The Wisdom of Old Age

Whenever you’ve immersed yourself in too much Emerson or Thoreau and feel yourself being uncontrollably lifted away by positive thoughts, it’s a good time to read a Hawthorne story or two. Perhaps that’s why Diane and I decided to spend a week on Hawthorne before beginning to review some modern poets again. Despite the fact that early in his life Hawthorne joined Brooks Farm, a burgeoning transcendental commune, he came to reject much, though not all, of the optimism of the Transcendentalists. Perhaps his long Puritan heritage was simply too great of a burden to be rid of in a single lifetime, but, for whatever reason, Hawthorne spent the rest of his literary lifetime challenging the pure optimism of his famous neighbors.

Seldom does Hawthorne directly reject the ideas of the transcendentalists, though. In fact, his multi-level ambiguity is, for me, one of his most endearing traits. This very ambiguity seems to suggest that it is impossible to know virtually anything absolutely. Life is by its very nature ambiguous, and there is seldom an absolute right or wrong. His unwillingness to give a definitive answer to the questions he raises forces his reader to make those decisions for themselves, which is as it should be.

“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” is no exception here. The story appears to attempt to answer the age-old question of whether a fountain of youth would improve mankind’s lot. It’s easy to see the story simply in terms of the four characters who actually take the magical potion, but the narrator must also be seen as a direct participant in this experiment, even if he never actually takes the potion himself.

The four characters who quickly choose to take the potion given the chance are “melancholy old creatures, who had been unfortunate in life, and whose greatest misfortune it was that they were not long ago in their graves.” Mr. Medbourne had lost his fortune through speculation. Colonel Killigrew “had wasted his best years, and his health and substance, in the pursuit of sinful pleasures.” Mr. Gascoigne was “a ruined politician, a man of evil fame.” The Widow Wycherly, “a great beauty in her day” had lived a scandalous life.

The story begins as a fabulous fairy tale with magical mirrors and a faded rose magically restored to its original beauty. Even this magical setting is shrouded in mystery, “it was fabled that the spirits of all the doctor’s deceased patients dwelt within its verge, and would stare him in the face whenever he looked thitherward. The author himself admits that “some of these fables, to my shame be it spoken, might possibly be traced back to my own veracious self,” leaving us to wonder how a veracious person can spread “fables.”

It’s important to note that Dr. Heidegger does not take the potion himself because “having had much trouble in growing old, I am in no hurry to grow young again.” He also urges them to “draw up a few general rules for your guidance, in passing a second time through the perils of youth. Think what a sin and shame it would be, if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age!"

After taking the youth potion, Mr. Gascoigne’s immediately turned back to political topics, and: “

he rattled forth full-throated sentences about patriotism, national glory, and the people’s right; now he muttered some perilous stuff or other, in a sly and doubtful whisper, so cautiously that even his own conscience could scarcely catch the secret; and now, again, he spoke in measured accents, and a deeply deferential tone, as if a royal ear were listening to his well turned periods.

Sound familiar? Watched any national news lately? Apparently age is not guarantee of wisdom.

Surely the Widow Wycherly whose reputation had been besmirched by her actions would have learned from experience, right?

As for the Widow Wycherly, she stood before the mirror courtesying and simpering to her own image, and greeting it as the friend whom she loved better than all the world beside.

This, in turn, leads to the rivalry for her affections that had earlier condemned these four to sorrow and misery, a rivalry that seems all the more macabre because of their real age:

Never was there a livelier picture of youthful rivalship, with bewitching beauty for the prize. Yet, by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber, and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grandsires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam.

Revealing just how little they have learned from age, the three men struggle over the woman, and in doing so “the table was overturned, and the vase dashed into a thousand fragments. The precious Water of Youth flowed in a bright stream across the floor…” Symbolically and literally, any chance for a new life was destroyed by the old rivalries that had originally destroyed their lives.

Ironically, the four friends have learned nothing through experience and they are anxious to head out for Florida to find more of the Fountain of Youth. Only Dr. Heidegger seems to have no desire for the potion:

Well–I bemoan it not; for if the fountain gushed at my very doorstep, I would not stoop to bathe my lips in it–no, though its delirium were for years instead of moments. Such is the lesson ye have taught me!"

The reader, or at least this reader, though, is left wondering whether Dr Heidegger himself might not be wise enough to benefit from the potion. He seems to have gained wisdom over time. Isn’t someone wise enough to know the dangers of a potion precisely the one most likely to be able to overcome those dangers? Surely some people are capable of learning through experience how to overcome the emotions that threaten to destroy their lives. Or is the idea of regaining youth so dangerous that no one can be trusted with its knowledge?

There certainly seems to be many cases of older people acting just as foolishly at an old age as they did during their youth. One might, for instance, even wonder if this parable wouldn’t serve equally well to illustrate the problems Sharon and Arafat face in the Middle East. Why has neither of them gained enough wisdom through their struggles to lead their people to a successful peace? Can life and experience teach us nothing when it comes to emotional struggles? Are we doomed to repeat our mistakes until we are wiped from the face of the earth?


Must Old Age be a Shipwreck ?

American Transcendentalist Nathaniel Hawthorne, (1804-1864) was a questioner, and the questions he answers in this story are how do the actions of one’s youth affect his old age? In “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment “ he asks If one were given the opportunity to return to his youth, would he have sense enough to live more productively, thus providing a more contented old age?

To begin his experiment, Dr. Heidegger, a “very singular old man,” invites his “four venerable friends,” “melancholy old creatures who had been unfortunate in life and whose greatest misfortune was that they were not long ago in their graves” to his house one summer afternoon and asks them to drink water he has obtained from the fabled Fountain of Youth once sought by Ponce de Leon in Florida.

His friends have lived regrettable lives. Mr. Medbourne, “once a prosperous merchant who had lost all in a frantic speculation now lives little better than a mendicant.” Colonel Killigrew wasted his best years, his health and substance in the pursuit of sinful pleasure and now suffers from “gout and divers other torments of soul and body.” Mr. Gascoigne, “ruined politician, man of evil fame, became obscure instead of infamous.” And Widow Wycherly, “a great beauty in her day, now lives in deep seclusion because of scandalous stories.”

All of the friends know each other. In fact, the three old gentlemen had been “early lovers of the Widow and had at one point been at each other’s throats for her affections.”

The five gather in Dr. Heidegger’s study which is itself a “very curious place,“ filled with cobwebs and antique dust.” Old oak bookcases line the walls, the cases themselves lined with “gigantic folios and black-letter quartos.” A bust of Hippocrates stands over the central bookcase. A skeleton peeks out from the open door of one of the oak closets. Between two of the bookcases hangs a mirror which projects the good doctor’s dead patients.

A full length portrait of a lady, Dr. H’s young bride, hangs on a wall. She had swallowed one of the doctor’s prescriptions and died on her wedding night.

But the most outstanding of the room’s accouterments is a large book bound in black leather with a silver clasp well known to be a book of magic. When a maid once dusted it, the skeleton rattled, and the bust of Hippocrates cried “Forbear!”

On a table in the center of the study is placed a cut glass vase that catches the refraction of the sun’s rays which strike it from the window. The five people can see their faces in the sparkling glass. Four champagne glasses are placed beside the vase.

Thus the reader has been introduced to one scary old doctor and four of his friends, troubled failures all, who are sitting in a study filled with gloomy old books and furniture. The story teller warns us at this point that he may be simply telling a story too fantastic to be true.

The four friends listen to the suggested experiment and anticipate something simple like looking at a cobweb under a microscope or watching a mouse die in an air pump. But Dr. H opens the old book of magic and removes a pressed rose given him by his bride, Sylvia Ward, 55 years ago. He asks the question, “Is it possible that this rose of half a century could ever bloom again?”

The rose is placed in the vase which contains the Fountain of Youth water, and soon the rose brightens, the leaves are renewed green and the rose looks as “fresh as when Sylvia Ward had first given it to her lover.”

Dr. H. answers the excited questions of his guests, telling them the water is from the Fountain of Youth from Florida, once sought by Ponce de Leon.

Colonel Killigrew is first to ask if the water would have such an effect on humans even though he believes nothing of the doctor’s story.

It is time to find out–that is the experiment. The champagne glasses are filled with the water. Dr. H. chooses to watch the progress of the experiment rather than participate.

The guests are skeptical but nevertheless consider drinking the water from the Fountain of Youth.

Dr H. suggests that before they drink they should “draw up a few general rules for your guidance, in passing a second time through the perils of youth. Think what a sin and shame it would be, if, with your peculiar advantages, you should not become patterns of virtue and wisdom to all the young people of the age!”

The four guests ignore the doctor’s advice in their haste to drink the potion. Guilty of hubris, they know “how closely repentance treads behind the steps of error,” figuring they would never make the same mistakes twice.

These are particularly unattractive old people. “They looked as if they had never known what youth or pleasure was, but had been the offspring of Nature’s dotage, and always the gray, decrepit, sapless, miserable creatures, who now sat stooping round the doctor’s table, without life enough in their souls or bodies to be animated even by the prospect of growing young again.”

But the water appears to produce a miracle. As the four old guests drink from their champagne glasses, an immediate improvement is seen. “A sudden glow of cheerful sunshine brightens over all their visages at once.” A “healthful suffusion” colors their cheeks.

“We are younger–but we are still too old! Quick–give us more!” they shout.

“Their eyes grew clear and bright; a dark shade deepened among their silvery locks.”

The intoxicating qualities of the water of the Fountain of Youth begins to be felt.

But the change is superficial. No insight accompanies the return of the youthful appearance. The repetition of the old ways begins. “My dear widow, you are charming!” Colonel Killigrew says, renewing the Widow’s suspicion concerning the Colonel’s sincerity.

“Mr. Gascoigne’s mind seemed to run on political topics, but whether relating to the past, present, or future could not easily be determined, since the same ideas and phrases have been in vogue these fifty years.” This is Hawthorne’s jibe at politics.

“Colonel Killigrew all this time had been trolling forth a jolly bottle song, and ringing his glass in symphony with the chorus, while his eyes wandered toward the buxom figure of the Widow Wycherly…Mr. Medbourne was involved in a calculation of dollars and cents, with which was strangely intermingled a project for supplying the East Indies with ice, by harnessing a team of whales to the polar icebergs.”

The Widow Wycherly stands in front of the mirror, “curtseying and simpering to her own image and greeting it as the friend whom she loved better than all the world beside.”

For the moment, “They were now in the happy prime of youth” as Dr. H looks on, resembling Father Time. “Age, with its miserable train of cares and sorrows and diseases, was remembered only as the trouble of a dream…”

“We are young! We are young! the old people cried. They were a group of “merry youngsters almost maddened with exuberant frolicsomeness.”

As young folk, they probably made fun of the old, oblivious to their own inevitable aging. Even after experiencing old age, they revert to youthful insensitivity.

“The most singular effect of their gayety was an impulse to mock the infirmity and decrepitude of which they had so lately been the victims.”

“They laughed loudly at their old-fashioned attire, and made fun of their gouty limps and bespectacled faces. They even make fun of the old doctor who sits watching them dance.

The three old men gather around the widow, pushing each other away to have her solely in their arms. One “threw his arm about her waist…one holds her hand in a passionate grasp…the third buries his hand in her glossy curls…” All are in a huddle of “blushing, panting, struggling, chiding, laughing, …a triple embrace, competing for her “bewitching beauty.”

But all of this youthful romping is in their minds. The mirror reflects the reality of the “three old, gray, withered grandsires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam.”

The dance turns ugly. The men lose their tempers in the struggle for the widow’s attention and soon begin to threaten each other. In the struggle the table with the vase in overturned, spilling the water on the floor. A butterfly now facing the end of its life is moistened by the water. It feebly flies to Dr. H and lights on his head. His young bride’s rose begins to fade.

The first lesson of the experiment is beginning to dawn for Dr. H. He knows now that he loves the withered rose as much as he did when it was fresh. The butterfly tumbles from his head to the floor. It has lived a brief but beautiful life and now it must die.

A strange chill settles on the four guests. ‘Was it an illusion? Had the changes of a lifetime been crowded into so brief a space, and were they now four aged people, sitting with their old friend, Dr. Heidegger?”

“Are we grown old again, so soon!”

The answer is yes. The widow sees herself old once more and clasping “her skinny hands before her face, wished that the coffin lid were over it, since it could be no longer beautiful.”

The experiment concludes the lesson for Dr. H. He is not sorry the Fountain of Youth water is spilled for he wouldn’t touch it. He has learned that returning to youth even if it were possible would not change one’s life. It is best to treasure the present in which good memories may be held in withered flowers.

Unfortunately the four friends have learned nothing. They immediately begin to plan a trip to Florida to find and drink from the Fountain of Youth.

Some people never learn. They just live.
Diane McCormick