「老化」選讀:希臘神話與莎士比亞

閱讀時間約 29 分鐘

Date: 2024/02/26

Speaker: 陳重仁 教授(外文系)


本文為經典人文導論演講筆記,並結合筆者的個人觀點及可供參考之延伸資料。


Opening: Why Do We Talk about Aging?


The speaker begins with a brief explanation of the importance of this topic. Even when we're uni students who are far from being "old," we all have loved ones or close ones who are encountering such issue, such as our parents and grandparents. Our society holds indifference and even hostility toward the elderly. What they have (both resources and abilities) is decreasing and what they care about is being neglected. The speaker has personal family stories that brought him into researching this field of 醫學人文. (His brother, a former engineer, volunteered to take care of his old parents. His father-in-law suffers from 失智, and his family has to deal with his disappearance from time to time.)


Thus, with further understanding, we get to think inwards (筆者註:原話為「往內省思」) on the topic we and our loved ones will eventually face.


Part One: Greek Mythology and Homeric Epic


DFLL students have to memorize weird names and understand weird stories when they read Homer in their freshmen days. It is not always their most enjoyable experience. (Well as for me it kinda was, but I can only speak for myself.)

We will be looking at various examples of how the elderly, or even aging itself, is depicted in Greek mythology. Interestingly, there seem to be some similarities.

Geras


Let's take things back to the basics first. Geras, the god of old age, is the guardian of the River Styx (it is often translated into 冥河). That's why he is often regarded as the protector of old people. (So naturally, young heroes are not eager to meet him.) His name includes "fame" and "courage" from its Greek roots. But if he's really that respectable, how come Hercules beats the hell out of him (as depicted on a portrait on a vase)? (Brainstorm time) Hercules is the son of Zeus and the husband of Hebe, the goddess of youthfulness. After accomplishing his twelve tasks, he's afraid of getting old, being weak, and losing his glory. That's why he challenges Geras. In other words, even for a hero (well he's more like THE hero in Greek mythology before the Trojan War) like Hercules, aging is something he wishes to avoid and conquer.


Writer's Thoughts:

  1. This sounds a bit out of context for me. Hercules becomes immortal after accomplishing his tasks, so what's the point of fighting Geras? According to my very shallow research, which basically means reading his Wikipedia page, there are no related stories that can tell us why.
  2. One thing I find interesting about Geras is that we can't be sure who his parents are. Could be Nyx (the old goddess of darkness) alone, according to Hesiod, or perhaps Erebus (another god associated with the personification of darkness, and he's Nyx's consort) is his father, according to Hyginus and Cicero. Either way, we can see Geras is literally the child of darkness and obnoxiousness. This more or less tells us how the Greek thinks of aging.
  3. Geras often serves as a parallel to Hebe, which is also a fun thing to think about. From a textual perspective, I think such contrast and their very different (fight and marriage) yet, on the other hand, similar (submission) relationships with Hercules can be examined from more diverse angles.


Eos and Tithonus


Another example is Eos, the goddess of dawn.(筆者註:她的羅馬型態 Aurora 在英文裡是「極光」的意思,同時也是陰柔氣質明顯的女性名)She falls in love with a pretty Trojan prince named Tithonus, but the problem soon appears. The boy grows old while Eos never changes. They wish to be together, so they go to Zeus for Tithonus's immortality. Zeus grants their wish, so the old man becomes older and older and eventually becomes a cicada. They did end up together forever because it always appears when the sun rises.


Writer's Thoughts:

I think the moral of this story is that Zeus is a bastard who only listens to half of your sentence. I mean who in the world would think they have to specify "eternal life" is different from "eternal youthness?" This is certainly not what he does for his son Hercules. Uh, double standard.


Achilles


Our man Achilles kills Hector and drags him around. (筆者註:古希臘人很在乎儀式完善的喪禮,因為被妥善安葬才代表亡者能夠進到冥界。而 Achilles 不僅一開始沒有意願好好安葬 Hector,還把人家拖來拖去遊街示眾,導致部分神祇甚是不滿,可以說進而導致了他的死亡。)But the point here is not Hector. Achilles is one of the most recognised heroes, some of the reasons are 1) he dies in pursuit of victory and glory; 2) he dies in his best condition, and his image stays young and powerful. Never aging.


Writer's Thoughts:

  1. Two of the greatest Greek heroes are Achilles and Hercules. The former dies at a young age while the latter becomes a god. They both remain strong (although defeatable, to be honest) and youthful. Perhaps this demonstrates how the Greeks view heroism.
  2. When we talk about Achilles we usually talk about his stubbornness in pursuing glory. If he weren't so insistent on being the greatest, maybe he would have lived a long life. But in that case, would he still be considered a hero? Greeks' definition of a hero is often linked with masculine youthfulness, gods' blessings or flavourings, and the individual's sacrifaction.


Helen of Troy

Although Helen is wedded, she runs away with Paris. Her husband Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon are upset. (So upset they even start the Trojan War for her) She is depicted as young and gorgeous. Within the ten years of the Trojan War, Helen remains the most beautiful. From Homer's own description, she's "Helen of the lovely hair," "white-armed Helen," "Helen, queen among women," "hateful Helen," and "white-armed, long-robed, and richly tressed." Don't sound like the most impressive compliment, do they? But emphasising her black hair and white arms symbolize that she is young and pretty. Fun fact: The war lasts at least ten years, and she's a mother of four. So she's probably in her 40s or something.

Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? / Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. ----Christopher Marlowe (全文連結)

Writer's Thoughts:

  1. Not describing Helen's appearance in detail can be regarded as a literary technique. Readers will have their imaginations and curiosity.
  2. I think linking the lasting of the war to Helen's beauty may not be exactly accurate. The Greeks are questioning what and who and why they are fighting for as days go by. The war has basically become a proxy war(代理人戰爭) of the gods and some mortal leaders.


Nestor

Nestor is seventy years old when the war breaks out. He realizes he's no longer young and powerful. He calls the aging in his body his "debt." Homer uses metonymy(暗喻) by saying his joints are weaker, he can't ride as fast as possible, etc. Both Nastor (knees) and Helen (hair) are described with metonymy.


Writer's Thoughts:

I personally think it's a bit unfair to only talk about Nestor's body being his obstacle. In the Iliad, he is a very respected wise advisor that even Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon, and more self-centered heroes look up to. (A short character introduction here.)

In Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book 12), the stories Nestor shares are essential for those who try to further understand the Trojan War and Greek heroism. The passage itself is an ongoing discussion on nested narrative. His wisdom and experience also result from his aging. Yes, he does agree that he may forget some very important details, and it's part of the fun when reading this chapter. Especially when we compare the unreliable narration to Odysseus in The Odyssey. (A short analysis here.)


Short Conclusion

Mortals age. So we have to live to our fullest. It's another perspective we can have when reading about all the fights and wars.



Part Two: Shakespeare and His Old Characters


How He Views Time and Oldness

Shakespeare opens a new age for English literature and theatre. He is often considered The Bard of England.

Shakespear himself is considered old by many Taiwanese readers, due to the translation 莎翁. But this is not exactly true because a) He fears oldness. b) He retires early (before 50) and dies at 52. He's, in fact, never old. The word 翁 is either a mistranslation or a symbol of respect.

He's afraid of oldness. More specifically (perhaps accurately), he's obsessed with time. In the sonnets he writes in his 30s, he often describes time as a destroyer or sth to that effect. Perhaps this reflects how he's driven by the fear of aging.


Writer's Thoughts:

I think Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? is also an interesting example. (全文連結)

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st: / So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This shows how he considers time as an asset that guarantees the eternal existence of his mistress's beauty. In other words, time is not always his nemesis. Sometimes it's his ally.


He depicts old people very differently. They are not always wise and credible. The diversity in the personalities of his old characters shows his broad knowledge of old people.


Associating works

  1. Sonnet 2: When forty winters shall besiege thy brow (全文連結)
This were to be new made when thou art old, / And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
  1. Sonnet 73: That time of year thou mayst in me behold (全文連結)
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire / That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, / As the death-bed whereon it must expire, / Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
  1. Twelfth Night 5.1.397 - 402
When that I was and a little tiny boy, / With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, / A foolish thing was but a toy, / For the rain it raineth every day. / But when I came to man's estate, / With hey, ho, c.
  1. King Lear 3.2 (he could be suffering from Dementia since his behaviours are irrational and unusual.)
These groping hands are now my only guides, / And feeling all my sight. / O misery! What words can sound my grief? / Shut from the living whilst among the living. / Dark as the grave amidst the bustling world. / At once from business and from pleasure barred.
  1. Speech: “All the world’s a stage”(全文連結)
That ends this strange eventful history, / Is second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.


Short Conclusion

Life is a stage with all kinds of characters playing. It's unfair to hold prejudices against others just because of their age. We should hold a more open and deeper view of aging when we read, to read differently and enjoy life.


Appendix: Writer's Notes


Gilgamesh

This epic also discusses a hero's fear of death and aging. The Iliad, after all, is a story specifically about war. Gilgamesh's fear of death and oldness and his misdecisions (which lead to his buddy's death and his misery) are more straightforward, from my perspective. (A short analysis here. But reading the text is more fun, I'd say.)


Gender Perspective

It's also fun to think about this from a gender perspective. Women are often under more strict, hostile scrutiny when they encounter aging than men. People are not vegetables, we don't have 保質期。 But at the same time, a female's youthful beauty is celebrated (though some men may consider it the source of their problems). I'd say even modern successful women still encounter such challenges.


Personal Expectations

This lecture seems to focus more on the literary approaches of how writers in different times present and describe aging, including its effects and underlying meaning. As fascinating as it is, I wish we got to talk much about the social and psychological reasons. By the way, the speaker's book looks exciting, I'll try to get to it soon.

    梳理與儲放想法的小角落,有關文學、音樂與生活
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