To youth is often ascribed ambition, adventurousness, and restless energy. Myth assigns to youth not merely the desire for travel but compulsion for the archetypal journey of fulfillment and discovery described by Joseph Campbell as the Hero’s journey. But the old established generation intervenes sufficiently — indeed, fundamentally — by expecting adherence of the journeyer to the moral obligation to return with the boon, the treasure that will enrich the entire community. Of course, unspoken is the understanding that the youth’s desire is not to return at all, and that the boon is to empower the old.
Grimm’s fairy tales expect no such moral conscience, where the old obstinately hold hostage the youth’s desired princess, therefore obliging him to come back not with an expected boon (except news, perhaps, that he has usefully slain a dragon) but in order to wed the princess. Freud would relate all this to war and violence, a theme that bears pursuing.
The older generation projects into the youthful journey its own selfish control. The mistake of mythographers like Campbell versus the more autochthonous and realistic fairy tales collected by Grimm is to assume the veritable autonomy of youth on the one hand, factoring out mere biology, but to also overlook the authoritarian societal devices of the elders in expecting the treasure to be returned to them. Hence a narcissism that is doubled upon itself occurs in the elders. The doubling upon itself creates a new myth, cleverly presented by Oscar Wilde in his prose poem. “The Disciple,” here briefly paraphrased:
When Narcissus died, the flowers wept. They even pleaded drops of water of the river to supplement their tears. “We loved him so,” they lamented to the river. “I loved him, too,” said the river. “He was so beautiful,” added the flowers, sighing. “Was he?” asked the river. “Of course,” replied the flowers in surprise. “Surely you saw that he was, whenever he bent down to gaze into your waters.” “Oh,” said the river. “When Narcissus gazed into my waters, I only looked at my beautiful reflection in his eyes.”
As in this new myth, injecting a fresh realism, old age admires youth because it does the service of flattering and rewarding age, by which we may see institutions, corporations, power, progress, and all that previous generations of the powerful have given us. Youth does its service, fighting its wars, spending its money, consuming its products, enthralling itself.
Old age is the triumph of foolishness for many, not only clinging to the appearance of youth but manipulating youth with societal values, the very ambition and adventurism, and heroism ascribed as innate to being young. Everywhere, under the guise of institutional venerability and the fruits of hard labor are but the bastions of power, privilege, and manipulation still held in the iron grip of the old. What the old value is intact, repackaged for youth, with rewards when aped or inherited. Hero’s journey or fool’s errand?
At the same time, not all of the old are powerful, but the old do reflect the values of their youth. A dissipated, ignorant, and narcissistic youth will only lead to a similar old age.
The error of dichotomizing a person into youth versus age is to not see the fundamental process reflected in each stage, a trajectory of biology and genetics, of personality and intelligence or aptitudinal preferences, of environment and circumstance. Underlying each person is a stable and a volatile, and many degrees in between, a fiery meteor soaring for a brief moment or longer, and an immobile black hole weighing the self down into deep obscurity. Temperaments are circumstantial, as is everything else that comprises what we call the self, and what Eastern thought calls no-self. Whether manifested as youth or age, we are inexorable stages of the same elements, whether journeying in blissful ignorance or rooted in a hidden garden. What matters is to be conscious of the manipulations of society and the world.