Old Favourites: The Coming of Age (1970) by Simone de Beauvoir

This expansive book explores how older people are marginalised and dehumanised

Simone De Beauvoir: ‘The individual is conditioned by society’s theoretical and practical attitude towards him’

Simone De Beauvoir: ‘The individual is conditioned by society’s theoretical and practical attitude towards him’

 

Simone de Beauvoir was an intellectual and writer of the highest calibre and 
a towering figure in 20th-century European culture. In The Second Sex (1949), she pursued a new understanding of the experience of women. And with the same thoroughness and courage, she explored the lives of the old in The Coming of Age.

“Until the moment of it is upon us,” she writes, “old age is something that affects only other people.” We resist thinking about getting old but, as it’s inevitable, why not look at what it means, de Beauvoir asks.

“The individual is conditioned by society’s theoretical and practical attitude towards him. An analytical description of the various aspects of old age is therefore not enough; each reacts upon all the others and is at the same time affected by them, and it is in the undefined flow of this circular process that old age must be understood. That is why a study of old age must try to be exhaustive.”

At 600 pages, exhaustive it certainly was. But it divides into two sections: ageing as seen from the outside (including how society perceives it, how families treat their old, and how philosophers and well-known writers through the centuries view old age) and from the inside (through old people themselves, rich and poor, famous and obscure). 

Basically, de Beauvoir concludes that despite society’s presumptions, the feelings of the elderly are no different from those of the young. She surveys and synthesises biology, anthropology, philosophy and cultural history to show that older people are not only marginalised in western society but dehumanised.

Particularly excoriated is the institutionalising of the elderly poor, which de Beauvoir sums up in a few words: “abandonment, segregation, decay, dementia, death”. As part of her research, she visited French state-run institutions for the elderly, where it broke her heart “to see the utter listlessness bred by life in an institution”.

Still, the largely Marxist analysis isn’t universally pessimistic, and de Beauvoir emphasises emotional connections as well as intellectual interests as vital for a meaningful old age. 

It’s a tour de force from a great mind.

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