When perusing the local-events sections of 19th-century century newspapers, even from close to the turn of the century, one can sometimes encounter reports about how an “elderly man of 50 years” stumbled under a horse-drawn streetcar. Such phrasings definitely sound jarring nowadays, and not because horse-drawn streetcars have become a thing of the past. Elderly age is a highly relative concept, contingent upon living conditions, the advancement of medical science, and many other factors.
Of course, old age has not ceased to involve various inconveniences, but it also has its privileges, which I would not want to deny. One of them is remembering times that seem like a remote epoch to today’s young people. Thanks to such memories, the world that older people inhabit might be described, in certain situations, as a world without footnotes. For instance, if I were dealing with Polish-speakers of my own age-group, I would likely not have to explain why I chose the perhaps seemingly senseless title for this essay. I would not have to explain where I took the words from, or who is this mysterious person so kindly proffering a key. My 80-year-old conversation partners would instantly recognize it as a line from a song that Sława Przybylska sang in Wojciech Has’s superb film “Farewells” from 1958 (back when I was 24 years old). And they would have no trouble identifying the performer of the action: it was, of course, an “elderly porter” who gave the woman not only a hotel-room key, but also a knowing smile.
How old must that hotel doorman have then been, to have been described as “elderly”? That of course something we can never know precisely about a mere character mentioned in a song. But we can be sure of one thing: the film director, the lyric-writer, the singer, and everyone else who then heard that once-popular song certainly imagined him as well over 50 years old. Someone completing their fifth decade of life (or just entering their sixth) was already then more likely to be described as “middle-aged,” and that has only become more true today.
In any event, this shift in linguistic usage is indicative that old age is not some unvarying, biological category. It is a cultural construct, and at least to some extent it depends on us “elderly folk” how we cope with it, what we make it out to be. And how we behave in our relations with young people. It is precisely our advanced years, our memories of the intriguing past, of times inaccessible to them, that can make us someone interesting to young people, someone worth talking to – in a way that an older person who tries to imitate young people and pretend that he or she is no different from them will surely never be. It is, after all, our “agedness” that can be potentially intriguing.
Like many newspaper-readers at my age, these days I usually start with the obituaries. It may sound like a sad paradox, but as I look at it, reading them can be optimistic in a certain way. They show the triumph of the culture of life, because the average age at which we leave this world has grown radically higher. And the “survived by” lists are ever more often including the names of people’s great-grandchildren.
Prof. Michał Głowiński
PAS Institute of Literary Research
© Academia 3 (43) 2014