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.
In the first case Freud was still relatively young, 44, when her father brought young Dora (Ida Bauer) to him. Freud at that point in his life and career was filled with what Peter Gay calls “The rage to cure,” telling the 17-year-old girl that she must be in love with Herr K., who is the husband of Ida’s father’s mistress.
By the time Sergei Pakejeff, an immensely rich Russian, comes staggering in to Freud, with his dream of the white wolves in the walnut tree, Freud has learned both much patience and skill and perhaps above all to hold his tongue, though his basic theories have not changed that much at all.
Still what strikes me now is how little one does change with age, how one's desires remain the same. Of course, the body has changed and conversation as one ages often centers on that, becoming what my father-in-law calls an “organ recital,” the sufferings of the back, the legs, the loss of hearing and sight, memory. Still, there remains the essential appetite for life it seems to me: the enjoyment of some of the basic things of life is still there: food, pleasure in nature, love. Vanity and ambition, do not diminish, and the curiosity to discover what is at the heart of the human condition remains.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.
Becoming Jane Eyre: A Novel (Penguin Original)
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