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Reviewed by:
Kathleen Woodward. Aging and its Discontents: Freud and Other Fictions. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. 244 pp. $35.00 cloth, $12.50 paper.
Ronald R. Thomas. Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious. Cornell UP, 1990. 308 pp. $34.95.

The subtitles of these two books about psychoanalysis and literature feature the words "Freud" and "fictions" as indications that they read culture through psychoanalysis. Woodward's important and far ranging study surprises and convinces us into seeing human aging anew. Analyzing modern Western culture's "anxiety, fear, denial, repression" of aging in works by Proust, Woolf, Mann, Beckett, Barthes, and Figes, she brilliantly revises psychoanalytic theory. In contrast, Thomas's book contributes chiefly to literary history, using the treatment of dreams to chronicle changing conceptions of self and society in nineteenth-century English genre fictions—the gothic, the fictional autobiography, and detective fiction.

According to Woodward, psychoanalysis is complicit with "the fundamentally ageist ideology of western culture" that privileges youth over age so that age becomes, like gender, a structuring social hierarchy. Age structures psychoanalysis as well in Freud's vision of inevitably competing generations. Freud claimed the death of a man's father was the most important psychological event of his life, and he wrote his pioneering study, The Interpretation of Dreams, shortly after the death of his own father. In the same way that feminists have shown that Freud's view of human nature is that of a male child, so Woodward emphasizes that Freud's views are those of a male child who triumphs over and identifies with his father, only to retreat from that identification in his own adulthood when his aged father seems weak and castrated. Like popular culture, psychoanalysis develops its conceptual system no further than the achievement of adulthood and describes old age as second childhood.

From the Oedipal anxieties of sons and fathers, Woodward turns to cultural projections of fear and loathing against the body of the aging mother, who is condemned as predatory and evil if she dares to retain desires of her own after she is no longer considered desirable or nurturing. Freud's mother lived into [End Page 997] her nineties, and he mocked her aged "vanity" as though self-esteem should belong only to the young. For women, however, identification with the mother may be more complicated. According to Woodward, the Freudian son's "aggressivity" against the aged may differ from the daughter's "poignant and accepting identification" with her aged mother. Here Woodward elaborates the theories of feminist object relations theorists who claim that female gender identity is based on intergenerational linkages among women rather than on differences from men and so is asymmetrical with the formation of male gender identity.

Perhaps Woodward's most striking innovation is her conception of a "mirror stage" of old age that inverts the Lacanian mirror stage of infancy. Supposedly the young child feels its body as uncoordinated and incoherent but is persuaded into an illusion of wholeness by perceiving its image in a mirror or in its mother's eyes. In old age, Woodward hypothesizes, the process reverses. The aged person feels whole, unified, and congruent with the past self but sees in the mirror a reflection of wrinkles and decline. Thus in old age, the whole is felt to be inside, not outside, the subject. The aged increasingly separate what they feel to be their "real selves" from their bodies, and their own old age thus seems alien and "uncanny" to them.

Wounded narcissism becomes aggression against the self or others, but there is also the positive possibility of narcissism in old age transformed into identification with and "benevolent regard for the young." Thus Woodward revises the psychoanalytic categories of the Oedipus complex, the Lacanian mirror stage, and narcissism, and she also adapts to old age Freud's theories of mourning, Riviere's of masquerade, and Winnicott's of the transitional object.

Our culture defines youth as a personal right, and "the deep structure of the look of mass culture is youth versus age." Although Woodward analyzes literary representations of aging, she stresses the real social consequences of the attitudes they express...


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