I remember my ex mother-in-law, who was on holiday with us in Italy, sitting in a restaurant and watching as a young girl came through the door. My mother-in-law, who must have been in her early sixties, a slim, attractive Southerner, stared at her and said to us, “That girl looks beautiful to me.”
I protested and said, “But she’s ugly! Or anyway quite plain.” A plump girl, she seemed to me, with small blue eyes and mousy hair.
“It’s just that she’s young. She looks so clean to me. Somehow her youth makes her beautiful,” my mother-in-law said. I had no idea what she was talking about, being 23 myself.
Certainly, I now know what she means, watching young runners pass me by in the park with their strong bodies, smooth skin, and elastic step. With age one learns the value of what one might have taken for granted in youth: a dewy complexion, a strong back, lack of pain in the body, or what the French call “le silence des organs,” the silence of the organs. With age one loses certain illusions, becomes more aware of the value the world puts on things one might have thought of as superficial in youth: appearances, clothes, money, power.
It is interesting to compare Freud’s five case histories written over a 14-year span from the first one, the Dora case, written in 1901 though not published until 1905, to the last famous case, the Wolfman, which was written in 1914, a hundred years ago, though not published until 1918 because of the first world war.