Up until your late twenties, you’ve never known anything but being young, it’s almost part of your identity. Intellectually, you know things will change eventually, but it’s hard to imagine it. Then you get a grey hair or two, some back problems, and those little wrinkles around your eyes – chicken feed, really, but it’s a sign of things to come. When you complain about it, people say, ‘that’s ridiculous, you’re still so young,’ almost like it’s a virtue, which is comforting, but eventually they’re going to stop saying that, because it won’t be true anymore.
One of my main fears about ageing (this is a bit embarrassing) is loss of physical attractiveness. How much of our happiness stems from looking good? A little bit, I think. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective – if you’re less physically attractive, it might be more difficult to find a mate and perpetuate the proverbial gene pool… The other fear, nicely summed up in the annoying dictum ‘carpe diem’, is that you’ll run out of time to do the things you want to do. But this seems a bit gimme-ish – do we really need to do everything, fit everything in? Most significantly, though, when you discover that first grey hair, it’s a reminder of mortality.
Since I was a child, I’ve been quite scared of death; the inevitability of eternal loss of consciousness, and the unknowability of that final state. Thoughts of the afterlife once helped (I was force-fed Catholicism), but it’s really a self-delusion, an artificial panacea to the idea of mortality, which is a difficult, uncomfortable idea to get your head around.
The world is only experienced subjectively. So practically speaking, death is the end of the world – there’s probably still a world, but you won’t be in it, and you’ll have absolutely no awareness of it. Indifference to post-death events, even those happening to those you care about, is one possible manifestation of this belief. Maybe people feel differently if they have children; again, there might be an evolutionary basis for this apparent altruism.
I picked up Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards The End over the Easter weekend. She offers rare insights into topics sometimes treated as taboo, like: What does it feel when your beauty ebbs away? What happens to people’s sex drive when they get older? How does it feel to be forced to care for someone? How does an atheist cope with the thought of death? How do we come to terms with our regrets?
Athill’s take on the deterioration of beauty is that the vanity (if that’s what it is) doesn’t go away just because you get a bit wrinkly. Old people need to look good too, mainly for their own satisfaction – in this respect, she thinks modern day cosmetics are a great help. She describes the process of losing her sex drive. By the end, she was ready for it – ‘there was no reprieve, nor did I want one’- and she even saw some benefits. In Athill’s view (this is probably controversial), biologically, women are more consumed by sex, because they can’t walk away from the results (kids). Thus the ebbing away of sex drive endows women with an enhanced sense of individuality. In her case, she feels that this more firmly established her atheism.
Athill defends atheism as a belief system which, perhaps even more than religion, has the beauty of mystery: ‘Perhaps it is intellectually uninteresting to believe that the nature of the universe is far, far beyond grasping, not only by oneself as an individual but by oneself as a member of the species, but emotionally, or poetically, it seems to me vastly more exciting and more beautiful than any amount of ingenuity in making up fairy stories.’ To Athill, atheism has integrity too, including when it comes to the prospect of death: ‘not exactly comforting, but acceptable because true…and it also remains when I contemplate my own extinction.’ Despite her refutation of religiosity, she does believe a single human life has cosmic signficance, because because every individual makes some kind of contribution or leaves a trace on the world, however minor.
Somewhere Towards The End meanders and digresses, and my attention occasionally wandered. However, the gentle rhythm of her prose, and her intimate, gently contemplative tone, make you feel like you’re in a relaxed, fascinating conversation with a friend, whereby digressions are par for the course. Athill’s famous for her memoirs, and this one, to me, exemplifies a particular type of really good writing; honest, fearless, and bare of affectation.