Sunday, March 8, 2009

Dotage & a tragedy (little t)


The saga of Groucho and Marx, the monarch butterfly caterpillars took a sinisiter twist this morning. When we went to bed last night Groucho was winding himself/herself into his/her cocoon while Marx appeared to be in the process of beginning to do the same. When we came down this morning Groucho'’ chrysalis hung contentedly from its stalk whereas Marx had fallen off and drowned in the water surrounding the pot. The stupid creature hadn’t attached itself properly. Anne said ‘how tragic’. I said, “such a greedy guts, it probably was too heavy.’ I never thought caterpillars could become so interesting.

I once asked Mum how she felt when her pet lambs were taken to the freezing works. She replied, ‘I never named them, Dick always did.’ He christened one lamb Snowflake and then couldn’t make the wrench to send it off. It earnt its keep as a Judas sheep.

The Main Show

A word intrudes into my consciousness – a word I do not want to use, indeed I’m even reluctant to acknowledge its existence. It is ‘dotage’, derived from Old English meaning silly and it is used disparagingly about aged people who are frail and senile. I understand why the Greeks invented gods who were immortal - Aphrodite always beautiful, Artemis always chaste, while down the ages Zeus would hurl his thunderbolts and huff and puff about human folly. Age-old, that human search for perfection, we want to lasso particular moments and hold them fast forever. Hollywood pursues the same myth. Against all odds the hero survives, lovers are always young and athletic, the aged are either comic relief or a bothersome nuisance.

Those ancients had a chilling legend about a mortal man, Tithonius. A minor god Eos – rosy-fingered dawn with the snowy eyelids responsible for the first glimmer of day light - fell in love with him. She begged Zeus to confer immortality upon her beloved. At length he gave in to her persistent demands and granted her wish. But she forgot to ask for Tithonius’s perpetual youth. Everything was fine at first but then he began to age. Eos tried to kept him young with celestial ambrosia but in vain, he wrinkled and shrunk and became more and more impotent and decrepit. Tennyson describes his plight. “Immortal age beside immortal youth, and all I was in ashes”. Eos locked him away out of sight and went off as the Greek gods were wont to do seeking other lovers. Eventually Zeus took pity on him and turned him into a cricket.
Helen of Troy’s face may have launched a thousand ships, but the search for the fountain of youth sent more. Most societies had some legend about the search for a cure to stop or at least slow down ageing. I read once an account of Thomas Parr an English peasant in the 17th century. He lived on a spartan diet, cheese, fresh fruit and bread. He was summoned at the age of 152 to the court where the Charles 1 hoped to learn the secrets of longevity. So lavishly did they feed the poor fellow that he fell ill and died. Even if the king had learnt a secret it would have done him little good, his head soon to be chopped off by the executioner’s axe. I wonder what Parr drank? Most contemporary accounts have beer as the chief beverage. Parr’s diet does sound sensible. Not like medieval scientist Roger Bacon’s recipe for longevity which was the rejuvenating powers of the breathe of young virgins. A likely remedy. Maybe I lay a too cynical 21st century template on the philosopher’s motives. My source claimed the Parr story is true, but I have not been able to verify it. I can vouch for the Bacon. And the beer.

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