Old age is too often presented as a time when people are no longer themselves and sink into delusions that are best despised.
Thus, when De Gaulle speaks, in the first volume of his War Memoirs, of Pétain’s “shipwreck” (“Old age is a shipwreck. So that nothing was spared us, Marshal Pétain’s old age was to be identified with the shipwreck of France. ), he takes up an old metaphor, already used by Chateaubriand in connection with the exile and death of Charles X, as Simone de Beauvoir would point out a little later (in a bewildering passage in her Essay on Old Age, published in 1970, where she writes: “Old age is a shipwreck, wrote Chateaubriand before being plagiarised by General de Gaulle, who was after Pétain” and where she who was not known as an exemplary Resistance fighter, any more than her companion, Jean Paul Sartre, dared to sum up the confrontation between collaboration and resistance as: “De Gaulle was after Pétain”! ).
In saying this, De Gaulle, like Beauvoir after him and so many others, commit a serious error, perhaps deliberate, and which goes far beyond the case of the felonious marshal: It was a very lucid, not at all senile Pétain who, in keeping with all his personal values, modified himself, pen in hand, by tightening it, the October 1940 statute on the Jews; and by wanting to reduce this history to the imaginary “shipwreck” of a single man, De Gaulle aims to conceal what a very large part of the France of 1940 really was: very largely anti-Semitic, pacifist, and not very inclined to defend its Republican values. Even if hundreds of thousands of heroes and heroines sacrificed themselves to save their honour, the France of that time was lucidly wallowing in collaboration. And if it was a shipwreck, it was the conscious and perfectly assumed one of an entire country.
More generally, old age is not a shipwreck (except, of course, for those who suffer from dreadful pathologies, the causes of which science will eventually understand, and repair the consequences, just as it succeeds every day in so many new feats to help everyone live much longer in good health); old age is a time when many people, freed from all ambition to make a career and all obligation to please, to seduce, to be loved, get rid of their superego to say what they have really been thinking for a long time, to let go of their blows, to settle their accounts with their loved ones and with society.
The free speech of the elderly should therefore be seen as the revelation of their most intimate truth and not as the announcement of their decrepitude. This is why people prefer to refer to what is in fact the revelation of a much deeper reality, which only the taboos of society prevent from coming to light, as a final wreck.
Moreover, talking about old age as a shipwreck is also an excellent alibi for a society that would like to reduce its burdens and not ensure that the elderly have the means to live decently and interact with others: if old age is a shipwreck, if the elderly are delirious, they can be abandoned without shame. Thus, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are abandoned, without scruple, in unworthy EPAHDs with miserable pensions, the permanence of which is of no concern. This is especially true of the love they are deprived of, which could prolong their passion for life. This creates the conditions for a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we resign ourselves to the fact that old age is a shipwreck, we create the conditions for it to become one. We then lose the vast amount of knowledge that older people can pass on, over a very long period of time, and which a society would be wrong to deprive itself of.
Those who are given that awful name (“retired”) should be better encouraged and helped to make themselves useful, to assist in passing on their knowledge, their experiences, their successes and their failures. All this is not just a question of financial means, but of respect, tolerance and listening.
And it should probably also be seen as a metaphor for the coming shipwreck of our civilisation, which is only a moment when it reveals, through its taste for excess and its transgressive drive, what it really is. It would take a lot of love for life to avoid it.
Painting: Caspar David Friedrich, “The Stages of Life”, oil on canvas, ca. 1834 (Leipzig, Museum der Bildenden Künste).