Out of Time. The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing. Lynne Segal. A Review
“In front of the vacant Mausoleum of the First Leader an old woman stood alone. She wore a woollen scarf wrapped round a woollen hat, and both were soaked. In outstretched fists she held a small framed print of V.I.Lenin. Rain bubbled the image, but his indelible face pursued each passer-by. Occasionally, a committed drunk or some chattering thrush of a student would shout across at the old woman, at the thin light veering off the wet glass. But whatever the words, she stood her ground, and she remained silent.”
The Porcupine. Julian Barnes. (1992)
In Making Trouble (2007) Lynne Segal asked what become of the ‘dangerous’ young radicals as they age. For her it was the “bonds we forged in collective efforts not just to wrestle with the world, but also to try to change it which, for a while at least, gave us our strongest sense of ourselves” that would indelibly mark how people develop.
How this sense of the self both changes and endures over time is one of the most fundamental aspects of being human. But we are not separate islands. As Segal suggests in Out of Time our “collective” actions mark the process of ageing with great weight. The process of ageing cannot be caged in the individual’s own life, still less mastered through self-help manuals based on individualism.
One of the contributors to the influential Beyond the Fragments (1980), which brought a libertarian rush of personal feelings into left politics, in Out of Time Lynne Segal relates her private experience of ageing to the world beyond the Self. From her own life, “literary and political, of the women’s movement as an activist, a scholar, a teacher and a writer”, she reaches out to explore multiple physical, physical and social aspects of ageing. Novels, psychology, paintings, the philosophy of personal identity over time, and the sociology and politics of the increasing numbers of the elderly, are employed to mark out a stunning and thought-provoking book.
Segal retains her emphasis on the left. There are some people, as they say, for whom the glow of that commitment continues to shine through all the defeats and set-backs that we have faced over the decades. “Entering old age, almost all those leftists and feminists I knew forty years ago hold much of the same political views as then. There is no shortage of older radicals who continue to support struggles of justice, equality and a safer, greener more peaceful world.”(Page 54)
She is equally resilient in her feminism and sexual politics. From Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiographical La Force d’âge (1970) to her La Viellesse (1970) Segal draws on images of the ageing female body as something “pitiable” in the eyes of others. She talks of how elderly women become in simply invisible, undesired. The “double standard” at work in conventional sexuality means that this change does not apply to men. Yet the strictures of abstract feminist theory dampen down when faced with men’s own “horror of ageing”. She records the importance for elderly men not of aggressive sexual virility but of “intimacy and touch in their experience with wives or partners.”(Page 89)
Are women trapped in the beauty culture dictated by masculine desire? Gender as a construction can always be, as Judith Butler suggested, destabilised, and redefined (Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1990). Known a decade ago as a defender of the legitimacy of heterosexual relations against separatist feminism, Segal describes how she found, after her relationship with a younger man ended in her fifties, “Unexpected erotic pleasure in a relationship with a woman.”(Page 117)
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Segal cites Peter Osborne to develop a variegated perspective on time which helps her to come to terms with this feature of her life. Personal identity is something that endures in ageing, but its relationship to the past, the present and the future is not to be fixed by the chronology of clocks. The past remains there in the eternal present. There are always yearnings for roads not taken. In the now there are moments throughout our lives that draw us to the future. In discussing psychoanalysis (Freud and Lacan) and psychology she observes that the unconscious itself is “timeless”. One could equally say that grace and charm (and their contraries) are things that may endure over a life-time.
Ageing in Literature.
Segal refers to the paintings of Lucien Freud and David Hockney to portray the sight of ageing. But perhaps it’s when she harvests literature, such the works of Philip Roth and John Updike, that she makes the most incisive impression. This is literary direction is a fruitful avenue, whether or not it directly speaks for personal experience. Roth’s I Married a Communist (1998- (which she does not cite) features one character in its wider plot, whose commitment, worn over the years gradually boils down, as he gets old, to a simple sense of being a “good person”.
The importance of life-long goodness is apparent in Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple (1869), the subject of Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot (2009) to which Segal refers. In that short story the maid Félicité devotes herself to others – her mistress, her employer’s children, her nephew and an old man with cancer. Dying, in one of the most moving scenes in the history of literature, she imagines god or the Holy Spirit as her parrot, Loulou. In homage to human unselfish devotion Michel Houellebecq (Les Particules élémentaires 1998) describes such beings, who have worked all their lives, uniquely for love and out of devotion for others. In practice, Houellebecq noted, these people have generally been women.
The elderly can also be wrong-footed in their attachments. De Beauvoir’s La Cérémonie des Adieux (1981) is marked by the author’s annoyance at Sartre’s senescent years. Under the influence of Benny Lévy her close companion was enthused by the Cultural Revolution. By the late seventies he turned like a weathervane – as his self-appointed secretary veered to the right and the Talmud – to endorsing the anti-Communism of the nouveaux philosophes. Beauvoir could hardly contain her rage, as Sartre appeared to lose his sense of self and judgement. A besotted dupe Sartre is as pitiable as Balzac’s Père Goriot. He sacrifices all his wealth for his daughters, who are ashamed of him, and is left to die in wretched isolation.
Other novelists enter Out of Time to mark out lines of experience. Penelope Lively’s reflections on generational difference impress her. Lively also indicated in Treasures of Time (1979) the presence of the monumental past in the now. As her partner, Jack Lively, might have indicated, from his work on Joseph de Maistre, for many individuals (whatever the reality of these impressions), there are deep traces of the people who have gone before in the world of today.
Out of Time plunges into the ‘war’ of generations. A whole literature has sprung up on how the “baby boomers” of the post-war period have confiscated the futures of the present generation of young people. That is, having enjoyed the benefits of a comprehensive welfare state they have retained this shield for themselves, while denying it to those born in more recent times. Segal is on sure ground when she affirms that the “idea that the ‘politics’ of an entire population of the new elderly could be declared ‘selfish’ might seem obviously rather dim-witted….”(Page 49)
It would indeed be ridiculous to believe that even the legendary ‘68’ generation was a solid radical cohort. The Conservatives were elected in 1970, and a majority of the present-day over-sixties were complicit in this move to the right over the last decades – at least if the hard data of election results is to be believed. The shift to the politics of economic liberalism is hard to fix within any “war of the generations”. Pulling up the ladder once you’ve climbed it is a choice made by governments, not generations.
Segal has her own gripes against some who have changed with age. Amongst ageing men, Segal comments, there are those who rant and rave against the errors of their earlier selves. She talks of Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen and Martin Amis, “full of bile and fury against what they regard as the self-deceptions, faults and follies of the left to which they once belonged.”(Page 56) One wonders, whatever the merits or faults of these writers, why this is classed with the process of getting old. If one can criticise these individuals it should be made case by case – assuming that any importance can be given to somebody like cockwomble Martin Amis, or that Hitchens and Cohen should be considered of major political significance. Equally there is no given merit or ‘authenticity’ in remaining wedded to the same ideas that one had in one’s youth. The words attributed (rightly or wrongly) to Keynes’s on the changing one’s views when conditions alter have considerable virtue.
What is striking is that some form of political activism is a thread that sustains people with a sense of their worth through cooperating with others. Lynne Segal’s life has often revolved around “collective struggles”. She refers to a study of life-long members of the Communist Party, “Interviews with members of the Communist Party, Members said that it gave “you a motive for going on living”. Some sustained their radicalism to “the very end”.
Yet Communism has, at least in the sense of “actually existing socialism”, come to an end. For political activists this is perhaps the best marker that quickly indicates that the experience of ageing is bound to history, not just personal relations. The history of the Soviet Union and its international supporters is stamped by something more terrible than the life histories of the circle of New Left radicals with which Segal is directly familiar. This is an experience of political and personal ageing that is still hard to describe. The lonely stand of the old Eastern European Communist woman in the Julian Barnes novel that heads this review indicates something that does not originate in the Self. It is deeply sad. Leon Rosselson’s Song of the Old Communist lamenting and affirming a life-long commitment illustrates the profound importance of something now lost.
Perhaps one of the most affecting portrayals of love ever filmed is that of an elderly couple in Michael Haneke‘s L’amour (2012). The scenario of the aftermath of a beloved’s stroke unfolds with unbearable tenderness. Lynne Segal also sings of the wonder and warmth of friendship, touching, of sexual intimacy, and of sadness. Out of Time pleads for communication between generations. Its pages surely transmit a wealth of feeling, knowledge and reflection that will contribute to this end.
Segal concludes, “the conscious effort to understand and communicate the near inevitability of a certain tragic residue in the wake of political struggles helps keep us alive to life itself. Amidst much gloom, resistance has for some of us, and certainly for me, its own intrinsic beauty.”(Page 223)
Out of Time has more than its share of intrinsic wonder.
Reviews: Yvonne Roberts. (Guardian), Jenny Diski (London Review of Books). Stina Lyon (Times Higher Education). Particularly worth reading is Malise Rosbech who amongst other aspects points to the influence of Walter Benjamin in Segal’s appropriation (via Peter Osborne) of the nature of ‘time’.