Old age exposes the failure of our entire civilization.--Simone de Beauvoir, Old Age (543)
In Western society, obsessed with youth and youthfulness, old age is Other--but it is also that which we must become. In this it differs radically from gender, race, and even class as categories of otherness. Old age is, in Simone de Beauvoir's phrase, a "forbidden subject" in Western culture. "Society," she writes in her monumental study Old Age, "looks upon old age as a kind of shameful secret that it is unseemly to mention" (1). As her language suggests, in the twentieth century old age and mortality replaced sexuality as that which cannot be spoken about. Indeed, Old Age (originally published as La Vieillesse, 1970, and translated in the US as The Coming of Age, 1972, itself a somewhat euphemistic title) was, as Kathleen Woodward has remarked, "ignored by mainstream readers, feminists, and even scholars of Beauvoir herself" (xi). Even within feminism ageism has proven difficult to confront.
The anxiety that attends the process of aging is correspondingly intense. For women, so often judged on their appearance, the onset of aging can be acutely painful. We also need to consider in relation to this women's enforced position as men's Other within Western culture. As Beauvoir famously put it: "He is the Subject, he is the Absolute--she is the Other" (Second Sex 16). The old woman is doubly Othered by gender and age. She is the hag, the crone, the old maid, the evil stepmother, the wicked witch of folklore and fairytale. "Lastly," as Beauvoir remarks, "the old woman looks like death" (Old Age 150).
Yet the process of aging is often an experience that leads the aging woman back to the first Other in a child's life, the mother. Looking at her mother's face, a woman sees not only where she came from but where she is going, her past and her future. The place of her birth thus becomes a memento mori of the most intimate kind. The aging maternal body is also a reminder that, as Beauvoir suggested, "it is old age, rather than death, that is to be contrasted with life" (539). For many, as the phrase "second childhood" implies, old age is a period of increasing dependence on others for basic bodily functions which suggests a circular rather than linear life pattern, culminating in a return to "ma(t)ter."
Doris Lessing, now herself in her eighties, is one of only a handful of women writers who have addressed the "forbidden subject" of women's old age in any depth. (1) Lessing is still probably best known for The Golden Notebook (1962), a book which broke taboos about female experiences, such as menstruation, and anticipated second-wave feminism. Published over two decades later, Lessing's The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984) is similarly taboo-breaking in its depiction of old age. An impassioned protest against the way our society treats the old, the book's radical nature was, however, initially obscured by the fact that it was first published as two books--The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could ...--under the pseudonym "Jane Somers." This ruse and Lessing's reasons for it initially attracted more attention than its actual content. (2) Lessing's text, however, offers a highly suggestive exploration of the aging process and its complex relations with identity, femininity, the body and decay, and abjection.
The diaries are written in the first person by Jane Somers, usually called Janna, "a handsome, middle-aged widow with a very good job in the magazine world" (17). Janna is forced to reassess her life when she befriends Maudie Fowler, an old lady of over ninety whom she meets by accident. Using the immediacy and realism of the diary format, the book documents the poverty and loneliness to which many old people, particularly working-class women like Maudie, are abandoned. Janna's fury after Maudie's death--'Tm so angry I could die of it" (261), she says--is an expression of moral outrage at the failure of our civilization to care for the old. …