“I'm not sure that I'd sell my shirt for any living critic. But if there had to be one, it would unquestionably be Harrison.” –Jonathan Bate, Spectator

Robert Pogue Harrison is back with his trademark mix of deep learning, broad temporal and cultural reach, and surprising insights into vast topics. This time it’s youth, both personal and societal.
An Excerpt from
A Cultural History of Our Age
by Robert Pogue Harrison

The Intriguing Phenomenon of Age

Nothing in the universe—be it the newborn infant or the universe itself—is without age. If a phenomenon does not age it is not of this world; and if it is not of this world, it is not a phenomenon.

We have on the whole a poor understanding of the essence of age, perhaps because our intellect evolved to deal more with objects in space than with the enfolded intricacies of growth, duration, and accumulation. Certainly we find it easier to spatialize time—to think of it as a linear or chronological succession of present moments—than to fathom the multidimensional, interpenetrating recesses of age. Indeed, we have a stubborn tendency to reduce age to “time,” yet what is time if not a prodigious abstraction, a flatus vocis? Only age gives time a measure of reality.

The most sophisticated philosophers think of age as a function of time, yet a careful phenomenological analysis reveals that we should instead think of time as a function of age. After all, any concept we may have of time has a way of growing old, of succumbing to an aging process. The same holds true for eternity, which shares in the general mortality of phenomena. Eternity no longer appears to us as it did to Plato, when he and his fellow Greeks turned their gaze to the stars. Nor does it appear to us as it did to Dante, when he and his fellow Christians contemplated the celestial spheres. Indeed, eternity has been largely subtracted from our ever-expanding cosmos, which we now believe had a beginning and will eventually have an end. Hence one could say that eternity has for all intents and purposes disappeared from our phenomenological horizons, that it has aged itself out of existence.

In Creative Evolution (1907) the French philosopher Henri Bergson exposed in compelling fashion traditional philosophy’s stubborn tendency to conceive of time geometrically rather than organically, yet for all his deep thinking about la durée and organic form, Bergson never put forward a philosophy of age. He offered merely another philosophy of time—one founded on biological rather than chronological paradigms. That represented a significant corrective and contribution, to be sure, yet there is more to the phenomenon of age than biology can account for, for humans are biological beings who create transbiological institutions that put cultural and historical elements into play in ways that Bergson, along with most other philosophers, leaves largely unexamined.

All living things obey an organic law of growth and decay, and in that respect human beings are no exceptions. According to the riddle of Sphinx, we walk on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and, if we live long enough, end up on three legs in the evening. Yet after he enters the city of Thebes, confident that he has solved the riddle, Oedipus discovers that there is far more to the story than that. The story in fact begins before birth and continues after death. In other words, unlike other living things, anthropos is born into humanly created worlds whose historical past and future transcend the individual’s lifespan. These worlds, which the Greeks called thepolis, are founded upon institutional and cultural memory, conferring upon their inhabitants a historical age that is altogether different in nature than biological age. Since no human being lives outside of such worlds, with their legacies and traditions, we could say that humans are by nature “heterochronic” in their age, that is, they possess many diverse kinds of ages: biological, historical, institutional, psychological. By and by we will see how these various “ages” intersect with one another—both in individuals and in civilizations—yet here let us simply note for the record that, once anthropos arrives on the scene, the phenomenon of age increases in complexity as least as much as it did when life first gained a foothold on our planet.

The one thinker from whom one would expect an explosive philosophy of age, especially as it relates to the human component, is Martin Heidegger. Heidegger thought more radically about time than any philosopher before or after him, yet he too, like the metaphysical tradition he labored to overcome, had little to say about age. Heidegger taught us that time is ostensive—that it is a kind of movement, or kinesis, that allows the phenomenon to appear and be taken up in thought and word. He also taught us that time’s disclosive dynamism has its source in Dasein’s finite temporality. Why he made no effort to link Dasein’s temporality to its age, even in the straightforward sense of the stages of life, is hard to fathom, for when it comes to Dasein’s existential determinations, age remains as fundamental as thrownness, projection, fallenness, being-unto-death, and being-with-others. Yet for some reason in Being and Time, as well as in Heidegger’s later thought, Dasein remains essentially ageless.

I find this surprising because one could say that age is to time what place is to space. Nowhere in his corpus is Heidegger more compelling than when he reveals how place, in its situated boundedness, is more primordial than space. In exemplary phenomenological fashion he shows how the scientific concept of homogeneous space derives from, or is made possible by, Dasein’s disclosure of the “there” of its own situated being. One would have expected from Heidegger a similar analysis of how age, in its existential and historical primordiality, figures as the measure, if not the source, of Dasein’s finite temporality and, with it, of the chronologically governed concept of time. Such an analysis would have given him the occasion to show that the constant finishing action of time takes place in and through the unfolding of age, day in and day out, year in and year out, era after era, epoch after epoch. Unfortunately, nowhere in his corpus does Heidegger ponder age as the boundary of finitude that allows time, in its ostensive character, to disclose the world of phenomena.

Let me briefly attempt to point out how much goes unaccounted for, phenomenologically speaking, when one fails to ground time in age, or to derive the former from the latter.

I would begin by remarking that every phenomenon has its age, or better, its ages. Why the plural? Because entities become phenomena only where they are perceived, intended, or apprehended. Hence the phenomenon brings together at least two independent yet intersecting ages: the age of the entity and the age of the apprehender. A young boy and his grandfather in an old-growth forest of the Pacific Northwest may cast their eyes on the same giant redwood, yet they do not see the same phenomenon. Because of their age difference, it appears one way to the boy, another to his elder. The sky I see today is more or less the same blue spectacle it always was, yet it’s not the same sky of old. When I was seven it was my body’s covenant with the cosmos; by twenty it became the face of an abstraction; today it’s the dome of a house I know I will not inhabit for too much longer; shortly it will be the answer to what today still remains a question.

It does no good to say that I “project” my age onto phenomena. The sky has always appeared to me as something ageless; yet its agelessness appears differently as I age. My only access to the sky, and to the world of phenomena in general, is from within my own noncelestial age. If identity means self-sameness through time, age is the latent element that introduces a differential into identity’s equation, hence into the appearance of things. To express the same thought in slightly different terms: I do not lend the phenomenon my age; rather, the phenomenon reaches me through forms of reception and perception that pertain to my age. One could speak in a more Kantian vein and say that time is not the same form of intuition in childhood as it is in adulthood, or that the imagination schematizes time differently in youth than it does in old age.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall,” where an older speaker addresses to a young girl, gives poetic expression to what I have stated more prosaically about the age differential in the phenomenon’s self-manifestation:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though world of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It was the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Although Margaret’s emotions here lack credibility—young girls do not typically shed tears over the falling of autumn leaves—the poem draws attention to two important phenomenological facts. The first is that the aging process effects changes in the phenomenon’s perception. The second is that human perception is, at some level, always a self-perception. The difference between the child and the adult in the poem is that the adult presumably knows “why” he weeps, while Margaret presumably does not. She has yet to understand that “sorrow’s springs are the same.”

That last assertion may in fact be dubious, or even downright false—sorrow’s springs are not always the same—yet the truth of Hopkins’s poem lies not in its propositional claims but in its revelation that, as the heart grows older, the same phenomenon accrues a different meaning: a meaning intimately bound up with the age of the perceiver.

The Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi also held that things appear differently to perception with age. In his pessimistic worldview, youth has a tendency to see infinite promise in the phenomena of nature. Autumn leaves, moonlight, the open sea—these are intimations of future happiness. By inviting youth to experience its beauty in the mode of promise, nature is unspeakably cruel, since that promise is and always was only an inganno, a deception. As he puts it in his poem “A Silvia”: “O natura, o natura. / Perchè non rendi poi / quel che prometti allor? Perchè di tanto / Inganni i figli tuoi?” (“O nature, o nature. Why do you not deliver on what you promised back then? Why do you deceive your children so?”). In Hopkins’s case, age reveals in time the implicit truth naively perceived in the phenomenon by a young girl; in Leopardi’s case, it reveals in time the deception that was implicit in the naïve perception of youth. Again, neither one nor the other vision need be empirically “true.” What is important—at least for our purposes—is that, unlike the history of philosophy, the history of poetry offers an abundance of phenomenological insight into the way truth reveals itself in and through the unfolding of age.

If time is disclosive of truth, as Heidegger maintained, and if truth in turn is age-bound, as I maintain, then what is absolutely true at one stage of life is at best only relatively true at another. When I first read the opening verses of T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets many years ago, I had no doubts that I had stumbled upon the timeless truth of time itself:

Time present and time past
are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
all time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
remaining a perpetual possibility
only in a world of speculation.

For a young person, Eliot’s lines about the “might have been” resound with an ominous oracular truth. It puts enormous pressure on one to take seriously Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal return of the same (i.e., that we are fated to repeat all the moments in our life over and over again, eternally), or to take Rilke at his word when he writes, in his ninth Duino Elegy, “Us the most fleeting. Once / everything, only once. Once and no more. And we, too, / once. Never again.” These theses—eternal return and the “once only”—sympathize with one another, in that both affirm that reality consummates itself in the real, and only in the real. Yet the truth of that proposition holds far more sway over a young person than an older person, if only because the former feels under a much greater imperative to realize his or her potential than does an older person, whose life, for better or worse, has already begun winding down toward a narrative conclusion, even if it has not yet reached a biological end.

While I believe that the real shines forth as the crown of the possible, I am no longer convinced, as I was when I first read Eliot’s lines, that the possible finds its redemption only in actualization. I have arrived at an age where the relation between time and reality has undergone a shift that makes me more prone to believe that the punctuality of our lived moments are like sparks arising from, and returning to, that indeterminate source that the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander called the apeiron, the unbounded matrix. This apeiron is not nothingness. Nor is it an “abstraction remaining a perpetual possibility only in a world of speculation.” Its overbearing potentiality penetrates the phenomenon and gives it depth, density, and opacity, suffusing it with a recessive latency of unrealized potential. I could put the same thought differently by saying that this vast ocean of potentiality on which actuality drifts like a single glass wave gives buoyancy and depth to our experience of the real.

There are further complexities at work in the human inflections of age. If I say I am sixty years old, what exactly does that mean? What or who is this I? Is it a body, a mind, a soul, or an aggregate of the three? Even if, for the sake of argument, we call it only a body, we are still not dealing with a simple sum. My body is at once sixty years old and several billion years old, since all of its atoms originated a few seconds after the Big Bang, hence are as old as the universe itself. Moreover, a body does not age uniformly in all its parts. The age of a weak heart is not that of a sound kidney. One may turn old in one part of the body and stay young in another over the course of years. As John Banville’s protagonist remarks about his Italian neighbors in the novel Shroud: “They age from the top down, for these are still the legs … they must have had in their twenties or even earlier” (3–4). In sum, the body too is heterochronic.

My body contains a brain. Is my brain the same age as my mind? Surely not, for unlike the brain, my mind is linked by affiliation and inheritance to other minds, both past and present. In Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter” we read, “My mind, because the minds that I have loved, / The sort of beauty that I have approved, / Prosper but little, has dried up of late …” Like Yeats, I have loved minds as old as Anaximander and Plato. That makes my mind, whose thought is informed by theirs, over two thousand years old. Whether that makes it older or younger than my brain is anybody’s guess.

As for my soul—or what used to be called the soul, before it curled up and disappeared from the scene of history—I am at least as old as Moses, Homer, and Dante, whose legacies form part of my psychic selfhood. And if I am ever reduced to searching the depths of my unconscious, I will most likely find that I am also as old as the archetypes of prehistoric myth.

The year is 2014. Do I—or this composite that attaches to my first-person singular—belong to my historical age? Certainly there is more nineteenth century than twenty-first century in my temperament; more celestial spheres than general relativity in my projected universe; more ancient Athens than World Wide Web in my cultural geography. Conversely, when I consider how mired Western civilization still is in the swamps of atavisms, how snail-slow we still are in our efforts to get beyond the follies of the past and realize the promise of modernity, then I feel that historically I am not yet born, that I am sixty minus a century or two. Yet for all this untimeliness, I cannot deny that I am also a child of my age, for I cannot fully belong to a world that does not include the likes of Radiohead.

To say that age is “relative” is to understate and even misstate the issue. Certainly one’s lived experience of age is relative to one’s race, class, gender, culture, nation, and education. In certain societies, a fifteen-year-old boy can hardly imagine what it means to be a fifteen-year-old girl in that same society, or what it means to be a boy of his age in a very different society. Beyond these special relativities, however, there is a more general relativity, whereby being fifteen years old means something altogether different at the dawn of the third millennium than it did at the dawn of the second or first millennium, to say nothing of prehistory. Yet be it special or general, relativity in its basic concept can only take us so far when it comes to the complex manifold that constitutes a person’s true age. I mean the manifold of body, mind, and soul, each of which has an enfolded dynamic of its own. The concept of relativity does as much to obscure as to clarify the bewildering nexus that keeps this manifold mysteriously united in a single person, even as it remains in a state of constant flux, unfolding its unity in what we call—vaguely enough—time.

The human nexus in question remains bound to a first-person singular, and that first-person singular remains bound to a given historical era (history funnels itself through the first-person singular, one could say). Historical eras, in turn, unfold within a larger framework of what have traditionally been called cultural ages. The ancients, for example, spoke of a golden age, a silver age, a bronze age, and so forth. Giambattista Vico spoke of the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men. Later in this book, with Vico’s help, we will see that the phenomenon’s appearance is conditioned by a society’s cultural age as much as it is conditioned by an individual’s existential age; in other words, the changes that a society’s cultural mentality undergoes in historical time play a formative role in how the phenomenon reveals itself to those who share in that mentality. All of which confirms my contention that what is true at one stage of life, or at one stage of history, is at best only partially true at another—in sum, that truth has its age, or better, its ages.


Robert Pogue Harrison
© 2014,
Paper $17.00 ISBN: 9780226381961 Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 9780226171999 E-book $17.00 ISBN: 9780226172040

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