It is impossible to pass through life in a university without hearing someone complain about aging. Almost every time someone announces their birthday it comes with a sigh and a disenchanted remark about the passage of time. Judging by the students’ expressions and words, you would think they had just been at a syndicated American political debate, a Russian herring cannery, or a late-night strip club in Paterson, New Jersey; not the comfortable streets of Amsterdam, full of people offering congratulations. Indeed, their reaction is the exact opposite of the elation, happiness, pride and expectation birthdays offered in their earlier days: they feel fear, dread, discontent and pain, as well as annoyance, exasperation and irritation. And the strange thing is that this abstract feeling seems to come with a definitive timestamp: the age of 30.
Last I heard of that age, I was attempting to obtain carnal knowledge from a masters student at Christmas drinks. When she learned I was 20 she patted me on the head instead and told me to enjoy being young as long as possible. Perhaps in 5 years, I will also be patting people on the head and telling them to enjoy being young — for though 25 is young by almost any standard, it is was not to her. “God,” she exclaimed to her friend, “I am almost 30 already!” I thought then of conversations I had with friends in high school, who seemed unable to decide what to do with their life after the same, specific age: thirty for them was a dreaded point, designating officially being “old”, “responsible” – “boring”. To them it automatically came with a respectable family, a comfortable but dull home in the suburbs of Zaltbommel or Apeldoorn, the early stages of a mid-life crisis, and the final blow to their fast deteriorating sense of childish whimsy. As the British essayist Charles Lamb noted, “the young man till thirty, never feels practically that he is mortal.”
Nevertheless, the first time I became so acutely aware of this pain was not with my friends: it was when I started reading Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American transcendentalist. Emerson, who was nothing if not an optimist, once penned a sentence that made my hours lose their clock for the following days: “After thirty, a man wakes up sad every morning excepting perhaps five or six until the day of his death.” Yet this is far from isolated: the traces of that thought are found all throughout the world and its literature. “I have seen many happy young couples,” noted F. Scott Fitzgerald, “–but I have seldom seen a happy home after husband and wife are thirty.” Fitzgerald surmised his own life too with reasonable accuracy: “Drunk at 20, wrecked at 30, dead at 40.” Matthew Arnold, the British essayist and poet, declared simply “I am past thirty and three parts iced over.”
Perhaps, I began to surmise, Shelley, Byron and Keats were lucky with their early demise – after all, Wordsworth and Southey lived on only to betray their political beliefs, and make enemies of their oldest friends. William Hazlitt was among them, and he never forgave them for their “apostasy”, which happened right around their thirtieth age. It was around that time too, that Hazlitt described writing the last article which gave him “any pleasure”:
‘It was a fine sunny morning, in the end of autumn, and as I repeated the beautiful song, ‘Life knows no return of Spring,’ I meditated my next day’s criticism, trying to do all the justice I could to so inviting a subject. I was not a little proud of it by anticipation. I had just then begun to stammer out my sentiments on paper, and was in a kind of honeymoon of authorship. But soon after, my final hopes of happiness and of human liberty were blighted nearly at the same time; and since then I have had no pleasure in anything –
And Love himself can flatter me no more.
It was not so ten years since (ten short years since. — Ah! how fast those years run that hurry us away from our last fond dream of bliss!)’
While Hazlitt’s “final hopes of happiness and of human liberty” were extinguished forever, another mutual friend of the Romantic poets, Leigh Hunt, was having a similar experience. Hunt’s most recent biographer, Nicholas Roe, ends his biography with the passing of Shelley, Hunt’s closest friend. Roe’s book essentially illustrates that in a symbolic sense Hunt did die then, and so Roe names his biography “The First life of Leigh Hunt”: though he lived on it was only with “the wreck of his hopes”, in a far diminished second life. Meanwhile their old friend (and by now sworn enemy) Coleridge found it almost impossible to write anymore poetry, and became a figure of caricature and ridicule until his anticlimactic death.
Contemplation of mortality and “achievements” have traditionally taken place at the age of 33, when Jesus Christ is supposed to have passed away. The thirties are also a time when people infamously move away from their youthful, radical politics and turn more conservative. (Robert Frost humorously acknowledged this: “I never dared to be radical when young / For fear it would make me conservative when old.”) Desmoulins, the great French revolutionary, combined the two: when asked his age two days before being guillotined, he stated “I am thiry-three — the age of the good sans-culotte Jesus; an age fatal to revolutionists.” His martyrdom came only as planned.
And yet for all those stories, there are so many ones demonstrating the opposite. Goethe, in his old age, found what he called a “renewed puberty”, and wrote the West-Östlicher Divan, a groundbreaking volume of poetry, before falling in love with a 17-year-old at age 72. His final conversations, recorded by Eckermann, are testament to his lasting power and humanity, even if his partner in crime Schiller had died so long before. Meanwhile certain writers and politicians, like William Gladstone and Bertrand Russel, became increasingly radical with age, and only found more energy and vitriol to espouse their views with. Henry Miller, at 33, decided it was time to start his life’s work, and proceeded to shock the literary establishment.
Personally, I always think of Anton Bruckner when people complain about their age. Bruckner, the German composer, continued studying until 40, and the first work he ever deemed worthy of performance was his first symphony, finished at age 42. Then he wrote eight of the finest symphonies in the entire repertoire. And though we will never write a symphony like Bruckner’s 9th, hopefully we too can continue our work well into the decades, perhaps with vigor left, and have our eyes sparkle well into our last feeble eyesight.