“In old age we should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in on ourselves,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote as she considered how to keep life from becoming a parody of itself, while across the English Channel the ever-sagacious Bertrand Russell was offering his prescription for how to grow old and across the Atlantic the vivacious elderly Henry Miller was distilling the secret to remaining young at heart as a matter of being able to “fall in love again and again… forgive as well as forget… keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical.”

But no one has approached the universal problem of advancing from youth to old age, or the dialogue between the two within a lifetime and across generations, more insightfully, delightfully, and with richer nuance than the great classics scholar and linguist Jane Ellen Harrison (September 9, 1850–April 15, 1928), whose extraordinary life I came upon in Francesca Wade’s altogether scrumptious book Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars (public library) and whose work revolutionized the modern understanding of Ancient Greek culture by upending millennia of patriarchal revisionism with Harrison’s discovery of an entire class of “matriarchal, husbandless goddesses” central to community life and ritual.

In her sixty-fifth year, as World War I was breaking out, Harrison reflected in a letter that “work & friendship come to be the whole of life.” As the ledger of her life grew thick with decades, she never lost her intellectual vivacity, her lively intergenerational friendships, her active engagement with the ever-pulsating world of scholars and artists — in no small part because of the life and love she shared with her significantly younger partner: the poet, novelist, and translator Hope Mirrlees.

Hope Mirrlees and Jane Ellen Harrison

That same year, Harrison was startled to hear one of her young, talented colleagues at Trinity College proclaim that “no one over thirty is worth speaking to.” With her winking intelligence, she observed:

This is really very interesting and extraordinarily valuable. Here we have, not a reasoned conclusion, but a real live emotion, a good solid prejudice, a genuine attitude of gifted Youth to Crabbed Age. It is my business to understand and, if I can, learn from it. Give me an honest prejudice, and I am always ready to attend to it.

In a sentiment that ought to be the ultimate manifesto for intellectual and emotional humility, direly needed in our own time, she adds:

I am long past blame and praise, or, rather, I am not yet ready for them; there is so much still waiting to be understood.

And so she set out to do just that in an entertaining, existentially profound essay titled “Crabbed Age and Youth,” published in her 1915 essay collection Alpha and Omega (public library).

Harrison considers the rudiments of maturity and what makes us who we are by examining the “relations between fairly mature youth and quite early middle age,” defining the latter as “anything completely or hopelessly grown up — anything, say, well over thirty,” winking at the relativity of age with the memory of a time when a person of fourteen appeared to her child-self “utterly grown up.” Reflecting on the young scholar’s remark, and noting in herself with even greater alarm a similar “counter-prejudice” against youth, she observes:

The reasons by which people back up their prejudices are mostly negligible — not reason at all at bottom, but just instinctive self-justifications; but prejudice, rising as it does in emotion, has its roots in life and reality.

She notes that while there is often great friction between the young and the old, this friction can, “if rightly understood and considerately handled on both sides, take the form of mutual stimulus and attraction” — for it most often springs from a lack of understanding of each other’s state of being and frame of reference. The source of this friction is also the source of the exquisite complementarity of the two life-stages:

Youth and Crabbed Age stand broadly for the two opposite poles of human living, poles equally essential to any real vitality, but always contrasted. Youth stands for rationalism*, for the intellect and its concomitants, egotism and individualism. Crabbed Age stands for tradition, for the instincts and emotions, with their concomitant altruism. (*Note: Due allowance of course being made for the anti-intellectual reaction in the present generation.)

[…]

The whole art of living is a delicate balance between the two tendencies. Virtues and vice are but convenient analytic labels attached to particular forms of the two tendencies. Of the two, egotism, self-assertion, are to the youth as necessary — sometimes, I sadly think, more necessary — to good living than altruism. Moreover, the egotism of youth is compulsory, inevitable, and equally the altruism of age is ineductable.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for poet Robert Graves’s little-known children’s book.

A century before the selfing pandemic of social media, Harrison considers the chief handicap of the young — their tendency to “masquerade,” which calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s insight into being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-display, and Walt Whitman’s reflection on what trees teach us about being rather than seeming. She writes:

Acting is sinking your own personality in order that you may mimic another’s. Masquerading is borrowing another’s personality, putting on the mask of another’s features, dress, experiences, emotions, and thereby enhancing your own… Youth, and especially shy Youth, is strongly possessed by the instinctive desire to masquerade.

[…]

Masquerading bores Crabbed Age. Why?

Simply because the impulse to imaginative self-enhancement dies down as soon as liberty to live is granted… Crabbed Age is busy living, not rehearsing, and living, if sometimes less amusing, is infinitely more absorbing. It takes so much out of you.

And yet the old have their own way of oppressing the young, equally alienating to both and equally damaging to the collective mosaic of culture:

It is a waste of time putting up signposts for others who necessarily travel by another, and usually a better, road. Old people are apt to make disastrous confusion between information that can be accumulated and conveyed, that is identical for all time, that is knowledge, and experience, that which must be lived and cannot be repeated.

But Old Age does worse than that. In trying to impose its experience as a law to youth it sins not only through ignorance, but from sheer selfishness. Parents try to impose their view of life on their children not merely or mostly to save those children from disaster — that to a certain extent and up to a certain age we must all do — but from possessiveness, from a desire, often unconscious, to fill the whole stage themselves.

[…]

The truth that it has failed to grasp is a hard one for human nature. This truth is that, in all matters that can be analyzed and known, Youth starts life on the shoulders of Age, and therefore… sees farther and is actually more likely to be right.

Across this divide youth and old age frustrate and bore each other — one excited about everything, especially the masquerade of the self, the other increasingly specialized and outward-focused in its excitations, and at times oppressively so. But eventually, Harrison observes, life intercedes and the young are forced — by falling in love, by creative self-actualization, by some great calamity or illness, by the demands of a career, by the demands of a family — to shed their masks and narrow their locus of concerns, growing more entwined with other selves:

Through any bit of actual work or responsibility, Youth takes a part in life, becomes a real part, instead of claiming a theatrical whole, straight-way Youth mellows, becomes interesting and easier to live with.

In a passage of extraordinary insight into the meat of life, she writes:

Real life — and here comes the important point — real life, as contrasted with life imagined and rehearsed, on the whole compels at least a certain measure of altruism. There are many methods of compulsion, some gentle, some violent. We will consider for a moment only two, and these the most normal.

Normally, in the first place, life itself will lure you, catch you, and marry you, make a father or a mother of you, and your children will soon stop your masquerading, and teach you that you are not the centre of their universe — nay, compel you to revolve round the circumference of theirs. Marriage, through the lure of passion for the individual, compels your service to the race. This great education in altruism is necessarily more drastic and complete for woman than for man.

But suppose you elude the natural lure of life. There is society waiting with its artificial lure — waiting to catch you and make an official of you, a functionary, a thing that is only half or a quarter perhaps yourself, and a large three-quarters that tool and mouthpiece of the collective conscience. How often one has seen a year’s officialdom turn a man’s spiritual hair grey! The gist of all officialdom is not its labels, its honours, but the sacrifice of the individual will; and for this society is always ready, and rightly, to pay a big price. Of course, though there is loss, there is great gain in officialdom as in marriage. Each is a godly discipline by which the young man learns not to be the centre of his own universe.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for a rare edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Recognizing that children are often the most distilled and unalloyed version of all of our adult puzzlements and confusions, she adds:

This being the centre of your own — of course, quite fictitious — universe is best seen in the extreme case of the megalomania of young children, as yet untaught by life. Their own experience is always illuminating.

[…]

At seven years old one cannot analyze, so one must agonize. That is why it is so terrible to be a child, or even a young thing at all. One sees things, feels them, whole. There is no such devastating, desolating experience as to have been at the centre, warm and sheltered, and suddenly to be at the outmost circumference, and be asked to revolve as spectator and sympathizer round a newly-formed centre.

We carry much of that primal self-centeredness, and the grief of its loss, well into young adulthood — a term, and concept, that didn’t exist in Harrison’s era. Eric Berne’s revolutionary framework of the Child, Parent, and Adult ego-states that live in each of us was still half a century away. With her own singular lens on how we become ourselves — and our selves — Harrison writes:

As long as you want to be, and feel yourself to be, the whole of life, as long as you do not specialize and become a functionary, you do not co-operate, you cannot apprehend or be interested in the personalities of others. You are only one of a great chorus, all masquerading, all shouting, “Me, Me—look at ME!” Once you specialize, once you become an actor with a part in life, then you need all the other actors; the play cannot go on without them. Even your part in it depends on them. The me becomes us.

[…]

Far from it being true that specialization narrows the individuality, specialization is almost the condition of any true individualism. Through co-operation the sense of personality is born and nourished… The narrow, tedious people are those who are “living their own lives” and consciously “developing their own individualities” — trying to out-shout the other members of the chorus instead of singing in tune, playing their part as actors in a troupe.

With the kind of lucidity that only conscientious hindsight confers, she paints an image that captures the whole paradox of becoming:

It is one of the tragic antinomies of life that you cannot at once live and have vision… Looking back on life I seem to see Youth as standing, a small, intensely-focused spot, outside a great globe or circle. So intense is the focus that the tiny spot believes itself the centre of the great circle. Then slowly that little burning, throbbing spot that is oneself is sucked in with thousands of others into the great globe. Humbled by life it learns that it is no centre of life at all; at most it is one of the myriads of spokes in the great wheel. In Old Age the speck, the individual life, passes out on the other side, no longer burning and yet not quite consumed. In Old Age we look back on the great wheel; we can see it a little because, at least partially, we are outside of it. But this looking back is strangely different from the looking forward of Youth. It is disillusioned, but so much the richer. Occasionally nowadays I get glimpses of what that vision might be. I get my head for a moment out of the blazing, blinding, torturing wheel; the vision of the thing behind me and without me obscurely breaks. It looks strange, almost portentous, yet comforting; but that vision is incommunicable.

Art by Carson Ellis from What Is Love? by Mac Barnett

Crowning the essay is a wonderfully nuanced definition of age, emanating a kind of wisdom difficult for the ego to nod at but beautiful and necessary:

Anyone who cares passionately for abstract discussion, be his hair never so grey, his hand never so palsied, is in spirit young. I do not say this is an advantage. It is possible to stay young too long. There is a “time to grow old.”

[…]

People ask: “Would you or would you not like to be young again?” Of course, it is really one of those foolish questions that never should be asked, because they are impossible. You cannot be — you that are — young again. You cannot unroll that snowball which is you: there is no “you” except your life — lived. But apart from that, when you rise from what somebody calls “the banquet of life,” flushed with the wine of life, can you want to sit down again? When you have climbed the hill, and the view is just breaking, do you want to reclimb it? A thousand times no! Anyone who honestly wants to be young again has never lived, only imagined, only masqueraded. Of course, if you never eat, you keep your appetite for dinner.

The day after Jane Harrison died — an unseasonable spring day of “bitter windy rain” — Virginia Woolf recorded in her diary that she had gone for a walk in the cemetery and run into Hope, Jane’s partner, distraught and “half sleep” with grief. Virginia, who was months from publishing Orlando — her four-century love letter to Vita, the great love of her own life — recounted her encounter with the brokenhearted Hope:

We kissed by Cromwell’s daughter’s grave, where Shelley used to walk, for Jane’s death. She lay dead outside the graveyard in that back room where we saw her lately raised on her pillows, like a very old person, whom life has tossed up, & left; exalted, satisfied, exhausted.

Hope later received a note of condolence from Virginia, containing a single line. “It was more comforting than all my other letters put together,” she told a friend half a lifetime later. It read:

But remember what you have had.



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