At 60, a Comfortable Old Scarecrow

Johann Heinrich Füssli, "Teiresias"

“And I Tiresias have foresuffered all.”
T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland

I turned sixty last week (June 12) and am not sure what to make of it. I know that I am entering the retirement decade and that there are some that will want me to keep working (the Social Security Administration) and others that would like me to retire (our college’s treasurer, newly minted PhDs).  Will I be a fount of wisdom to younger colleagues?  Will I be an old fart?

When I think of wise old men, Teiresias comes to mind.  Wise though the blind seer may be, however, his advice doesn’t help others that much.  Odysseus visits him in the underworld for help with his journey, but his men ignore Teiresias’s one instruction –to avoid the grazing herds of Helios when they land on Thrinakia—and they end up dead.

At least Odysseus accords the seer respect.  Teiresias doesn’t fare so well with Sophocles’ Oedipus and Euripides’ Pentheus.  In the first play, Oedipus claims that he wants to hear what Teiresias has to say about the plague that is inflicting Thebes.  But for reasons we all know, Oedipus doesn’t really want to know.  Here’s Oedipus initially:

Teiresias, seer who comprehendest all,
Lore of the wise and hidden mysteries,
High things of heaven and low things of the earth,
Thou knowest, though thy blinded eyes see naught,
What plague infects our city; and we turn
To thee, O seer, our one defense and shield.

“The truth?!  You can’t handle the truth!” I imagine Teiresias thinking, and for the longest time he resists saying anything. Oedipus finally goads him into speaking, however, and doesn’t like what the seer has to say:

Thus then I answer: since thou hast not spared
To twit me with my blindness–thou hast eyes,
Yet see’st not in what misery thou art fallen,
Nor where thou dwellest nor with whom for mate.

Teiresias as he shows up in Euripides’ The Bacchae gets similar treatment.  He knows that Thebes must begin worshipping Dionysus, the new god who has entered the area and whose orgiastic rituals are an anathema to the uptight Pentheus.  This Teiresias is a wise old fool, a combination archetype that Carl Jung recognized, in that he is willing to dress himself in fawn skins and go dancing in the forest.  To appreciate Pentheus’s horrified reaction, I tell my students to imagine their grandfathers (or grandmothers) dressing in tight leathers, attending a rave, and smoking pot. Pentheus, absolutely sure that his way is the right way, ends up getting torn apart by his Dionysus-crazed mother.

Should I be worried that, for all his wisdom, Teiresias never seems to do anyone any good? T. S. Eliot’s Teiresias is the most passive of them all, merely watching helplessly as desire works itself out in sordid and predictable ways—as it does in an afternoon tryst, bereft of love, between a secretary and a “carbuncular” clerk—or as Eliot snobbishly describes him, “One of the low, upon whom assurance sits/As a silk hat upon a Bradford millionaire.”

So although I am accorded respect (usually in the form of being put on committees), I suspect that the best way to handle my sixties is to not take myself too seriously—to do what good I can, be tolerant of young people in all their confidence (I was that way once myself), and laugh at myself regularly.   For an image of such an individual, I turn to a W. B. Yeats’ poem where the poet is visiting a classroom (“Among School Children”).  There, he reports,

the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

When the sight of one of the girls throws him back into powerful memories, he wonders momentarily what he should do.  Share the insight, perhaps? No, it’s

Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

Yeats didn’t stop exploring and didn’t stop writing when he reached 60.  But it sounds like he did more smiling.

Added Note –

Here’s a passage contrasting the old and the young that I just remembered.  It’s in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, an amazing book for its insights into human behavior:

“Few parents act in such a manner as much to enforce their maxims by the credit of their lives. The old man trusts wholly to slow contrivance and gradual progression: the youth expects to force his way by genius, vigour, and precipitance. The old man pays regard to riches, and the youth reverences virtue. The old man deifies prudence: the youth commits himself to magnanimity and chance. The young man, who intends no ill, believes that none is intended, and therefore acts with openness and candour: but his father, having suffered the injuries of fraud, is impelled to suspect, and too often allured to practice it. Age looks with anger on the temerity of youth, and youth with contempt on the scrupulosity of age.”


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  1. Barbara
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Happy Birthday, Robin!
    And a birthday wish from “the other Dylan”…

    Forever Young

    May God bless and keep you always
    May your wishes all come true
    May you always do for others
    And let others do for you
    May you build a ladder to the stars
    And climb on every rung
    May you stay forever young
    Forever young, forever young
    May you stay forever young.

    May you grow up to be righteous
    May you grow up to be true
    May you always know the truth
    And see the lights surrounding you
    May you always be courageous
    Stand upright and be strong
    May you stay forever young
    Forever young, forever young
    May you stay forever young.

    May your hands always be busy
    May your feet always be swift
    May you have a strong foundation
    When the winds of changes shift
    May your heart always be joyful
    And may your song always be sung
    May you stay forever young
    Forever young, forever young
    May you stay forever young.

  2. Hieu
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Happy Birthday Robin! Here’s an unsolicited advice from an experienced old man… me! I do declare that you’re spiritually and mentally sound. No worries there. However, please make sure to continue to take advantage of all of the physical activities that you like, i.e., tennis and such. I found out for myself that it’s definitely not going to get better in this area… duh!

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Barbara and Hieu. Barbara, your mention of “the other Dylan” got me thinking of an old Simon and Garfunkel song about someone failing to catch the wave in the Sixties:

    He’s so unhip,
    That when you say Dylan
    He thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas
    Whoever he was.
    The man [Bob Dylan] ain’t got no culture.
    But that’s all right, now,
    Everyone loves his songs.

    What were you back then if you loved both Dylans? (Nor is Dylan Thomas exactly dry and boring. Would Bob Dylan write a song entitled “Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”?)

  4. Barbara
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Robin, we are on the same wave-length here! I plan to use the S&G song in my first year seminar (asking the students to research and identify all the cultural references…) And, as I’m an economist, more “goods” (or Dylans) are, of course, better!

  5. farida
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 4:59 am | Permalink

    Happy belated birthday!
    I enjoyed reading the lyrics of the Dylan poem. It really is about optimism and, I think, gratitude too. I love this poem because it seems imbued with an inherent peace.

    A Happy Birthday
    By Ted Kooser

    This evening, I sat by an open window
    and read till the light was gone and the book
    was no more than a part of the darkness.
    I could easily have switched on a lamp,
    but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
    to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
    with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

  6. Posted June 24, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    From one fellow Gemini (June 10th) to another, Robin: Happy Belated Birthday. Hope you had a great one. 60. Not old at all. It’s all relative. I’m 9 years older than you and there are days when I look in the mirror and think, “But inside I still feel the same as I did years ago. What’s up with that?”

  7. Robin Bates
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    I knew there was something deep we had in common, Yvette. Do you tend to see two sides to every issues? Always looking for balance? What other traits are Geminis supposed to have?

  8. Robin Bates
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Lovely poem, Farida. I think I need to start coming to you first when I am stuck for an appropriate poem. You have a knack for finding just the right one. I feel that the night is still far enough off that I’m not riding down into it yet, but was a powerful image Kooser gives us.

  9. Posted June 27, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Gemini traits, far as I know, yes – I always see two sides to every issue. Drives everyone nuts.

    We’re also supposed to be the originators, I think, of short attention span syndrome. 🙂 I have so many interests it also drives everyone nuts. Our minds race along. Esoteric is my middle name as my brother likes to say.

    I think though, our interest in artistic pursuits makes up for a lot. We are not the easiest to get along with, but we are, I like to think, well worth being around. 🙂

    My granddaughter is a Gemini. Can’t wait for the fun to begin.


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