Speaking as an old person who has, theoretically, all his best years behind him, no future ahead, and who has been effectively written off by society, I tend to agree that beauty is merely a surface facet of a person and what is inside is of considerably more worth. And also, as I am sure you can imagine, that for those who take the time and devote their lives to learning, to exploring, to seeking out whatever there is in the world by any means possible, age is something special. Especially when you can look back over many years, or decades, and regret nothing, but see all the things you have succeeded in doing, in learning, in the broad swath of experiences you have gathered and which, hopefully, you can pass on to other people.
Admittedly, beauty is something that we can all appreciate, especially that which we see before us, and I am sure I’m not alone in appreciating a good-looking woman, a handsome man, just as much as anyone else, as shallow as some people may claim this to be. We all need something our eyes can appreciate, which is why the setting up of a decent meal should always be a high priority for any restaurant, the layout of a room for an interior decorator, the layout of an exhibition for an artist. But all the beauty in the world cannot make a meal taste better, a room more functional or a work of art aesthetically valuable. What is on the surface is merely a skin, a thin covering for the machinery, the heart and soul of a work – be it a human, a meal or a painting – far more complicated and beautiful than we can imagine from a quick glance, and it is this inner life, this hidden side, which we really need to find, to explore, to make our own.
The thing about growing old, though, is not all of us become wise with the years. Some people follow exactly the same path for decades, looking neither to left nor to right, as if there is nothing else to see but their pension at the end of the road, and the prospect of a world cruise, ten cities in seven days, and a garden to sit in on summer evenings. And it is also fair to say that some people age so incredibly well, it is almost as if the surface beauty had been imprinted on their bones at birth, not to mention those whose beauty matures with time. What doesn’t help, in most cases, as you well know and mention, is this idea that beauty is caught and kept by smearing creams and lotions upon every single visible bit of skin. It is often the chemicals contained within these potions which ruin our complexions, which speed up the appearance of aging, and which effectively force us to buy even more products in order to hide the ravages of time, hastened by the products we bought before. I have nothing against make-up whatsoever, but subtle, gentle hints which complement and enhance rather than change and disguise. On a more personal note: I find it hard to hug let alone kiss anyone who has more make-up on than a circus clown, not only for fear that their face will impress itself upon my clothing, but because the very feel of this concoction of chemicals and creams makes me shudder with the anticipation of a person, alone in the desert, sinking in quicksand.
Perhaps I have an advantage, as a male, in that convention requires that my appearance should be rugged and manly, handsome but reasonably neat and tidy or, at the very least, clean. In my youthful years the same pressures were not put upon me and those around me – males – as were exerted on all the females, and that of all ages. And this pressure didn’t come from the men, from those who wished to be pulled in and attracted, it came from the other women who, in their strange way, seemed to convince their friends and school colleagues that walking out without a protective layer of make-up on, even when not on the prowl to find a suitable partner, was akin to leaving the house unprotected, naked. Even this has changed over the last thirty years or so, with more and more men applying some form of make-up – right down to those who have certain ‘attributes’ of beauty applied permanently by a tattoo artist – or smearing themselves with sweet-smelling lotions and bathing in bubble-baths to soften their skin and make them strokable, or whatever the present term is. The smells men spray on themselves have become sweeter – more sickly, to my way of thinking – and effeminate so that, in a darkened room or out on the streets in a crowd, it is difficult to recognise whether that which pleasantly prickles your nose is from a man or a woman. Mind you, with some of the fashions today, it is hard to tell the gender of a person standing right in front of you sometimes, regardless of what they smell like.
Not that I have anything against perfume, in moderation. Not that I have anything against anyone, male or female, enhancing their appearance, their level of attractiveness, their individuality, in moderation. There are, naturally, some fashions where a mass of make-up is needed to portray something – Goths come to mind, and I remember some of the startling Punk fashions from the mid-Seventies in London too – and that is fine, but I’m thinking of everyday wear, normal shopping trips, time at the dentist and lying around in the park on a summer’s day. But, as Martial wrote:
Olus, what is it to thee
What he does with his skin, or she?
I have to be careful with some of my quotations, something that I have learned over the years which, I suppose, is a form of wisdom. There are so many supposed quotations which have been faked simply to make a point and add a well-known name for gravity and acceptance that good research is a necessity. And then there are those which have been translated from one language to another – Martial, as an example, from Latin – and then from a second language again. This wonderful quotation is, reading one book, perfect within the context of my writings, as Michel de Montaigne uses it in an essay on vanity. But, going back to origins, and bearing in mind that other people use quotations which are suitable for their needs, but out of context when taken within the meaning of the original, it is sometimes wise to check other sources. This particular quotation amuses me because de Montaigne, a highly religious man, uses it about vanity, but Martial does not. He uses it in a completely different context, as if we have scraped off the make-up de Montaigne applied for his appearances sake, and come to the horrifying truth of the original skin underneath with:
Eros is sodomised, Linus sucks. What’s it to you, Olus, what either one of them does with his own skin? Matho fornicates for a hundred thousand. What’s it to you, Olus?
The rest of the paragraph, I hasten to add, is of a more acceptable nature! Perhaps the wisdom of age, in this case, is knowing where to find the right things for the right people, as much as those for a certain subject. It most certainly isn’t a case of knowing everything there is to know, which some people like to equate with a wise old person or believe to be the essence of a wise person, but the ability of that person to find what is needed, to seek out a source for information, and wisely use it. Wisdom, following the ideals of Socrates, is the knowledge that we do not know everything, and that we know we do not know everything. And in the end, as Theophrastus believed:
Fortune, not wisdom, rules the life of man.
I know of many people who have completed a long and complicated, stressful university course and present themselves, their well-earned piece of paper in hand, for employment, only to discover what they have learned, the wisdom they have accrued through countless hours of research, is useless in the real world. And sometimes a person really is employed for looks rather than skill or, sad to say, gender over proven ability. All of a sudden they’ve been presented with reality, and have to face the facts of life: rather like someone waking up next to whoever he or she picked up in that bar last night and looking over for the first time, realises…
We suffer each a self-made fate.
But this is something which does not improve with age or level of wisdom!
There are advantages to beauty, it must be admitted, and one of these advantages is the ease with which some things can be achieved. If I put a photograph of my face on any advert for a penfriend, for someone to write to, I would receive no replies whatsoever. That’s a given, and I can live with it. I would receive few because of my age anyway, but that is another matter. The credo is: put a photograph on and you’ll attract more responses because everyone loves to know who they are writing to. And by know, they mean the appearance and not the wonderful world of content, conversation, knowledge. It must be good because she’s a blonde, or something along those lines. But we do all grow old, we do all get wrinkles and blotches, and little bags under our eyes, or a big bag under our chins. It’s a fact of life, and something which we should accept, as you say, and make the best of. Is it really right that we should be judged on our appearance only? That every single assessment of our potential rests upon our looks and fashion sense? Or, as is being made clear in many parts of society and the business world, our physical ability to be a member of the Old Boys’ Club.
Yes, men are going to treat a beautiful woman – and I’m not going to define beautiful here – differently than they would a plain one. Successful men need, as much from a ego-based sense of importance and attractiveness as from a desire to show their abilities and prowess, a beautiful woman by their side. It is a social as much as a career thing and, to my way of thinking, very sad indeed. I wonder how many people faced with such a relationship, and accepting of their position in society as being the be-all and end-all of their lives, are truly happy. Can you imagine spending thirty, forty, even fifty years together with a person who chose you because of your looks and nothing else? I think the worry of being replaced by a newer, prettier, more socially acceptable model at some stage would kill much of the happy feeling.
I must also admit that, despite my age and the growing infirmities age brings with it, I am very happy in my skin. The wrinkles across my face appear only when I laugh, and not when I am worried. The scars on my body show that I have been places and done things, or had them done to me. I live comfortably in my small house, surrounded by my books and photographs, works of art and the cat, and that is enough. Now and then a second person comes in to my life, briefly, and it is fun, a moment’s excitement on both sides, but without the socially induced need to perform in a certain manner, to follow a certain form of action, to hurry matters. The benefits of age. And, of course, a life to look back upon, a wealth of experiences to retell, stories of foreign climes, of foreign people, of strange and wonderful events. Age has its benefits as much as its drawbacks but, accepting it, and knowing we have lived right up to this point, makes it all worthwhile. One of the things that I have learned over the decades is to just let it ride on in. There is nothing we can do about growing older – apart from dying, of course – so we might just as well accept it and concentrate all our energies on other things. What doesn’t worry us can be set to one side and we have time, and energy, for all those other experiences which, over time, give us so much more we can retell, re-explore, revel in. Life is, all in all, a pretty good bargain, if you make the most of it.