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

George Rousseau (Oxford University)

"Wo(Man) Woe": Writers Writing themselves in and out of Old Age since the Enlightenment.

Professor George Rousseau - University of Oxford

University of Bergen

Main content

What results when ageing writers, both great and minor, literary and from other disciplines, write themselves “in or out” of old age? That is, when these ageing writers turn to their well-practiced craft, by now an extension of themselves, to produce narratives about ageing, becoming old, or avoiding growing old? The results are unpredictable in a number of conflicting directions. First, many more writers – past and present, Montaigne to Proust, Balzac to Simenon, Simone de Beauvoir to May Sarton, Oscar Wilde to Saul Bellow, Samuel Beckett to James Coetzee, Diana Athill to Lynne Segal - have aimed to write themselves in or out of old age than one imagines. Second, the act of writers writing themselves in or out of old age often camouflages something other than ageing in this late phase of life, even among philosophers and didactic writers pronouncing on the mysteries of ageing and ravishes of time. Third, writers typically write themselves in or out of old age as a confessional and clarificatory act for the greater illumination of the ageing process among themselves and their readers, yet they produce less-than-hoped-for clarification and certainly little happiness – the prospect of ageing leading inexorably to death cannot be expected to endow pleasure. This talk evaluates writers who have written themselves in or out of old age over the last century and a half, and enlists some of the similarities and differences. For context it extends back to the Enlightenment and Romantic eras, when earlier writers also did so, and glances at the contemporary landscape in 2014, when this lecture was written, for similar gestures. The goal is to understand better why so many writers since the Enlightenment have considered writing themselves in and out a valuable pursuit.