The Representation of the Aged in J. M. Coetzee’s Fiction: A Select Study
Padumi Singha is working as an Assistant Professor in the P.G. Department of English, Bongaigaon College (affiliated to Gauhati University) since 2008. At present, the author is pursuing Ph.D from the Department of English, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong, Meghalaya.
Old age is very crucial period of life. Youthfulness, speed and energy are some attributes that we always like to retain. Though most of us do not desire it, the truth is, everyone is destined to become old. Usually, an old person is a subject to his/her individual psycho-somatic changes as well as the familial/cultural perceptions and reactions to old age. In many a case, old age is perceived in negative light considering it to be ‘unproductive’ and a ‘burden’. This approach relegates an old person to the social/cultural margin making him/her an ‘other’. In this paper an attempt has been made to do a literary analysis of old age as represented in select fictional works of J. M. Coetzee. The study contends to help us in order to understand the cultural construction of the aging identity while focusing on Coetzee’s articulation of this ‘otherness’.
Keywords: Coetzeean fiction, old age, youth/progress, old/decline, aged as the ‘other’.
The representation of ‘age’ is a significant yet less explored aspect in the oeuvre of J. M. Coetzee. This paper attempts an analysis of the literary representation of old age in select Coetzeean fiction and contends that the study would help us to understand the cultural construction of the aging identity while adding to Coetzee’s articulation of the politics of otherness. Rüdiger Kunow remarks that old age can be viewed from the postcolonial perspective since the latter focuses on the disjunctiveness and incommensurability of the social and cultural subaltern and safeguards its presence as resistant otherness, it may speak to central concerns of age studies because age is “the difference we must all live with” (2). Literary and cultural analyses become enriched with critical and scholarly consideration of age along with race, gender and other elements of identity since exploring older age from within literary studies may allow for a more nuanced exploration of the relationship between the lived experience of older age, its textual representation and its perception in public consciousness (Pretorius 11).
In her essay “Aged by Culture” (2015) Margaret Morgonroth Gullette makes a very poignant remark: “The fall of the baby embodies progress, while the fall of the old man embodies expectations about his failing body” (22). The remark reveals the binaries of perception about ‘age’ in human life —while young age signifies ‘progress’, old age signifies ‘decline’. The society generally prizes youth, quick thinking and speed over experience, insight and resilience. But the fact remains that each of us has confronted, or will eventually have to confront, the physical, psychological, social, and other changes that happen with time; all of us who live will eventually belong to the “Othered” category that is old age (Marshall vii). The term aged/old comes to signify and include a diversified group of people. According to Michel Philibert, to assess properly the marginalization of the aged at the present time, we need to consider all those over fifty which would include two or even three generations. The aged are heterogeneous by social class, level of education and income, living conditions and ways of life. Again, beyond the age of fifty a single individual may go through successive phases of social participation and assimilation, depending on fluctuations that occur, as one advances in age, in the matrimonial, family, occupational and financial situation as well as health and the extent to which one suffers from and is able to compensate different sensorial, physical and psychic handicaps (18).
According to Leni Marshall, Age/ing Studies analyze the meanings of age across the lifespan, within specific historical or cultural contexts (2). In Age Becomes Us: Bodies and Gender in Time (2015) she opines that perceptions about self-identity include age as well as gender, race, bodily ability, and many other categories of identity. Each person has a relationship with her or his younger selves as well as with the now-self. A person’s interior sense of self, particularly the individual’s experience of embodied age, is not necessarily the same as the visible age of the external self to which others react (1). Toni Calasanti et al opine that the point at which one becomes ‘old’ varies with other attributes such as ethnicity, sexuality and class. Old age brings losses of authority and status. Those who are perceived to be old are marginalized, even subjected to violence like elder abuse and to exploitation and cultural imperialism (17). Regarding the “social isolation” of the aged in the west, Philibert opines that young people and adults flee contact and conversation with the aged for various reasons, among which the fear of their own aging, which is gerascophobia, plays a major role (27).
‘Literary gerontology’ has been described as the interpretation of aging and creativity through close readings of literary texts (Zeilig 20). According to Anne M. Wyatt-Brown, literary scholars first began to address the subject of aging in a systematic way in the 1970s (300). For the literary scholars, the combination of literary criticism and gerontology required extensive studies of age issues and gerontological theories as well as to attract the audience who would respond and critically appreciate their interdisciplinary insights. Wyatt-Brown also opines that today more literary scholars have mastered gerontological theory, thereby bridging the gap between the two fields and creating a legitimate sub-specialty in literary studies. Literary gerontology includes the following categories (1) analyses of literary attitudes towards aging; (2) humanistic approaches to literature and aging; (3) psychoanalytic explorations of literary works and their authors; (4) applications of gerontological theories about autobiography, life review and midlife transitions and (5) psychoanalytically informed studies of the creative process (300). The complex interface between gerontology and literature can enrich each field while handled in an informed and sensitive way (Wallace 405). According to Hannah Zeilig, the pull that literature has on our imagination makes literary gerontology an especially insightful means of considering aging; however, she warns us that often those interested in aging naively excavate literature for insight into both the subjectivities and universalities of aging (22).
We come across the representation of the elderly people as protagonists in Coetzee’s various works under study such as the Magistrate (Waiting for the Barbarians, 1980), university professors Elizabeth Curren (Age of Iron, 1990) and David Lurie (Disgrace, 1999),) and novelist Elizabeth Costello (Elizabeth Costello, 2003 and Slow Man) and photographer Paul Rayment (Slow Man, 2005). All these characters are well established white people although they are either from broken families or living solitary lives. They try to hold on to what they think ‘liberal’ values until something drastic occurs and shake their existence and worldviews. The elderly people do not merely appear as self-less and sagacious. The Magistrate and David love the company of beautiful young women though they feel that they need to retire from the ‘game’. Paul too falls in love with his nurse. The lives of older women are explored through Curren and Costello. Curren relives a life of sharing with Vercueil, an elderly vagabond, while attaining new political perspectives. Issues of love, parenting and filial duty pervade all the novels. As parents Curren, David or Costello none wishes to be ‘burdens’ in the children’s lives.
In the Heart of the Country (1977) displays Magda’s father as a white master who is exploitative towards the black servants as well as to his own daughter. He even takes advantage of the young bride of their black servant Hendrik. According to Gullette, “Ageism is allied intersectionally with misogyny, racism, ableism, homophobia, classism, and other biases, in the sense that any of these prejudices, and certainly the compound ones . . . are likely to worsen with the increasing age of the targets” (“Against”). While Magda has to take care of his every need, he is too self-centered to pay attention to the needs of the ageing daughter. As an unmarried lonely woman Magda lives an unhappy life with her widower father. She opines that he is very “arrogant” and has murdered all the “motherly” in her. Magda regards him as “merely an ageing man who has had little love and who thinks he has found it, eating bread and peaches with his girl” (56). The father appears considerate to Magda only in her childhood memories. Very touchingly she talks of her ceaseless duties to her old and disabled father: “I feed my father his broth and weak tea. Then I press my lips to his forehead and fold him away for the night . . . I used to think that I would be the last one to die. But now I think that for some days after my death he will still lie here breathing, waiting for his nourishment” (149).
The elderly Magistrate shelters the barbarian girl but is aware that “she wants nothing of old men and their bleating consciences” (29). Her blindness puts him at ease with his ageing body: “under her blind gaze . . . I can undress without embarrassment, baring my thin shanks, my slack genitals, my paunch, my flabby old man’s breasts, the turkey-skin of my throat” (33). In appreciation of beauty he resembles David and like him he too enjoys an active sexual life. Susan Sontag’s remark “Men are ‘allowed’ to age, without penalty, in several ways that women are not” sounds significant in this regard. She says that getting older is less profoundly wounding for a man though both men and women have to be on the defensive as they age, there is a double standard about aging that denounces women with special severity; society is much more permissive about aging in men, as it is more tolerant of the sexual infidelities of husbands (31). The Magistrate accepts the truth about his sensual self: “The older a man the more grotesque people finds his couplings . . . I cannot play the part of a man of iron or a saintly widower. Sniggers, jokes, knowing looks — these are part of the price I am resigned to paying” (35). He understands “the foolishness” of men of his age and opines: “what old men seek is to recover their youth in the arms of young women”; he finds it “obscene” that “his heavy slack foul-smelling old body” embrace young beauties and realizes that he should stay “among the gross and decaying” (106).
In Foe (1986) Susan judges Cruso to be sixty years of age with “the stubbornness of old age”. She finds him too old to change and indifferent to her wishes. Growing old on his island without anyone to contradict him has had “narrowed his horizon” and he acts as “he knew all there was to know about the world” (13). Susan shares a part of her life with old men like Cruso and Foe. Her freedom is curtailed at Foe’s hands as she wants him to write her island story. She is confident of her own youth and capacity and sympathizes with aging Foe: “Your mouth sags open, you snore softly, you smell . . . like an old man. How I wish it were in my power to help you, Mr Foe!” (53). She exclaims at how she has aged and how in Bahia the Portuguese women didn’t believe her having a grown daughter. She realizes the onslaught of time as she is no longer young: “Friday grows old before time, like a dog locked up all its life. I too, from living with an old man (Cruso) and sleeping in his bed, have grown old” (55). She confesses that life with Cruso and Foe has been arduous: “life with Cruso put lines on my brow, and the house of Foe only deepened them (93). Her views on her aging self is summed up in Sontag’s remark: “Growing older is mainly an ordeal of the imagination — a moral disease, a social pathology — intrinsic to which is the fact that it afflicts women much more than men. It is particularly women who experience growing older . . . with such distaste and even shame” (29).
Elizabeth Curren considers herself as “An old woman, sick and ugly, clawing on to what she has left” (50). Her view reverberates with Sontag’s ironical comment on society’s notion of old women: “An older woman is, by definition, sexually repulsive — unless, in fact, she doesn’t look old at all” (36). Sense of nostalgia and memory are replete in her words as she tells Vercueil that her old car “belongs to a world that barely exists anymore . . . What is left of that world, what still works, I am trying to hold on to . . . I am comfortable there, it is a world I understand. I don’t see why I should change” (65). Ironically, she has to ‘change’ in regard to the political ramifications of her age. In difficult times the thought of the faraway daughter keeps the lonely, cancer-ridden, old mother “sane” though she never wants to ask her daughter to “save” her. She remarks that the old live through their progeny: “But when you bear a child from your own body you give your life to that child . . . Your life is no longer with you . . . it is with the child. That is why we do not really die: we simply pass on our life” (69). She also talks about wish fulfillment of old age — her wishes to live and love and be granted “just one more summer-afternoon walk down the Avenue amid the nut-brown bodies of children on their way home from school, laughing, giggling, smelling of clean young sweat” (51).
As a privileged white old woman she has Florence, a black woman, as her domestic help without whose competence she would “sink into the indifferent squalor of old age” (33). Once, Florence’s son Bheki and his friend John manhandle Vercueil. Florence likes them for teaching the “good-for-nothing” fellow a lesson while Elizabeth admonishes her for being a bad example: “You are showing Bheki and his friends that they can raise their hands against their elders with impunity. This is a mistake. Yes, whatever you may think of him, Vercueil is their elder!” (45). Their lack of respect for elders makes her ask Florence crucially: “What kind of parents will they become who were taught that the time of parents is over? . . . They kick and beat a man because he drinks. They set people on fire and laugh while they burn to death. How will they treat their own children? What love they will be capable of? Their hearts are turning to stone before our eyes” (46). She does not feel entitled to enjoy the beauty of the world because of the political ramifications of the apartheid. Her worldviews are in utter contrast with those of youngsters like Bheki and John who are growing up with the apartheid. Political activism epitomizes for them excitement, adventure and sacrifice. Her words of advice fall off John like “dead leaves” as the “negligible” words of an old woman (72). The generation gap is palpable in her words: “You are tired of listening to old people . . . You are itching to be a man and do man’s things” (134).
When both youngsters are hunted down by the state authority, she informs Vercueil the indispensable facts of war: “I still detest these calls for sacrifice that end young men bleeding to death in the mud. War is never what it pretends to be. Scratch the surface and you find, invariably, old men sending young men to their death in the name of some abstraction or other. Despite what Mr Thabane says . . . it remains a war of the old upon the young” (149). She speaks “the truth of her defiance through the pain of her old age” (Pretorius 75). She questions her right “to have a voice at all” and soon realizes that considering the ‘age’ (biological and political) she lives in, she has “no voice” but carries on speaking defiantly with a “voice that is no voice” and tells Vercueil that her voice is the “the true voice of wisdom” (164) which signifies her spiritual ageing. David Attwell opines that Age of Iron attends to generational differences between Mrs Curren and her daughter (the one who will not return until the current rulers are swinging from the lampposts), and between Mrs Curren and the young black militants who are mounting an insurrection from the townships. Her relationship with the boys is permeated by distress at the fact that they are surrendering their childhoods to a heartless code of masculinity and the slogan ‘Freedom or death!’ (148).
In the beginning of Disgrace, David Lurie appears to be a self-sufficient person who considers himself “too old” to change his “temperament” (2). He is with “good health” and a “clear” mind and “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well” (1). As Linn Sandberg points out that “sexuality as lifelong and as part of positive ageing is a markedly masculinist and heterosexual discourse in which most of the focus is placed on restoring men’s potential” (14). When David is ‘disgraced’ due to an affair with a student, his ex-wife Rosalind reminds him: “You are too old to be meddling with other people’s children” (45). He takes note of her ‘point’: “Perhaps it is the right of the young to be protected from the sight of their elders in the throes of passion. That is what whores are for . . . to put up with the ecstasies of the unlovely” (44). He philosophizes that his affair with Melanie is like the “marriage of Cronus and Harmony: unnatural”; and he is prosecuted for “unnatural acts: for broadcasting old seed, tired seed, seed that does not quicken, contra naturam. If the old men hog the young women, what will be the future of the species?” (190). In the crowd of the young, he feels out of place. He thinks of Yeats’ Byzantium and the comments on old age: “The young in one another’s arms, heedless, engrossed in the sensual music. No country, this, for old men. He seems to be spending a lot of time sighing. Regret . . .” (190). At times he worries about his life: “The life of a superannuated scholar, without hope, without prospect: is that what he is prepared to settle for?” (175).
David comes to live with his daughter Lucy in her farm. But things take different turn as she is raped and he is assaulted by three black strangers. Lucy conceives and keeps the baby against his wishes. She does not even escape from the place in spite of his advices. As a self-assertive woman she does not entertain her father’s paternalistic attitude regarding her activities. David complains to Bev Shaw: “Lucy says I can’t go on being a father for ever. I can’t imagine, in this life, not being Lucy’s father” (162). His growing intimacy with Bev and his assistance in her animal clinic change him for his own good. Later he acknowledges his daughter’s standpoint and the arrival of the baby. He starts considering himself as “A grandfather. A Joseph” (217). Whether it is Michael K, Elizabeth Curren or David, in all cases, what Coetzee renders is what Philibert explains that ‘life’ itself is ‘transmission’ between the parents and children for generations (30). David comes to question himself and his responsibility with a critical eye:
What will it entail, being a grandfather? As a father he has not been much of a success, despite trying harder than the most. As a grandfather he will probably score lower than average too. He lacks the virtues of the old: equanimity, kindliness, patience. But perhaps those virtues will come as other virtues go: the virtue of passion . . . He must have a look again at Victor Hugo, poet of grandfatherhood. There may be things to learn. (217-18)
Elizabeth Costello is a sixty-six years old Australian author who travels to the United States in order to receive a major literary award. Her son John teaches physics and astronomy at a college in Massachusetts. Though she is to deliver lecture there on animals, he does not broadcast his connection with her as he prefers to make “his own way in the world”. Since age has made her “a little frail”, without the help of her son she would not be undertaking this taxing trip. After the long flight she looks her age. Two years have passed since he last saw his mother and “he is shocked at how she has aged. Her hair which had had streaks of grey in it, is now entirely white; her shoulders stoop; her flesh has grown flabby” (59). Though he is with her “out of love”, he remembers the forsaken childhood he and his sister used to live with her. She used to seclude herself in the mornings to do her writing and they were not allowed to intrude under any circumstances. He does not read her until he is thirty three: may be to protect himself or as a revenge for locking him out. She has written him, his sister and his late father into her books in ways that is painful at times. He ironically views that she is “by no means a comforting writer” and is to be rewarded for “a lifetime of shaking people” (5). Exasperated he thinks: “Why can she not be an ordinary old woman living an ordinary old woman’s life?” (85). But he is also “proud” of her and is ready to “protect her as long as he is able” (7).
Costello reappears in Slow Man, the saga of Paul Rayment — a professional Australian photographer of French lineage in his sixties, living on his own as a divorcee. One can understand what Philibert calls the “social isolation” of the aged in Paul’s case. An unfortunate accident makes him feel the onslaught of both age and disability. The doctors would have chosen “reconstruction” in a younger person but considering his old age they amputate the leg above the knee and advise him to have prosthesis. Before the crucial accident he appears a self-sufficient male member of the society who keeps himself absorbed in multiple chores: he visits library and cinema, cooks even bakes his own bread; instead of having a car he rides bicycle or walks. He is strong and good looking “the kind of man who might last into his nineties, eccentricities and all” (25). The accident makes him succumb to a “circumscribed life” and he wants to commit suicide. His former self-image departs: “Frail care. Care of the frail. He had never thought of himself as frail until he saw the X-rays” (17), though he knows that his city Adelaide would offer enough support to “the frail aged”. Sandberg opines that descriptions of the ageing body as a frail, leaky and unbounded body and assertions that old age is characterised by non-productivity, increasing passivity and dependency clearly parallel the characterisations of female bodies and femininity in the discourses of old age. And the buzzwords of successful ageing, such as autonomy, activity, productivity and control over one’s health and body clearly parallel conceptualisations of masculinity (14).
Before the mishap Paul appears to follow the verdict of ‘successful aging’ which requires maintenance of the activities popular among the middle-aged privileged with money and leisure time. Staying or appearing fit is highly valued social capital. In this sense, successful aging means not aging, or being and looking ‘old’. The body becomes central to identity and to aging, and the maintenance of youthful appearance becomes a lifelong project that requires increasing levels of work (Calasanti et al. 15). In the hospital, a man older than Paul is moved into his room. He thinks that both of them are “Two oldsters; two old fellows in the same boat” (12). The doctors and nurses are young and kind but Paul senses indifference as if they think that the old people have nothing left to give to the tribe and therefore do not count. Sarah Lamb opines that the image of healthy, successful aging appears appealing to many North Americans as well as to many around the globe, especially to those who envision themselves having the physical, financial and mental means to pursue lifelong health and activity. Yet she asks crucially:
…does the currently prevailing successful aging model overemphasize independence, prolonging life, and declining to decline at the expense of coming to meaningful terms with late-life changes, situations of (inter)dependence, possibilities of frailty, and the condition of human transience? — setting up for “failure,” embarrassment, or loss of social personhood those who face inevitable bodily or cognitive impairments and impending mortality? (42)
Marijana Jokić, Paul’s new nurse treats him “not as a doddering old fool” but as a man who has lost freedom of movement because of injury (28). He thinks that she puts him among “the old whom there is no point of saving” and wonders where “would she put herself: among the young? the not-old? the neither young nor old? the never-to-be-old?” (29). He falls in love with her and feels embarrassed as a diminished old man on crutches. He has no children and in his old age, his childlessness worries him. He imagines having children with her and feels jealous of her husband. He is very fond of her sixteen years old son Drago who receives a motorcycle as birthday gift from his father and hangs out with friends racing and practicing skids. When Marijana asks Paul to advise Drago, he speaks of the youngsters’ love of speed and adventure: “He is testing himself. You cannot stop young men from exploring their limits. They want to be the fastest. They want to be the strongest. They want to be admired” (41). During Drago’s stay with Paul, he helps him out as Paul pees in pyjamas. Both Marijana and Drago accept the body with a ‘matter-of-fact’ approach whereas Paul sentimentalizes and is not ready to accept the change. The Jokić family builds for him a recumbent bicycle; though he feels grateful, he does not ride it. Elizabeth Costello thinks of him too “fastidious” to have a sense of humour. She tries to help him to come in terms with reality. Though he has lost a leg and ambulating is difficult, she reminds him that “after a certain age we have all lost a leg, more or less. Your missing leg is just a sign or symbol or symptom . . . of growing old, old and uninteresting” (229).
In the case of the aging selves of the Magistrate, David and Paul, one senses the view that our standard constructions of old age contain little that is positive. Fear of and disgust with growing old are widespread; people stigmatize it and associate it with personal failure, with ‘letting yourself go’ (Calasanti et al. 15). Both Magda and Susan feel more like what Gullette comments in “Against ‘Aging’” that bodies get “heavier” with stigma as people age past youth. On the other hand, both Elizabeth Curren and Elizabeth Costello are projections of elderly women in esteemed positions and they are privileged as white. However, one understands the significance of Kathleen Woodward’s opinion about societal bias against ‘the older female body’:
In our mass-mediated society, age and gender structure each other in a complex set of reverberating feedback loops, conspiring to render the older female body paradoxically both hypervisible and invisible. It would seem that the wish of our visual culture is to erase the older female body from view. (163)
Hannah Zeilig makes a significant observation that insights from literature are truly helpful if the author and her/his work are contextualized properly, when their depiction and representations of age are interrogated rather than accepted and when they are understood as one in a number of cultural discourses (29). One can never disregard the ethico-political dimension of ageism in Coetzeean fiction. Antoinette Elisabeth Pretorius comments that Coetzee leads us to “an understanding of the ageing body and subjectivity mediated by a focused representation of an inescapable ethical duty to the Other” (34). While projecting old age in the works, Coetzee is very concerned about the psycho-somatic aspects of the aged while being critical of the societal and cultural prejudices. With much consideration Coetzee has represented in his fiction the stories of joys and pains of the elderly people who are often socially or culturally ‘othered’. It may be a major reason for which considerable effort has been expended in attempts to understand the social realities of aging through literature (Hendricks and Leedham 203).
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