"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Harvey Stang Reaches His Sexual Pull-By Date–The Scary Prospect Of Old Age And Empty Shelves

Harvey Stang had led a good life, one with few regrets, many adventures, and no tragedies.  He had traveled far and often, had his share of lovers, and was fortunate enough to keep a reasonable marriage intact through it all; but now, in late middle age – or, although he could not admit it, early old age – he found he did indeed have regrets. “Granted, she's not my first love. Granted, she's not my great love. But she is sure as hell my last love. Doesn't that count for something?”, says Coleman Silk in the Phillip Roth movie adaptation of The Human Stain, a line that resonated with Harvey Stang because his last love was ten years past and fading.

At least he assumed it was his last love.  He had not lost his virility and in principle could find another woman like Berthe, but ‘in principle’ counted for very little at his age, well past the sexual pull-by date for women who, unless they were either desperate or lonely, would rather someone of potential not past.  Of course there was companionship; but sharing music and ideas was not quite what he had in mind.  God’s ultimate irony was creating men whose sexual ability faded long before their sexual desire.  Men think about sex until their dying day, alte kockers turn their heads whenever a beautiful woman walks by. The stories they tell are not about culture or food but about beauty and allure.

Why should Mark Antony – in his early 50s at the time of this love affair with Cleopatra (old certainly for Rome of 41 BC but also for Shakespeare’s England) – behave any different than older men in general?  Antony’s colleagues, Philo and Demetrius, talk of his “dotage” in the first line of the play.  Octavius refers to him as the “old ruffian”. Enobarbus calls him an “old lion”. Yet Cleopatra seems not to have aged at all since they met ten years before; but only added to her youthful beauty and sexuality. Therefore, not only was Antony the lover of a beautiful younger woman, but one who could, at the end of this life satisfy all his life’s fantasies, and desires – all of which become more important when the reality of them is only a thing of the past.

Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets are written about the older poet’s love for a youth many years his junior.  Like Shakespeare, most older men who have had a much younger lover understand how it is unique, special, and transformative. An older man can never return to love with a woman his own age without thinking of age, aging, and death itself.  No matter how much they may love their partner of decades, they can only see old age and the tiredness in her eyes.  The terrible paradox of love with a younger woman is that while the affair lasts, a man is young again; and when it is over he feelsfar older than he really is.

Older men wonder who belongs to the face in the mirror.  Our interior selves are no different than they ever were, they say, but when they see a face “Beated and chopp'd with tann'd antiquity” (Sonnet 62) they turn away. When men love a much younger woman, they do not see that old face in the mirror but a youthful one.  The suspension of disbelief is complete.

Berthe Swanson was a young woman many years Harvey’s junior, a woman he would have paid no attention to had it not been for his age.  The fact that she found him attractive was unexpected and surprising.  He had just turned the corner, convinced that his youthful days were finally and once and for all over, and ready to settle down to family, grandchildren, and the chaise longue, when she appeared, an early Christmas present just when he was about to give up on surprises.  He never asked why she was attracted to him or why she fell in love with him, but was thankful that she never resented the eventual breakup, his predictable return to hearth and home, and five spent years of her life.  He had been lucky – she was a complaisant, tolerant lover; and there was no mad, jealous Lester Farley in the wings.

Sex was brilliant thanks to Viagra, Harvey’s long sexual history and infinite patience (who wouldn’t prolong the delight of a Christmas gift?), and her years of unsatisfactory sexual relationships.  They were insatiable, compatible, and happy.

For years after their breakup, Harvey was convinced that he would find another Berthe.  After all, if she had loved him, there must be many other women who would; but none appeared.  While divorced, older women showed some interest theirs was an age where intellectual, social, and economic compatibility mattered more than sex, and Harvey was indifferent to their approaches. After the surprising gift of a May-December affair, intellectual friendship would be a sad and sorry second.  No, he would rather wait, look, and listen for the cues that might lead to another Berthe.

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As the years passed with no luck, Harvey knew that this particular delight was kaput, bitti, fini.  He, like most men his age, would daydream about sex all day long but would be trapped in aging, incapable bodies of no interest to anyone.   There was no way to shake free from these fantasies. To  be honest they were his way of keeping even the vainest hope alive and well.  Without these daydreams a settled life devoid of any of the enthusiasm, adventure, and romance would the only reality.  A patient, dreary, unnoticeable life. 

Surprisingly his colleagues seemed to manage well.  A long marriage was a thing if not of beauty than one of credit.  Grandchildren were an extension of this credit, raising worth to at least the rating of most other husbands. Accumulated wealth meant vacations, a new car every four years, and eating out.  There was time for neglected interests – language, books, history – but these filled not satisfied the loss of adventure.  They shortened long days, gave them something worthwhile to do, kept their minds occupied, not morbid.

These friends must be hiding something, Harvey concluded.  They couldn’t be that different from him.  They could not have been less adventurous in their youth nor less trapped by it in old age than he.   Their demurral must reflect an attempt to keep the lid on these disturbing memories not because they never happened.  Yet they were all by and large settled, accommodated, and happy enough stringing out their days rather than making something of them.  There had to be some worth in defiance – a refusal to accept a familiarly patterned old age even if it was unlikely – or was he simply stubborn and as ignorant as Tolstoy’s terminally ill Ivan Ilyich who refuses to accept the inevitable until it is too late?  All Ilyich’s well-constructed firewalls were for naught.  Weren’t his?

There is no good ending to the story.  Either Harvey gives up and summers on the patio; or resists death stubbornly till the bitter end.  The first is capitulation, the second nonsense.  There seems to be no compromise, no Nietzschean will that keeps the old Ubermensch still riding above the herd.  Nietzsche was right but up to a point – very little assumed or concluded by a young man has any relevance for an old one.

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