Aging and the Unmaking of the World

Age obliterates and collapses our world, writes Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain (32-3): “the body works to obliterate the world and self of the old person. Something of this world dissolution is already at work even in the tendency of those in late middle age, no longer working, to see their former jobs, their life actions, their choices as wrong or trivial, jobs, actions, and choices . . . seem insignificant by virture of the same process, though these people may only be at the beginning of what he has almost finished.”

For the old, the body “becomes increasingly the object of attention, usurping the place of all other objects, so that finally, in very very old and sick people, the world may exist only in a circle two feet out from themselves; the exclusive content of perception and speech may become what was eaten, the problems of excreting, the progress of pains, the comfort or discomfort of a particular chair or bed.”

She cites Stravinsky’s definition of aging as “the ever-shrinking perimeter of pleasure” and reaches for literary examples: “Sophocles’s Oedipus, for­ bidden from entering his homeland, Thebesi is also violator and trespasser of the ground at Colonus; Shakespeare’s Lear, having at last after long humiliation consented to enter the small but sharable space of a cage, stands instead alone on the narrow edge of a country and a cliff; Beckett’s Winnie, the most literal victim of Stravinsky’s ever-shrinking perimenter, is caught by a piece of ground that has snapped shut around her waist and that soon will close on the smaller circle of her neck. Each of these plays, though dense with other meanings, is in part the dramatization of the struggle to stay alive, to stay a little, to maintain one’s extension out into the world whether that world, that self-extension, resides in a full-sized retinue or in a handbag full of familiar objects, in a young city’s need of an elder’s blessing or in, most simply, your beautiful child.”

In each case, language functions as resistance to the vertigo of aging: “For each of the three, the voice becomes a final source of self-extension; so long as one is speaking, the self extends out beyond the boundaries of the body, occupies a space much larger than the body. It is not accidental that a substantial part of the power of each play is its verbal virtuosity, that these old people talk so much, that for each the tour deforce is less a display of style than a mode of survival whether it is Oedipus’s highly charged alternation between the ritualized past and future of confession and oath, or Lear’s commands, pleas, shrieks, his howling noise, or Winnie’s brave duckings. Their ceaseless talk articulates their Unspoken understanding that only in silence do the edges of the self become coterminous with the edges of the body it will die with.”

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