The cover of The Delights of Growing Old (1966) shows its author, Maurice Goudeket, sucking Gaulically on a cigarette. Despite his bad habits, Colette’s third and final husband lived to the age of eighty-eight. When he married the author of Chéri in 1935, she was sixty-two and he was forty-five. After Colette’s death in 1954, he married Sandra Annette Dancovic and had a son by her at age seventy-one. All of this is too characteristically French to be taken seriously, of course, but in The Delights of Growing Old, Goudeket salvages a sense of consolation:
“It certainly appears that, for a man, sixty-five marks the end of that rather dangerous period which, for want of a better name, is now called his change of life. Once he has weathered this headland, he would generally set off with the wind behind him if only he would believe that he is at the beginning of the happiest stage of his voyage here below and forbids his mind to dwell upon its end.”
Goudeket seems to endorse Spinoza’s great challenge (Ethics, Part 4, Prop. 67): “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation, not on death, but on life.” I have meditated on this proposition since I first encountered it as a teenager, and that may be the point. We know we are mortal. How does that knowledge change our manner of living? Neither morbidity nor mindless hedonism seems the appropriate response.
Today, my sixty-fifth birthday, I coexist with most of my previous ages. I remember how it feels to be seventeen (when I was a university freshman), thirty-four (when the oldest of my three sons was born) and fifty-three (when I started Anecdotal Evidence). “The happiest stage of [my] voyage”? I don’t know. They’ve all been fairly happy, probably happier than I deserve.
In his sixty-fifth year, Dr. Johnson made his only visit to France and published A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Soon he would begin work on his crowning achievement, The Lives of the English Poets. In The Rambler #50, published the month he turned fifty-one, Johnson skewers the follies and vanities of old age: “Every old man complains of the growing depravity of the world, of the petulance and insolence of the rising generation.” Yes, we can be tedious and predictable, even when we are right. To correct the imbalance, Johnson urges self-respect. It’s time to grow up:
“To secure to the old that influence which they are willing to claim, and which might so much contribute to the improvement of the arts of life, it is absolutely necessary that they give themselves up to the duties of declining years; and contentedly resign to youth its levity, its pleasures, its frolicks, and its fopperies. It is a hopeless endeavour to unite the contrarieties of spring and winter; it is unjust to claim the privileges of age, and retain the playthings of childhood.”