Alan Hollinghurst recently said that, “…novels are really about young people; they are about how people find themselves and become themselves”
I don’t believe this, but there is some truth in it and it got me thinking that perhaps this is why so many people I know have disengaged with fiction and story as they’ve gotten older. If the narratives that are being focused on are those of young people, why would they (the oldsters) be interested?. Also, is it true that being older means being in a static, stationary position of having ‘found’ and ‘become’ yourself. Surely this isn’t true. And yet it does feel true to say that the narratives/images that might be meaningful for a young person would be different to those that would be significant for an old person.
Does Joseph Campbell’s or Dan Harmon’s Hero’s Journey still apply at 50? I remember the painter Ken Kiff saying that as he got older he became more interested in the images of the desert fathers, the hermits and saints who took themselves into isolation. They seemed to him like a reversed,mirror image of the young Hero leaving home at the start of his/her adventure. If this image is resonant for older people, does it mean that old age is, in a sense, a withdrawal from the world? A disengagement? If so, what stories and images cluster around this? I think it has to do with a kind of bereavement. A bereavement for one’s own death. If being young is about finding and becoming yourself, is being old about dissolving, becoming un-whole? No, that can’t be it. When I was young, I thought about death a lot (I’ve always been a fun guy). It was something that was going to happen to me. As an old person, I think about death just as much, but differently. As something which is happening to me. The process is happening. Of course, this isn’t exactly true, but that’s how I feel. I think it’s to do with this sense of coming to terms with one’s own death. Like bereaving before someone has died. Do you remember when the the 75 year old broadcaster David Dimbleby got a tattoo? I remember seeing that and thinking, That’s a tattoo on a corpse. Ofcourse, Dimbleby is just as alive as myself, but it was an action that was a distinct missing-the-point. Like all those bucket lists that old codgers tick off ( I speak as an old codger myself). I’ve met plenty of old people who delight in saying that they’re going to grow old disgracefully and there always seems to be something slightly hysterical in their attitude. However I can see that they’re rejecting the image of the wise old person. That’s not fruitful. Stasis and stability is not fruitful. Crazy old codgers are better. But there should be something grave and somber about growing old, shouldn’t there? Look, I don’t want to be on a moral high horse, I think that distraction is a fine technique, and as good a way of dealing with death as any other. But the bucket list model of ageing is different to Yeats’ “Old men should be explorers.” The Desert Fathers were explorers.