Beauvoir had argued in The Second Sex that, their alterity notwithstanding, an authentic pursuit of freedom remains possible for women. For, “to become a woman” also involves a project of active self-making and it is not reducible to passively “being made” one. Thus:
the traps of bad faith and the mystifications of the serious are lying in wait for [women],3
and their freedom:
cannot authentically assume itself except in revolt: this is the only way open to those who have no chance to build anything; they must refuse the limits of their situation in seeking to open paths to the future. (Ibid.)
But what, then, of the old? Can they still “seek open paths to the future”? Is revolt, or at least resistance, also open to them as an authentic path to freedom? Indeed, are any authentic projects open to them? It is striking that, although Old Age is otherwise similarly organized to The Second Sex, it has no equivalent to the final part of The Second Sex on “The Independent Woman,” on the woman who struggles to affirm her freedom. So, one must ask, does Beauvoir perhaps see old age as a unique situation, in which the demands she makes of (younger) women to eschew bad faith and engage in an authentic pursuit of freedom no longer apply? Or, could it be that she has radically modified, or perhaps abandoned, her prior ethics? How far do Beauvoir’s life-long values persist, and how they have mutated or perhaps even been discarded in her book on old age?
(...) For the great majority, their final age is, indeed, a “desert.” But “if the retired man is rendered hopeless by the lack of meaning [le non-sens] in his present life, this is because his existence has always been stolen from him” (OA 541-2 TM; V 568). In a profit-oriented, capitalist, society, where costs are always measured against benefits, after a life of alienated labor they are cast aside, regarded as “mere scrap,” as “walking corpses”(OA 6 TM; V 13). They face a “sterile” future and an “unpeopled” world, and after retirement they sink into a “deathly apathy” [une sinistre apathie] (OA 451-2; V 475-6).
(...) a common defensive strategy that Beauvoir sympathetically describes is to “take refuge in habit” (OA 466; V 490). InThe Second Sex, Beauvoir criticizes women who throw themselves into repetitive routines of housework as a means to evade their freedom. “Housework,” she says, “in fact permits a woman an indefinite flight from herself” (TSS 478, TM; DSII, 271). However, Beauvoir does not similarly depict the, sometimes obsessive, embrace of habits by the old as a form of “flight.” Rather, their habits hold out promise of much-needed protection against the meaninglessness of life. Habit is how “the old person escapes from the sickening quality of excessive leisure by filling it with tasks and duties that for him take on the form of obligations” (OA 467; V 491). The rigid habits that many old people adopt offer them a the degree of “ontological security”:
Because of habit [the old person] knows who he is. It protects him from his generalized anxieties by assuring him that tomorrow will be a repetition of today (OA 469; V 493).
As well as clinging to their habits, the old often cling excessively to their possessions. Indeed, Beauvoir observes, the two traits merge, since “the things that belong to us are as it were solidified habits”(OA 469; V 494). Furthermore, ownership itself is also felt to be: “a guarantee of ontological security.” Objectifying oneself in things, and especially a self-identification with money (which is deemed synonymous with power), is a commonly attempted form of defense: “Thanks to his possessions the old person assures himself of an identity against those who see him as nothing but an object” (OA 470; V 494). This defense is likely to fail, Beauvoir says (OA 470; V 494-5). However, she does not consider such self-objectification a form of bad faith. Similarly, she does not criticize those who attempt to evade their situation by trying to escape into a frozen world of past memories. They “affirm a fixed essence,” she writes and they
tirelessly tell themselves how this being that they were lives on inside them. . . [that] they are forever this ex-serviceman, this worshipped woman, this wonderful mother (OA 362, emphasis added, TM; V 384).
Their memories cannot “resuscitate the real world from which they emanate” (OA 364; V 386), yet Beauvoir does not criticize this clinging to the past as flight from freedom.
Yet others assume the disabilities of old age in an exaggerated form in order to justify excluding themselves from responsibility for action. A frequent device is to turn to hypochondria.
For many, illness can act as an excuse for the inferiority to which they are now doomed. It can also justify their self-centeredness – henceforth their body requires all their care (OA 302; V320).
However, far from being critical, Beauvoir adds that “these forms of behavior are based upon a very real and intense anxiety” (Ibid.). Similarly, some exaggerate mild impairments. Having some difficulty walking, they “mime” paralysis; others, being a little deaf, stop listening. However, “playing at being disabled, they become so” (OA 303; V322). In such ways, some strengthen their exclusion from the world even when this has not yet been fully imposed on them (OA 303; V 322). One could say here, as Beauvoir says of (younger) women, that they are complicit in their oppressed status; indeed, that they comply in “making themselves an object” [se faire objet].(TSS 491; DSII 195), yet Beauvoir makes no such claim. To the contrary, she sympathetically describes such behavior, especially (but certainly not only) on the part of the impoverished and institutionalized old. Not only are they “despairing “ but they are: “justifiably” [à juste titre] resentful and demanding” (OA 303; V 322).
Wronged and bullied, [the old person] retaliates by refusing to take part in the game. The adult world is no longer his: he challenges its regulations and even its ethics (OA 480 TM; V 505).
(...) The notion of authentic freedom that Beauvoir offers here presumes the continuation into old age, albeit somewhat diminished, of the passions and vitality and, especially, of the forward temporal thrust, that fuels the free, transcendent projects, of younger adults. She closes the book by envisioning an “ideal society” where these can continue for all throughout late life (OA 543. V 569).
In such an “ideal” society, after enjoying life-long participation in meaningful, collective activity, individuals will remain active and valued social participants during their very last years. They will engage in authentic action until they finally die from a brief illness “without having suffered any degradation” (OA 543; V 569).
Beauvoir’s “ideal” presupposes the overthrow of contemporary capitalist society, and she closes the book with the ringing statement that “It is the whole system that is at issue and our claim cannot be otherwise than radical – change life itself” (OA 543; V 570). However, she has also shown in extensive detail, earlier in the book, that old age is far more than an oppressive social condition. Indeed, she actually begins the “Conclusion” by remarking that “it is an empirical and universal truth that after a certain number of years the human organism undergoes a decline. The process is inescapable” (OA 539; V 565). Thus, the “ideal” of old age that she proposes could also be viewed as an aversive denial on her part of the physical decline that accompanies aging in any society. A conclusion that some critics have drawn is that Beauvoir herself views the old as less than fully human; indeed, that she participates in their objectification. However, I do not think such a conclusion is justified.
It is true that Beauvoir herself undeniably shares in the profound terror of old age that pervades modern society. In a well know passage at the end Force of Circumstance she writes of herself that old age “has got me now. I often stop, flabbergasted at the sight of this incredible thing that serves me as a face… when I look [in the mirror] I see my face as it was, attacked by the pox of time for which there is no cure.”5 However, her aversion to her own old impending age does not lead her to flee it by casting the old as “Other.” To the contrary, her goal in writing the book is the very opposite: to disclose the humanity of the old by breaking what she calls the: “conspiracy of silence” that surrounds them (OA 2; V 8). In the “Introduction” she states that she aims to make the voice of the old heard. She writes: “if their voice was heard, one would be forced to acknowledge that this is a human voice. I shall force my readers to listen to it” (OA 2 TM; V 8 emphasis added). (...)
by Sonia Kruks (2022)