Gerontology, geriatric medicine and psychology all share an ethical purpose: the well-being of the elderly. A major reason for using literature in the study of ageing is to contribute to intergenerational identification and to restore worth to this universal aspect of human life. Recognition does not mean unconditional affirmation, propagandic idealization or avoidance of "pessimism", but to explore through literary forms and figures the special challenges and varied complexities of ageing selves. Moreover, recognition implies acknowledgement of ageing processes in our own selves.

Why literature and science, rather than humanistic gerontology or medical humanities?

Due to the complexity of its object - the modifications brought by age at all levels, from the ageing molecule to the ageing population – gerontology is not one discipline, but depends on tools from biological, social and human sciences. Acknowledging the need of several disciplines in its approach to ageing in literature, this project stems from the central project members' previous research in the field of Literature and Science, a sub-discipline of Comparative Literature.

Literature and Medicine/Psychiatry (branches of Literature and Science) constitute a primary research area for the project's core group, and represent a natural disciplinary basis for a humanistic approach to ageing. The sister discipline of Medical Humanities aims primarily to sensitize medical practitioners to the ethical dimensions of their profession and the existential realities of illness. This is also a purpose of this project, but its gravitational point will be more literary than medical. Literature and Medicine investigates the historical interdependence of the two discourses, the exchanges of metaphors and motives, the reciprocal assimilation of their respective conceptions and misconceptions. Case stories is one example of a common ground of research, another example with relevance for ageing characters, is the medico-literary construction of types (the tuberculosis patient, the neurasthenic, the malade imaginaire etc). Literature and Science research also seeks to bring out the cognitive value of literature, as well as the shifting power relations between the two cultures. As noted by Gillian Beer, close analysis of how different kinds of texts reformulate material imported from different knowledge traditions can make us aware of “the apparent ease with which, in language, we inhabit multiple, often contradictory, epistemologies at the same time, all the time”.[15] Literature and Science scholarship’s historical approaches to fictions in science and science in fiction have a critical potential which is important to this project’s approach to definitions of old age. Its interpretations of literature in the light of other knowledge traditions will be modelled on the practices of this scholarship in the Anglophone worlds, as well as on the developing fields of Littérature et savoirs and épistémocritique in France and Canada. The project’s main results will thus lie within the sub-disciplines of Literature and science. The project activities will serve as laboratories for the study of the ageing self at the intersections of the mentioned disciplines, and represent important stages in the development and organization of individual articles as well as of the long-term monographical works.


Ageing and demographic change are subjects of growing concern in both in national and global contexts and call for interdisciplinary and especially cultural historical investigation to inform the public debate and current revisions of ageing state policies. Today is a transitional moment in the history of old age, a moment characterized by conflicting discourses regarding the defining limits of old age as well as the roles, rights and responsibilities of the aged. Critical interpretations of the symbolic dimensions of old age in past and present societies are necessary to counter-act alienating tendencies and to strengthen awareness of the interdependence of human life across generations. Assuming that a society’s comprehension of ageing is a touchstone of its conception of the human condition, the purpose of this project is to contribute to a heightened awareness of the subjective and reflected experiences of ageing in a world where humanistic ideals are increasingly under the pressure of demographic change.

Humanistic ageing studies may contribute to what Baars calls”a new art of ageing” and help to enhance a more fulfilling social concept of old age.[16] While contributing to a humanistically informed reconstruction of the third and fourth age and a more nuanced paradigm of ageing for the 21st century, the project also seeks to give a socially relevant focus to central issues of the humanities and revitalize literary studies through cross-disciplinary approaches to human existence. For the Humanities, ageing is a particularly relevant topic because it represents both a fundamental dimension of human existence, and a marginalised existential mode. It is a prerequisite for understanding human temporality and for addressing the construction and dissolution of identity, language, and meaning. As a persistent taboo it represents a psychological blind spot, a sphere of denial or oblivion awaiting recognition and analysis.

Our aim is to show how historically contextualized literature can add nuance to dominating collective attitudes, as those oscillating today between optimistic newspeak about “successful” ageing, and pessimistic hints of late life’s unspeakable horrors. Reformulating the insight of Susan Sontag,[17] we see the collective need of liberation from stereotyping metaphors in order to acknowledge our second citizenship in the realm of the old. But it is also the task of the humanities to restore and reinterpret the nuances of formative myths, metaphors and narratives, and thus enrich the figurative reservoirs on which modern individuals continue to model their selves. The tension between continuity and change that all selves witness throughout their lives is accentuated to the breaking point in old age. How do old individuals respond to the cultural commandments of self-reliance, self-discipline and self-transformation? These questions seem particularly urgent in our high-speed, consumerist and “liquid” lifestyle associated with insecure identities and a compulsive refurbishing of the self.[18] With this project we intend to sensitize scholars, decision makers and general public to universal aspects of growing old, and show how past and present literature on ageing can be a means of self-reflection for all ages.


[1] Thomas R. Cole, Ruth E. Ray, Robert Kastenbaum. A Guide to Humanistic Studies in Aging: What Does it Mean to Grow Old? (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2010).

[2] L. Anderson, (ed.): Cultural Gerontology. Westport, CT: Auburn House, 2002. . J. Twigg and W. Martin (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Cultural Gerontology, NY and Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2015. A new philosophical approach to ageing is represented by professor of Interpretative Gerontology Jan Baars. http://www.janbaars.nl/book/aging-and-the-art-of-living/.

[3] Kenyon, G. M., Clark P. G., and B. de Vries: Narrative Gerontology: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Springer, 2001; Kenyon, G. M., Bohlmeijer, E. and W.L. Randall (ed.): Storying Later Life: Issues, Investigations, and Interventions in Narrative Gerontology. Oxford University Press Canada, 2010.

[4] Rooke, C.: “Old Age in Contemporary Fiction”, in Cole, T. R., Van Tassel, D. D. and R. Kastenbaum (ed.): Handbook of the Humanities and Aging. New York: Springer,1992, p. 244.

[5] Small, H.: The Long Life. Oxford University Press, 2007.

[6] Davis. O.:Age Rage and Going Gently: Stories of the Senescent Subject in Twentieth-Century French Writing. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006; Taberner, S.: Aging and Old-Age Style in Günter Grass, Ruth Klüger, Christa Wolf, and Martin Walser: The Mannerism of a Late Period, Boydell & Brewer, 2013; Special Issue Forum for Modern Language Studies: Representations of Age in European Literatures. Vol. 47, no. 2, 2011; Skenazi, C.: Aging Gracefully in the Renaissance: Stories of Later Life from Petrarch to Montaigne. Brill, 2013; DeFalco, A.: Uncanny Subjects: Aging in Contemporary Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010; Charnley, J. and Verdier, C. (ed.): As Time Goes By: Portraits of Age. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.

[7] Zeilig, H.: “The Critical Use of Narrative and Literature in Gerontology”. International Journal of Ageing and Later Life, 2011 6 (2): 31.

[8] The leading historian of old age, David Troyansky, underscores this in his recently published, global study, the first of its kind. Troyansky, D. G.:Aging in World History. NY and Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2015.

[9] Rosa, H. and W. E. Scheuerman (eds.): High-Speed Society: Social Acceleration, Power, and Modernity, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008.

[10] Falcus, R.: "Literature and Ageing" in Julia Twigg and Wendy Martin, The Routledge Handbook of Cultural Gerontology, 2015.

[11] Compagnon, A. : Le Démon de la théorie. Littérature et sens commun.Paris : Seuil, 1998.

[12] Felski, R.: Uses of Literature. Wiley Online Library, 2009.

[13] Cf. Pavel, T. : La Pensée du roman. Paris : Gallimard, 2003; Nussbaum, M.: Love’s Knowledge: essays on philosophy and literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990 ; Dion, M. : Texte littéraire et réflexion éthique. Liber, 2014 ; Bouveresse, J.: La Connaissance de l’écrivain: sur la littérature, la vérité, la vie. Agone, 2008.

[14] Small, Op. cit., 89-118.

[15] Beer, G.: “Translation or transformation? The Relations of Literature and Science”. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 44.1 1990: 81-99.

[16] Baars, J.:Aging and the Art of Living. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 2012.

[17] Sontag, S.: Illness as Metaphor. Penguin Books, 1983.

[18] Bauman, Z.: Liquid Modernity. Polity Press, 2000.

[19] http://www.uib.no/en/rg/lit_sci/85331/ageing-histories-mythologies-and-t...

[20] See website for programme: http://www.uib.no/fg/litt_vit/91609/literature-neurology-psychiatry-agei...