Mind, body and age

ONE THE DAY of my birth, Boxing Day, 1921, something seemed wrong in the small rented brick house in the lower-middle-class Sydney suburb of Kogarah. In the real-life nativity scene in the main bedroom, the doctor, the midwife, my grandmother and my mother were witnessing a "complication" while my father, in the kitchen, decently out of sight of his wife's vulva, dabbed his tears with a tea towel at the threatened still birth of his first child. Instead, with the cry of life, I became the sixth person in the brick cottage.

I "remember" this medical event clearly because the story was told so often as part of the family saga and because later I was to see so many similar scenes in movies ... the water boiling on the stove ... the baby giving its first cry ... the grandmother coming out and announcing, "It's a boy!"

From early in my life there were to be other memories, real ones that also kept in my mind the idea of the body, overall, as a medical matter; it may have been the main way I thought about it, when I thought about it at all. There I was, vomiting at the age of three into a kidney bowl held by my mother beside the bed in the hospital where our GP, in one of the initiation rites of the time, had just surgically trimmed my adenoids and tonsils. (And, in a way, it was also "medical" when my father would stand outside our lavatory checking whether I had "done a pooh".) At the age of four, wheezing with croup, I inhaled moist, warm air from a large pudding bowl. At the age of five I was carried into a cottage hospital with "congestion of the lungs" and placed in a setting of scrubbed lino floors, white-painted walls and shining steel. From time to time there was the special experience of a doctor coming to our house (an event that provided for many Australians their main relationship with the upper middle class). He came mainly for flu or bronchitis, illnesses that brought the comforting lassitude and remoteness of a fever in the ambit of a mother's care, but also for extras: measles that gave us red spots to count, whooping cough that sent me rushing, hooting like an uncontrolled engine, to one of the tin pans put out at strategic places for sudden spewing. At the age of 12, there I was in a hospital again (so that they could put together an arm broken when some school friends pushed me out of a window) counting out loud as they "administered the anaesthetic" and waking to the sound of people, miles away, mumbling a conversation that seemed to last for years, with immediately around me the warm, bakehouse smell of the fresh plaster bandage I would wear in a sling for six weeks, as if I were a wounded hero.

Adolescence seemed a special kind of medical condition but one for which there was no recommended treatment, even though it drew such complex attentions to both body and mind: in the changes in what the body looked like on the outside and in what it was now capable of and demanded to do; and in the mind, such cravings for new meanings, a new world to fit into, that were so intense that they themselves seemed a bodily change, producing such continuing eruptions that, as an undergraduate several years later, I was presented, in varying degrees of exasperation, as Sydney University's enfant terrible. And, at the age of 20, I was in hospital again, recovering from concussion: as I was travelling in the back of an army truck, my head had hit a tree branch. This provided a good medical score – fractured eye socket, ripped eyelid, eye swollen in purple and yellow, nose spread across a pierced cheek, teeth broken, flatness in the nerves working the pink mess of my lower lip. I would stare at myself in a shaving mirror and write to friends joking that at least this was not "psychosomatic", a word I had learned a couple of years before at an undergraduate party.


PEOPLE OF MY age can look back at a time when bodies, as part of the public spectacle, weren't seen as they are now. Then, it was intimations of the dangers of the body that were imprinted on the mind: in ads for patent medicines; in posters on railway stations listing precautions against drowning; in fading placards warning against the unhygienic habit of "expectoration"; in the horror pages on the sufferings of syphilis, leprosy and masturbation in books such as the four-volume Household Physician we had at home; and in the lectures of my grandfather, who had run away for a while to be a lad in a drovers' gang. His lectures specialised in remedies for the bites of venomous spiders and snakes, especially the death adders that lay around on bush tracks looking like dried sticks. I am still likely to keep an eye out for suspicious sticks on a suburban nature strip.

Then, there were no significant cults of "the perfect body", a body that could overcome the imperfections that God or natural selection had worked into it. That was an ambition unimaginable until the discovery of antibiotics and then the development of bio-engineering, cosmetic surgery and now genetic engineering. For women, there were ideals of facial beauty in the face-cream ads and, for men, ideals of the authentically Aussie face, exemplified in the aviator Kingsford Smith ("Smithy"), but as for "a perfect body" – the full works – if it meant anything more than approximating to the proportions of a classical statue, for men it meant having biceps as big as Chesty Bond's, perhaps obtained after answering a "Be Strong" ad for a home exerciser or spending time at some (usually scungy) gym. Women were not expected to "be strong": the proper physical function for female bodies was motherhood (exemplified in the ample, motherly bosom), although "uplift" and "cleavage" began to come in during the Second World War. Some of the realities of bodies were to be seen on beaches but with so much fatness and skinniness spread out to dry on the sand there wasn't much in the way of classical perfection – except in the ideal of the lifesavers, the "bronzed Anzacs", whose bodies and minds were being prepared, it was believed, for "the next war".

Much of the body was not seen at all. Even in re-tellings of my birth, there is no clear reminder of a body. Now, any child in front of a television set is likely to see a baby's head emerge from between a mother's thighs but it wasn't until my late boyhood that I saw a grown woman's navel – on the midriff of a dancer undulating on the platform outside a travelling tent show in a country town. If there was any broad body-belief, it was that bodies with black, brown or yellow skins denoted cultural and moral inferiority, but nothing could be done about them. Among the rest of us, the striving (if there was any) was not in the attainment of a perfect body but in keeping moderately healthy (a different matter), with occasional interest in what to eat (both fruit and breakfast cereals were "coming in") and with getting plenty of fresh air (sleeping on verandas in summer time was healthy and hiking had come "in" as a minority enthusiasm). The heroic pioneering public health reforms of water supply, drainage and sanitation had been achieved and personal cleanliness was now getting a run. Campaigns from the soap companies enticed people to wash their underwear more regularly ("the change-daily habit") and wash under their arms and, by inference, between their legs, although for most people one bath a week was still enough body-washing. Bodies might not be expected to be perfect but, increasingly, they were expected not to smell.


"THE MEDICAL" IS just one of the ways we can feelJUST ONE OF THE WAYS WE CAN FEEL some connection with all the muscles, bones, nerves, streaks of fat, gristle, vital organs, skin and lumps of flesh that make up the body. We can have a sense of the body "as a whole", but in limited ways: mainly in its satisfaction of bodily appetites, in particular, in co-operative sexual activity or in physical exchanges of affection – touching, stroking, hugging; or simply in feeling a glow of health or feeling hungry or feeling the heat or the cold; or in sociability when we come together, with all these other bodies, in a reconciliation march or at a grand final (confrontation is one of the ways bodies work); or in dancing; or in companionship and friendship; or, sadly, in occasions such as the Nazi rallies when good was found in sound Aryan bodies and evil in the filthy bodies of the degenerate races. Paradoxically, we can also have a feeling for our bodies in solitude. But while the body "speaks" in appetites and feelings it becomes urgently real to the mind when it is identified by a part that goes wrong. That is what the body is made up of – parts. The parts that went wrong for me at first were lungs, skull, nose, arm, eyes. Decades later, heart, larynx, colon, the right retina, the spine and then lungs again, this time in a complex and continuing form – a stiffening among the alveoli, the 300,000 microscopic sacs that are the body's oxygen-carbon dioxide interchanges, essential for life. My lungs are now the principal most continuous reminder of my body. Through the doctor's stethoscope I can hear their distinctive crackle. When I have the flu I may hear them squeak, rustle, gurgle. I sometimes imagine the alveoli as fields of man-eating flowers, parodying Wordsworth's Daffodils, crackling and dancing in the breeze.

At the end of last year my temperature went up and my body was taken over for more than a week by a kind of volcanic coughing in what seemed, later, in memory, to be the product of bronchial landslips and spoutings of grey mud – irresistible, apparently, but I would cough on, trying to master this upheaval and get to its depths and, for a while, it would seem tamed. During one night of coughing there was a sharp pain and the next day about 150 square centimetres of purplish bruise around my navel and, to the doctor's fingers, "a palpable mass" down there on the right-hand side. A CAT scan showed how all that coughing had burst a blood vessel in the muscle beside the right lung. Spent blood widened out through the tissues of my right thigh, around my right buttock and up through the tissues of my lower right back and, for a while, covered more than 600 square centimetres of my flesh. I kept on looking at the result in a mirror and showed it to selected visitors. It became like a complex tattoo. My thigh was striped black, yellow and red. My buttock gleamed black. My lower back whorled in scarlet and black. My body had made another declaration.

* * *

In the 1930s, an Australian surf carnival made much the same assertions about body and nation as Leni Riefenstahl's Olympiad. As well as its physical reality, "body" is an idea and "perfect body" can become a very influential idea. But, unlike 1930s surf lifesavers, the joggers in their high-tech trainers, looking like gods in space-age magic sandals, who take over parts of a city at lunchtime, or in the evening put on ceremonial clothes for group rituals with state-of-the-art equipment, may not have much to say about their nation. Lifesavers saw nations as expecting service to others. Perfect-body addicts parade concern with themselves, as "consumers" of perfect bodyness and can say a great deal, if only by inference, about an imagined normality presenting a mechanised view of the human condition that cuts out much of what can be meant by being human.

* * *

For centuries humans have been seduced with ideas of society that are based on ideas of how a body works. First, certain "functions" are ascribed to certain parts of the body and then these ideas of function are transferred to society, especially in metaphors of the "organic", as if societies are like human bodies, with all the parts working together under central direction or in general agreement. Bodies may simply die if parts work against each other but it is natural to societies that some of their parts should be in conflict, just as it is natural in human affairs generally that, despite ourselves, we constantly misunderstand each other and find disagreement as likely as agreement. The mind, unlike the body, can be constantly experimental.

* * *

If we are going to talk about "perfect bodies", care should be taken not to talk about "perfect minds". The phrase "perfect body" can have a sort of meaning: it gives a simple standard for bodies. Even though some of it is illusory, you can write down criteria and tick them off. But there are no generally applicable criteria for a "perfect mind". Minds are not standard. They work in all kinds of different ways. Religious and political sects can try to make us all think the same way about the same kind of things, but unless humans are to be ants (there are, of course, theories that this is exactly what they should be) it is essential that there be a myriad of differences – if you like, "imperfections" – in minds.

* * *

I HAVE TOUCHED on psychosomatic effects, but can an illness be good for the mind? One example of how it can are the insights that can come from the turning of things upside down from a fever. My most recent fever produced a sleepless near-hysteria at night – partly about not going to sleep and partly that I might forget to go on breathing. But during the day, between patches of languid reading and stretches of deep sleeping, I had a comfortable, reflective lassitude with a tranquil sense of indifference – indifference to the affronts and failures of the past, acceptance of folly as part of the human condition and of the need for this as a way of seeing things. I downloaded Erasmus's In Praise of Folly from the web. That these insights might have come too late was also a matter of comfortable indifference.

To extend the point: there have been a few periods when I thought to use sickness and hospital experience as a way of turning myself into what I had decided would be a better person or at least an improved one. The first of these periods began when, at the age of 20, after my big accident, I wrote off letters to friends predicting that now that some sense had been knocked into me they could expect improvement. When I was let out of hospital I looked slightly different: slanted and scarred, the right eyelid could seem angry while the left eye was level and steady. That seemed an instructive juxtaposition. But what I was looking for was an improvement based on putting behind me my undergraduate follies along with an impetuosity worthy (as I saw it) of the recklessness of the heroes of Stendhal's two great novels. How could I learn patience? After months of asking people, "Do you think I've changed?" the most encouraging answer I could get was that I seemed to have begun relying more on humour than sarcasm and wit.

It was 30 years later that the occasion seemed to come up again – 30 years in which I scarcely saw a doctor but in which, in a triumph of mind over body, I could occasionally swell ennui into a psychosomatic symptom. (This was always based on dissatisfaction with the job I had at the time, even if, by ordinary standards, so far as jobs go, I was usually seen as "successful".) It is 1972: now aged 50, I am again sure that change will come upon me. I am to be under the surgeon's knife. My right eye is to be operated on – an event I see as possibly cataclysmic (like any other operation) but also perhaps revelatory, giving me time off for another go at reflection. As it turns out, the event is theatrical. I wake up in the blackness, both eyes bandaged. I am suffocating. I know I am about to die. When I try to call for help all that comes out is a melodramatic groan, as from the grave. Then I begin to rise from the dead. There are voices. Hands touch me. There is the friendly whisper of oxygen. Later, when I come to back in my room, they tell me I had had a "laryngeal spasm", a sudden closing of the larynx that can kill if it keeps the windpipe blocked but can also relax the body, including the larynx, allowing breathing to come back. (The surgeon is sure that my ludicrous over-smoking prompted the spasm.) I think about this throughout the year and also talk, month after month, about how I have given up smoking – one of the hardest things I have ever done, a body-discovering experience if ever there was one. There is no immediate revelation but after several months of brooding and a general trying on for size I resign from editing The Bulletin and join the staff of the University of New South Wales.

Three years later I again find new life from a hospital – when I spend a fortnight in the dark, both eyes bandaged, recovering from an operation that has restored the unexpectedly detached retina of my right eye to its proper position. I listen to cheer-up cassettes of Handel and Bach and, from my transistor, news flashes, voice-overs of crowd scenes, lay sermons from pundits and crackles of "debate" on the political crisis that has followed the dismissal by the governor-general of Gough Whitlam as prime minister. Recovering from this operation gives particularly favourable conditions for thinking: for whole periods there is nothing to interrupt me, not even visually since I am blindfolded. I am able to be my true self. I plan in my mind a 30,000-word book about the dismissal and what it means, write headings for 10 chapters, then ask my wife to note down some of the main points I will make as soon as I can see. In the meantime, we talk it over and she settles it with Penguin Books. In no time it is all written and published – and sells 60,000 copies – and, as a result of it, for the first time in my life, I become, for a season, a democratic agitator, addressing several hundred meetings, great and small, in town halls, in committee rooms, far and wide.

When, some years later, I am about to go to hospital with pneumonia (and, also, as it happens, heart failure with subsequent flutter fibrillations) I know what to do. I will take a notebook and plan yet another revelatory book. As it turns out, scarcely able to speak and not at all able to think, I do little more than write down the names of the medications (mainly misspelt) as they are tried out one by one, but the hideous drug-induced dreams are revelatory. In one, I am strolling through a square in 16th-century Paris on St Bartholomew's Day, stumbling over bodies slaughtered in the massacre. In all this blood and flesh there is the silence of unlimited hopelessness; aged 76, for the first time in my life, I recognise the absolute horror of human depravity. In another, I am one of a pack of wolves fighting each other at the bottom of a pit. In some way we are all the one wolf, killing ourselves off by simultaneously tearing out each other's throats.

Two years later, after 25 centimetres of my lower bowel has been cut out, along with an early cancer, whatever it is they are giving me must also be mind-altering. A continuous stream of little ants, hundreds of them, runs, like a mobile dado, around the top of the walls. When I am talking to people we suddenly shift location: I am in a New York flat designed by Mondrian; I am in a 19th-century Russian mansion with a tented roof, painted scarlet, decorated with black maple-leaf shapes; I am in a Norwegian fishing village; I am in a West African cultural centre where, to the tune of The Teddy Bears' Picnic, they are singing, "It's ethnic time for teddy bears".

I was to go on talking about this for months. It was like reporting on a sightseeing holiday that, although perhaps not significantly revelatory, had, with a startling clarity, refreshed in me the art of attentive looking.


LAST YEAR, SOMEONE began a review of a book I had just published by saying that I was a "retired octogenarian". ("Retired" meant having left salaried employment. Obviously, since I had just written a book, I hadn't retired as a writer.) I suddenly felt alien. Was this me they were talking about? Although a large minority share of the nation's work is done by old people, because it's done for nothing it doesn't have the status of "real jobs". But with the book published, wasn't I still contributing to the nation's economic growth?

I have accommodated myself to the fact that I "look old". And I even showed tolerant indifference to the woman who, walking on the wrong side of the pavement, when she bumped into me said, "You silly old fool". Years ago, seeing myself in a mirror, or a photograph, I stopped being surprised that this was me. Often friends say, "You look well!" to which I reply, "That's the least I can do". Since they haven't asked after my health I don't have to tell them about my alveoli. I know that, because of my deficient lungs, I now appear to the world, and indeed am, someone who is walking slowly, but one can take an intelligent interest in enforced slow walking – comparing the degree of slowness today with yesterday, examining performance on a slope, contemplating the effect of heat and humidity.

There was another change in public performance when I began using a walking stick because of a slight stagger and occasional stumble. (The neurologist now thinks, having tested everything else, that these are due to a very slow-spreading atrophy in the white matter of my brain; nothing to worry about, he says, it's the grey matter, not the white matter that is the cognitive part of the brain.) There can be a sense of skill and style in using a walking stick. One can imagine one is brightening up the street somewhat, with dexterity in using it as rudder on the flat and as alpenstock on slopes, and versatility in switching to shooting-stick mode when stopping for a rest – not to mention the swinging of the tip with every second or third step to show who is in control. Yet, to the uninformed eye, I can seem an old man lost. For some years, (having earlier realised that sitting in a bus looking at people can be as good as a visit to a portrait gallery) I have been standing still looking at street scenes "turning them into paintings". Several times, while I stand on the pavement, imagining a painting, a stranger has come up and asked if I know where I am, as if I need to be directed back to the nearest nursing home.

Body parts wear out. Hearts, lungs, eyes, brains can all falter, but is there such a specific thing as "feeling old"? Tiredness, yes. Pains, yes. Disabilities, yes. Lost functions, yes. But the pains of the old are not necessarily any worse than the pains of the young, although the old are more likely to have pains more often, just as they are more likely to be frail more often. Despite my lungs, I consider myself in good health. I can't walk quickly, or for long distances, but these seem small inconveniences compared with the trials of my wife, many of whose joints have been attacked by osteoarthritis. She has had two hip replacements, but in other eroded parts she suffers discomfort every day. She survives through good spirits, a desire to enjoy life, weekly hydrotherapy, daily arm, leg and breathing exercises and anti-inflammatories, and, sporadically, an intelligent deployment of bionic exercise bike, electric massager, heat pad, massage pillow, Japanese wheat-husk pillow, peanut-shaped small pillow, pain killers, ointments and vitamin tablets.


OLD PEOPLE ARE closer to death than most but it is possible to become indifferent to the fact that one will die. There is the question, however: what does one do in the meantime?

Reflection on one's life is available to anyone who can manage it – at any time, of course – since you're living a life, why not take an intelligent interest in it? (My particular obsession at the moment is to examine my life as an example of both the failures and the successes of enthusiasm.) One friend of mine, quiet and cultivated, has been re-reading books he's read before. Recently we had a talk about why he thought The Faerie Queene stood up much better as a yarn than The Lord of the Rings. Another friend, somewhat younger than I am, who has been writing on foreign policy for years, is now doing so from a new perspective – which, as it happens, matches my new perspective. (For some years we were out of sync although close before that.) Now the two of us talk about foreign policy over the telephone, he sends me clippings; we have had a couple of à deux lunches (to me, one of the essentials of an intellectual life). Another friend, who retired a couple of decades ago as a senior civil servant and now lives in a country town, has lent his talents to a local land-reform movement. He regrets that, years ago, he didn't become a local member of parliament.

With luck, for those who have cultivated it and do not become demented, the mind is a better bet in old age than the body. There can be forgetfulness or slowness but there are no necessary stupidities among the aged. Some might be "a bit out of touch", but it may be only on matters of fashion, and old people who have kept their wits, freed of the provincialism of the present, can know things other people don't know. Among the young there can be low energy and concentration, and there is not necessarily any particularly youthful liveliness of mind (in certain ways some people are born old). What can happen among the aged is a loss in previous enthusiasm, an atrophy of the senses of wonder and discovery, and the energy to carry things out, although these are failings that mark many people throughout their lives, and it doesn't have to happen in old age. The last time I saw Bill Wentworth, then aged 90, was at a Gleebooks launch. When it was over he came up to me in a full steam of enthusiasm and wonder – no preliminaries: he at once rushed into outlining two plans, one for solving Sydney's traffic problems, the other for solving one of Australia's principal economic problems (I have forgotten which). There was nothing dotty about what he was saying. It was based on the same concerns for knowledge and argument as he had used, for example, when he was such a successful supporter of rail unification or when he was the pioneer minister for Aboriginal affairs in the Fraser government. He was showing more enthusiasm and wonder and knowledge about public issues than most of his younger fellow citizens could summon.

For those lucky enough to have a reasonably well-packed and curious mind and the determination to use it, age can give more perspectives from which to consider changed circumstances. But perhaps only if you've had some practice at it in your earlier life – only if, as things have come up, you've sometimes considered whether they should alter what you think. That's part of what can be meant by keeping your mind young. Keeping up with what's going on doesn't necessarily mean tagging after the latest, although it may mean knowing about it, and it doesn't mean just picking up a few vogue words. Going on like that can keep you old, however young you are. I like to think that what has helped keep me, in certain ways, "young" has been a distaste for vogue words. I have always tried to translate them into my own language in a kind of test of what they are "saying" (sometimes this is remarkably little). If you're old, you need enough body parts left working to sustain at least fits of mental, even creative, energy and you need to have retained at least most of your memory, and to have acquired the patience to go around hunting for bits of it that may hide themselves from you.

As I was writing this I recalled a Latin reader containing extracts from great Roman writers that we "did" in fourth year at high school. Among other things, it contained an elegy Catullus wrote to his lover's deceased linnet, Pliny the Younger's report on the destruction of Pompeii and a cheerful scene describing dolphins frisking around a boat. It also had a passage from Cicero's reflections on age. Among detailed musings on the possible satisfactions of old age; he said he could admire the old man who had something of the young man in him, but also the young man who had, within him, something of the old man.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review