The Midlife Mind: Literature and the Art of Ageing
by Ben Hutchinson
Reaction Books £20
“Literature and culture can help us all as we struggle into middle age.”
This is one of Ben Hutchinson’s many questionable assertions as he picks his path over the stepping stones of those iconic works of world literature — Dante, Montagne, Shakespeare (of course), Goethe — concluding with an impressive range of modern writers on their way to joining the classics including Eliot, Beckett, WooIf, etc.
In “combing the canon of European literature for instructive precedents,” he works to help himself and, hopefully, his reader, through the crisis which, he disconcertingly assures us, strikes around 40.
He disarmingly notes that “literature is not life,” and admits the danger of “universalising the experience of reading,” moderating reader indignation by the possible, self-referential charge of “conspicuous cultural consumption,” otherwise showing off.
Enough, perhaps, of knocking an erudite book written by a professor of European literature in the most engaging style without a trace of academic stuffiness, mixing autobiography, perceptive literary criticism and a genuine examination of the shared experience of ageing.
His aim is “to undo the deadening monolithic status of ‘great works’ by resituating them within the lived experience not only of their authors, but of their readers.”
If this sounds ambitiously optimistic, given relatively few will have done more, if at all, than dipped into the 100 cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy or the 107 of Montaigne’s Essays, he leavens any element of patronising by humour.
Of the message to be drawn from Shakespeare’s tragi-comic view of passing time, he observes that “when young, we like to think of ourselves as doomed, glamorous figures such as Romeo or Juliet; when older, we perhaps see ourselves as Prospero abjuring his rough magic, or else, we sympathise with Lear’s paternal predicament.
“The reality, of course, is that we are often more batty Bottom than romantic Romeo, more long-winded Polonius than austere Lear.”
Hutchinson communicates with the skill of a good teacher by punctuating his lecture with personal reminiscences, such as his awakening to the power of literature as a student when he saw a critic compare Paranoid Android, the lead single on rock band’s Radiohead’s OK Computer album with TS Eliot’s The Waste Land.
The book’s strength lies in its author winningly recognising the weaknesses that arise from universalising his argument, drawn principally from male literary sources.
In the chapter, How to Survive the Menopause, he recognises that whereas for men the changes that come with an awareness of middle age are owing to individuals’ psychology, for women the impact is essentially biological.
Here he turns to Simone de Beauvoir and her iconic feminist clarion call, The Second Sex.
He also accepts that our cultural responses to middle ageing is a part of the Western world’s “modern obsession” with self-identity and, implicitly, that for very many in our world there is the much more critical crisis of daily survival.
Certainly “art can shape experience” but maybe not as fundamentally as hunger.