Perspectives: The Art of Aging
Growing old is often difficult in a youth oriented culture such as ours. We experience a gradual loss of independence, at the same time as we might feel both useless and helpless. Retiring from work is a mixed blessing: on the one hand it promises more time to spend with family, friends, and pleasures earlier postponed, and on the other hand, it may bring a fear of having no place to go, nothing to do, of there being no place for us. Feeling lost, perhaps even abandoned, it is tempting to insist on independence as a defense against feeling frightened and helpless, or as a burden for our children. As someone once said to me, “My greatest fear is being old, poor, sick, and alone.” Even though the future is shrinking, the fear is not of death, but rather of helplessness and abandonment. One might even say that it is of feeling dead while still alive. So, how can we make the most of the time left, of the final stage of life?
In his film Wild Strawberries (1957) Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film maker, explores the art of aging. The film opens with seventy-six-year-old Isak Borg telling us, in a voice over, that he is an old pedantic doctor, a widower with a married son, and a reliable housekeeper, Miss Agda. Toward morning on the day he is to receive an honorary doctor’s degree at a ceremony in Lund, Isak has a vivid and disturbing dream.
He finds himself wandering in a deserted part of town. The windows of abandoned buildings are either boarded up or papered over, reflecting Isak’s isolation and sense of exclusion. He walks up to a figure standing on the sidewalk and touches his shoulder. The man, who turns around, is faceless, begins to crumble, and dissolves until there is only a pool of blood left in the gutter. Unnerved, Isak turns around and sees an optician’s sign, two eyes, of which one seems infected, and above it, a clock without hands. Trembling, Isak checks his pocket watch—its hands are still there—, wipes his brow and leans back against a building, while the only sound heard is his heart beating with anxiety. A horse-drawn carriage, a hearse, rounds the corner. One of the wheels gets caught on a lamp post and the horses struggle to free the carriage. Finally the wheel comes off and rolls toward Isak, who has to step aside to avoid being hit. The carriage is now swaying and creaking with a sound like that of an infant crying, until the coffin slides off into the street and the lid opens up. Approaching it, Isak sees a hand stick up. The hand grabs his own and pulls him down until he sees the dead man in the coffin. It is he, Isak Borg.
He wakes up in a fright and decides to drive in his car from Stockholm to Lund, instead of flying, as planned. Marianne, his daughter-in-law, who has been staying with him, asks if she can come along. She is pregnant with a child her husband does not want. Evald, Isak’s son, grew up in a loveless family and now, an emotionally cold and rational man, he wants to add no children to a world that disgusts him. The ensuing journey is no escape from the unpleasant feelings the dream caused, quite the contrary. It represents an internal journey, much like a psychoanalysis or a psychotherapy. Isak revisits the places of his youth, his cold and distant mother, the memory of the loss of his beloved fiancée to his more assertive brother, as well as a scene from his deeply unhappy marriage. Like a good psychoanalyst, Marianne tells him, without hostility or blame that he is a coldhearted egotistical man, who has no respect for mental suffering. His principled refusal to forgive an educational loan forces his son to work overtime, leaving the couple no time together. He is shocked when Marianne tells him that, while his son respects him, he also hates him.
The dream reflects Isak’s inner life. He is both dead and alive, a living corpse. He is lonely and lost, feeling shut out and isolated from emotional closeness and human warmth. The clock without hands is an image of timelessness, death. It also suggests an illusion of timelessness, that is, a denial of how limited time is. The thought of saying good-bye to oneself is so difficult that the fantasy of not dying is tempting. And then again, a clock without hands is an image of forgetting time lost. This might evoke a realization of how limited one’s time is and that the diminishing period left is precious. This can then be a time to reduce internal conflicts, free oneself from depression, and to seek more harmony in interpersonal relationships. Making the most of the time left calls attention to the importance of revisiting the past in order to gain self-understanding and insight.
The sign of the two eyes hanging under the handless clock brings attention to the face and the eyes, often said to be a mirror of the soul, the portal into the dynamics of our internal life. The faceless man in the dream crumbles and disintegrates under a human touch, because he is hollow, an empty shell of a man, even dead while alive. Isak’s fear of insight, of facing himself, might be like an infected eye distorting and clouding the mirroring of his aging self. Psychoanalytic theories have focused on the “mirror stage” of childhood, the reflection of oneself in the mother’s eyes, to the exclusion of a “mirror stage” of old age, which may have contributed to an urge to disown the image of the old and frail self. This has made it all too easy to overlook the anxieties mobilized by aging. Practicing psychoanalysts and psychotherapists are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of attending to and sensitively treating those in the developmental stage of old age.
In dreams, daydreams, and reveries Isak travels through the memories of his inner life to refind and reconnect with the inner sources of aliveness and goodness that he has left by the wayside of life. Revisiting a patch of wild strawberries near the old family home, in his daydream, the love of his youth, his fiancée Sara, holds up a mirror to Isak. She tells him that he is an anxious old man about to die, that he cannot bear the truth, and that he does not know why he hurts so much. In the rather humiliating dream that follows, Isak does look into the mirror of his past, experiencing himself in an examination that has the air of a trial. He fails at the most basic tasks of medicine and is declared incompetent. The examiner leads him to the scene of his wife’s seduction by another man. She looks at herself in a mirror and imagines that when she tells Isak, he will say, “poor little girl. I am not angry with you. I feel sorry for you. I forgive you.” “As if he were God Father himself,” she mutters. “He is cold as ice.” Having witnessed this scene the examiner delivers his verdict: Isak is callous, selfish, and indifferent. The punishment is, he says, the usual one: loneliness.
Upon telling Marianne this dream, Isak says, “It is as if I am trying to tell myself something I don’t want to hear; that I am dead although I am alive.” He may not want to hear that he isolated himself and remained outside loving relationships after losing Sara’s love. The truth may be that he then began cultivating emotional deadness as a protection against the dangerous wishes for love, warmth, and emotional closeness.
After the ceremony and the festivities in Lund are over, Isak makes attempts at repairing his relationships, but is met with reactions that reflect what people are used to expect from him. He tries to forgive the loan to his son, who assures him that he will get his money, before Isak can finish his sentence. When he apologizes for his harsh words in the morning, Miss Agda asks if he is ill. But one has the sense that a change is taking place and that through a growing self awareness, Isak has achieved some sense of inner peace. Before he falls asleep, he enacts the poet’s words, “when to the sessions of sweet silent thought/ I summon up remembrance of things past.”
In his remembrance Isak is now transported back to the summer house. It is autumn and Sara tells him that all the wild strawberries are gone. She leads him to a place from which he can see his parents sitting by the water, his father fishing, his mother knitting. They turn toward him and, one at a time, wave at him. These welcoming gestures spread a smile on Isak’s lips and the film, as well as his day, close with an image of pleasure, his face reflecting gratitude and (self) acceptance.
The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein has captured this kind of healing transformation well, “It is by reinstating inside himself the good parents…and by rebuilding his inner world, which was disintegrated and in danger, that he overcomes his grief, regains security and achieves true harmony and peace.”
In being able to remember, not only the cold mother and the absent father, but also an image of his good parents, Isak is no longer in danger of disintegrating, as the faceless man in his dream does. By telling his dreams and talking to Marianne, who, as a good therapist, listens nonjudgmentally and responds honestly and without hostility, Isak has traveled from living a nightmare of isolation and fear of acknowledging his wish for emotional closeness and warmth, to the remembrance, in “sessions of sweet silent thoughts,” of acceptance, which brings him harmony and peace at the end of his day and his life. By witnessing the self-observing journey that Bergman has filmed with such care and understanding, we now can entertain how to approach the art of aging.
Britt-Marie Schiller, PhD, is a Faculty Member and Training & Supervising Analyst as well as former Dean for the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute; Associate Head of the Department of Psychoanalytic Education (DPE), American Psychoanalytic Association, as well as a practicing psychoanalyst. Her research is focused in the intersection of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and gender.