Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Keeping Body and Soul Together



Body and Soul and Ageing

I have always been haunted by these lines on ageing in W.B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” (written in 1926):  “An aged man is but a paltry thing / A tattered coat upon a stick…” When I read or hear these lines expressed I conjure up pictures of scarecrows to represent old age.  I see old men walking about with legs like matchsticks in clothes that just hang off the body.  This is not a pleasant image to ponder and I shudder at the thought of ending up so decrepit.

However, to give Yeats his due he does add a balancing clause namely “unless / Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ For every tatter in its mortal dress…”  This second clause is very important because it balances the first.  Yeats seems to suggest that unless one concentrates on the intellect of soul and by doing so seek to escape from the constraints of the human body one can in no way cope with ageing. Consequently he has resolved to attempt a metaphorical voyage-: “I have sailed the seas and come /To the holy city of Byzantium.”

I realize that this is a poem, and that as such it can in no definitive and exhaustive way discuss the reality of ageing.  In short it is not a specialist article on ageing.  However, we do not all have the wherewithal of a middle class poet and senator to chase after the beauty of art in Byzantium.  Yeats’ poem is for me very ageist – I suppose that’s the way things were in 1926 Ireland.  Old age does have many redeeming features beyond those dreamt of by Yeats in this poem, such as wisdom gained from experience, greater knowledge, a broader mind (hopefully), patience, equanimity, shortcuts in doing complex tasks etc.  Nor are things as depressing as Yeats seems to suggest.  No modern psychologist would “put all his eggs in the one basket” of art – namely that only in art can we somehow get beyond the inevitable breakdown of the body.

In a way, we in the West are inheritors of that bad and forbidding philosophy which took off with St Augustine (354-430 A.D.), namely that the body and its desires are evil, while the things of the spirit are wholly good.  Augustine himself had been a Manichee, a member of a sect that believed in two principles of creation – Good and Evil – two strong beings or realities in themselves that brought about our world.   (This sect was founded by Manikhaios Manes or Mani, 210-275 A.D.)Obviously Augustine spurned these beliefs when he converted to Christianity, but their hatred of the body with all its evil desires never left him.  

Then much later in the history of Western philosophy René Descartes (1596-1650) came on the scene and brought about a long accepted separation of body and mind - the mind is in the brain which is in the body or the spirit or soul lives in this body etc.  This is referred to in philosophical circles as Cartesian dualism.  We don’t even realize that we are constantly victims of this dualism in our everyday speech. I suppose ignorance is bliss!   A lot of us are unwitting dualists, unaware of the consequences of our simple beliefs.

So what has all this got to do with ageing or with Yeats?  Well obviously Yeats was both Manichean and Cartesian in his way of thinking – in separating out body and soul, and in seeing body as bad and soul (in this case art) as good.

Such separation of body and soul has led to many existential problems and to much angst-ridden moments of desperation by modern humans.   As we grow old let try to integrate both body and soul.  Let’s not see the latter as some strange inhabitant or lodger in the former.  Let’s try to return to the value of our bodies.  Let’s treat our bodies as part of the whole human being, not just an outer crust or garment.  Let’s not so over-spiritualize the soul as to make it some ethereal thing, even some ethereal no-thing.  Maybe when we meditate we realize that our body-soul is all we’ve got.  (Please note the careful use of language here – I didn’t say “our body is all we’ve got” as this is sheer materialism.  Nor did I say “Our soul is all we’ve got” which to me is complete nonsense in that it denies the body.  By body-soul I mean that whole reality both body and soul which is me now in this instant.

Finally I should like to finish with a reference to an article on geriatrics, which is inspiring. See this article on creativity and old age by a young Doctor about to specialize in geriatrics at this link http://www.tcd.ie/tsmj/2000/LateLife.html .
The picture I'm inserting at the centre top of this post is a picture of my mum who is 88 years of age and is suffering from dementia. She isn't totally demented and can recognise me and my brothers on occasion. She is happy in her own world, and can still smile at life. Maybe old age is not such a bad thing after all!

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