Not Oprah’s Book Club: Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing

Out of Time book coverAt conferences, colloquia, open meetings, we’ve seen them: older, intent, perhaps a bit disappointed, perhaps exhausted from years of movement work of which we are not aware because we do not ask, but often eager, often a bit giddy, it seems, to be there, as if granted unexpected permission.  These, our feminist forebears, perhaps even expressing their gratitude for the intergenerational dialog that’s happened this evening—hear the implied finally. Or maybe they have been our teachers, our editors, or even (lucky us) our employers; too rarely are they our peers, our collaborators, our friends.

Wherever we meet them, as young feminists we don’t often do a good enough job of thanking them, of appreciating their work openly and earnestly without overlooking its failures—which is to say, we don’t often do a good enough job engaging them as contemporaries. Though their past work may have sometimes been exclusionary or insufficient, they have built the movement we live and work in, and they continue to live in it with us. But we do not always permit them to share our present. Lynne Segal’s new book is a welcome reminder that we neglect them to our own detriment and at our own peril.

The arrogant inattention of the young is but one of the indignities, and mutually enlivening intergenerational exchange but one of the joys, taken up by Segal in Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing (Verso, $26.95).  This ambitious yet intimate book rallies against the maligning of the elderly in both activist communities and society at large—how little we know about their experience, and how little we’ve cared!—and in so doing, Segal provides urgent insights into how desire, kinship, self-esteem, and political commitment evolve (and, essentially, need not wane) over time. 

Segal takes for granted that identity is a slippery fiction, made up of numerous selves accumulated through time, “rendering us psychically, in one sense, all ages and no age,” and her appreciation for this “temporal vertigo” makes her exceptionally articulate about the ways in which desire can change and open up late in life, even in a culture that only sanctions it in the young and able bodied.  Old age, according to Segal, is a fraught but often fruitful phase for all who reach it, though the perils certainly loom larger for women. Vitally, Segal combats the desexualization and vilification of aging women—“few adjectives combine faster than ugly-old-woman”—expanding our understanding of how sexism functions across a lifetime.  It is heartening to hear her credit feminism with helping women of all ages feel affirmed in their affection for each other, and she repeatedly shows how ageism and sexism conspire together against these bonds. Though she has plenty to say about men as well, Segal sheds much needed light on both the gendering of infirmity and the particular forms of sexism faced by aging women in contemporary society.

Segal primarily confines her study to the US and the UK, and her indignation at the scapegoating of her generation for the economic mess of British and American neoliberalism—pensions, health care, free love, and feminism all being metonymic in the eyes of conservative pundits for the same selfish short-sightedness, of course—is one of the book’s boldest and most rousing threads. When the elderly aren’t being maligned as unproductive drains by the cultists of neoliberal self-sufficiency, they are being cajoled into an insistent but tenuous denial that growing old need entail any dependence at all.  This catch 22 has produced a literature on aging dominated by either unqualified lamentation or celebration, but Segal navigates the twin compulsions to “stories of progress and stories of decline” deftly, resisting both denial and defeatism even as she explores them in the writing of others.

Formally, Out of Time is a bit of an unruly book, shifting easily and without compunction between psychoanalysis, sociology, literary criticism, and memoir.  There is little of autobiography’s confession or disclosure, though Segal is open and self-reflective, always speaking as herself. Segal insists that the sources she draws upon are invoked not for their authority or cohesiveness but because they have mattered to her, subtly and unobtrusively reminding us that this account, however much citational scaffolding she may erect around it, is primarily her own.  And thanks to Elaine Showalter’s introduction, we know a bit about who she is from the start:  Born and educated in Australia, Segal moved to London in 1970 and immediately immersed herself in leftist activism, living in a communal household and helping to establish the Islington Women’s Centre.  She is currently Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Birkbeck College and has written numerous books on feminism, masculinity, sexuality, and her life as an activist.

Though Showalter effectively situates Segal for us, in her own writing Segal does the politically responsible work of declaring her positionality not through signposting or biographical detail but by delivering every assertion in her own distinctive voice: precise, though prone to rhetorical flourishes and winding chains of clauses; generous whenever she can be, but authoritative in her objections; and thankfully, sometimes witty, even a bit snarky.  “How old am I?” the first chapter begins. “Don’t ask; don’t tell.  The question frightens me.  It is maddening, all the more so for those like me, feminists on the left, approaching our sixth or seventh decade, who like to feel we have spent much of our time trying to combat prejudice on all sides.”

“[F]or those like me” is a telling phrase.  Though Segal acknowledges that the experiences of the aged vary across lines of class (and, occasionally, race), she tends to sneak such concessions into subordinate clauses before continuing on to treat aging as a complex and multifaceted but fundamentally isolable, universal phenomenon.  Over and over again I found myself asking how the psychological effects that Segal identifies might shift or amend themselves across the many variables that constitute a person and a life.  “[I]n this book I plan to skim lightly over both the many depredations of the flesh as well as its potential renewals, to look more closely at the psychology and politics of ageing,” Segal disclaims, but to what extent can these two truly be disentangled?  What of those for whom the flesh and its depredations are not negligible—materially, psychologically, or politically? How, for example, does financial precarity affect the experience of dependence in old age for people living in poverty, without healthcare?  What are the unique anxieties, pressures, fears, and joys of those growing old in a body that has never been deemed “well” or “fit”?  How are differently positioned women uniquely impacted by the narratives and stereotypes—hag, witch, medusa—that Segal outlines?  How likely is it that “psychology and politics” hold constant across these variables?

These questions are not mere qualifiers; they are essential and defining.  Segal’s professed interest in psychology should not exempt her from the objection that health, economic inequality, and racism absolutely shape how individuals perceive, think, and feel in the world. Of course, though I believe that these questions can and must be answered, they could not (and need not) have all been addressed by Segal.  But at the very least, the difficult work of attending to these disparate experiences must be acknowledged as a collective imperative and admitted to be beyond the scope of the book in hand.  It is fair to ask that others take that work up in your wake, but not to ignore that it needs doing.

If I sound frustrated, my frustration is a testament to Segal’s capabilities as a reader and writer.  I would have loved to see her wrestle with these issues precisely because she is sharp and convincing in most of what she does tackle. Out of Time covers a lot of ground for one book, but as a guide Segal rarely breaks a sweat. And rather than confine herself to writers whose work she has been reading for decades—Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, Phillip Roth, and John Updike all make repeat appearances—late in her book Segal ventures beyond her reserve of older literary sources to engage more recent queer theory and activism.  Though I take issue with her characterizations of certain queer challenges to monogamy and the family (challenges in which I am deeply invested), she does make some welcome interventions on behalf of stability, emotional dependence, and mutual responsibility within all relationships, sexual or otherwise.

Near her book’s end Segal wonders whether “the political can remain a way of guiding one’s life to the end,” but she has already by this point proven such lasting commitment to be not only possible but urgently necessary, both for the aging activist and for the movements to which she contributes.  We have much to treasure in Segal as a persistent writer and ally, even as we ask more of her, as we do all of our allies.  She repeatedly elevates Adrienne Rich as a model for aging radicals, and though Segal might benefit from a larger dose of Rich’s tireless self-interrogation—indeed, Rich’s warning against “one period’s necessary strategies [mutating] into the monsters of another time” could easily be applied to Segal’s alienating invocations of an inherently strong mother-daughter bond or her uncritical acceptance of the gender binary—perhaps the most pressing lesson that we can learn from both Rich and Segal is their tenacity in the face of apparent backsliding and defeat.

Segal sees the present as a moment of “widespread political pessimism, continuing injustices and distance from the world many of us, and certainly I, once hoped for,” and it’s a hard characterization to argue with, certainly.  But it’s also a time of dauntless activism in new (often virtual) spaces across new coalitions, a time of baffling creativity and the occasional rousing victory. Maybe with a bit more intergenerational exchange Segal will come to see it as such and join us on the new front lines.  Encouragingly, she refers to feminism as a “durable lifeboat for many women of the left.”  I hope that this remains true.  With Segal’s help, perhaps we can make it so.

Samuel Huber is a writer and activist living in New York City

Brooklyn, NY

Sam Huber is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, NY.

Writer, editor, queer.

Read more about Sam

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  • http://feministing.com/members/valeria/ valeria

    Hello. The article is worth reading. Thanx for penning, Sam. I have decided to present this book to my mother.