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The Coming of Age

by Simone de Beauvoir Translated by Patrick O'Brian $10.00, 570 pp., Simon and Schuster

By Tina Rathborne

THORSTEIN VEBLEN in his The Theory of the Leisure Class says that the status of women is the best index of a society's values. Simone de Beauvoir plugs the status of old people into the same thesis. On this basis she condemns all contemporary societies by virtue of the maladjustment of the old.

She plots the coordinates of the biological and psychological axis of old age as againsts its cultural and economic axis. Her array of anthropological, historical, biographical, and artistic testimonies in support of her thesis and its conclusion is all-encompassing. Old age for Mile de Beauvoir is the natural conclusion of a lifetime of mental, physical and sexual deterioration, from the age of twenty on, which ends in death.

Freud asserted the sexuality of children, Simone de Beauvoir asserts the sexuality of the old. Sexuality, she says, is the index of energy, curiosity and life force in a human being. When sexuality falls off, the old person either has death in life or dies. Where women remain sexually capable to the end of their lives, men generally lose their ability to sustain an erection. Men, in effect, can never resolve their castration complex; castration is a reality they must expect. Old age is a defeat in sexual terms.

Because most contemporary societies put their highest premium on profit, once a human being is surpassed in profitability, he is relegated to the junk heap. In terms of occupational potency, and the ambition to live with self-respect, old age is also a defeat.

But where Simone de Beauvoir makes grim truce with sexual frustration, she is unwilling to accept the defeat of occupational potency and its concommitant alienation from society. In this respect, her thesis about old age as the index of society is double-edged. For five hundred and seventy pages she bombards the reader with the horrors of old age. Never does she pretend that the resolution of old age is the amelioration of the life-style of the aged. She convinces the reader that old age is the most telling of all the stages of a human being's life. In old age, one's values and the society's values are most called into question, because there is no escape into the past or the future. The old person is locked out of his dreams for the future and locked out of the past, because it is past. The old person has no choice but to live in the present; most often, Simone de Beauvoir observed that the old are dead even to the present.

The answer to old age, says Mile de Beauvoir, is in the psychological resolution of childhood and in the values that a society inculcates in the child and the adolescent. The prescription to her thesis is meagerly developed. She says only that we must "go on pursuing ends that give our esistence meaning.... Devotion to individuals, to groups or causes, social, political, intellectual or creative." Her prescription is meager only because she does not see herself in The Coming of Age as a theoretician of change, but rather as one more marshaller of the facts that indicate that change is imperative. She should be applauded for shoving so much difficult truth under our noses.

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