Old Age and Senior Subjectivity: Intellectual Reflections and Literary Representations across Cultures




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Old age is a subject in both intellectual thought and literary representations, but senior subjectivity is a topic that has not been adequately studied. To address this topic, this dissertation undertakes a comparative study of old age and senior subjectivity in Western and Eastern intellectual thought and literary works. Senior subjectivity is a notion that covers old people’s self-awareness, social identity, and cultural conditioning by external factors including language, ideology, human relationships, and social assessments. This study consists of two endeavors. The first endeavor reviews and compares historical views of old age by thinkers, scholars, and artists including Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Goethe, and others in the West, and Shakyamuni, Confucius, Zhuangzi, and others in the East. The second endeavor analyzes various literary representations of old age in carefully chosen literary works from both Eastern and Western traditions. Both parts aim to uncover common and distinctive features in the conceptions and representations of senior subjectivity across cultures. In the West, views on old age are diversified and even conflicting, revealing Western people’s ambivalence toward the last phase of life. In China, however, the topic is much less controversial because of the integrated views of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism that tend to hold old age as a period of life which acquires wisdom through rich experiences and obtains peace of mind through self-cultivation. Throughout history, both Western and Chinese thoughts on senior subjectivity have inspired interesting representations in literature. In the West, two types of literary representations of senior subjectivity are generated: the miserable conditions of old age and the elderly’s wish for rejuvenation. In Chinese literature, the elderly are usually described as possessing wisdom and authority which can either benefit or harm interpersonal and intergenerational relations. My research on intellectual thought and close reading of certain fictional works have uncovered these findings: (1) senior subjectivity is constructed by the interplay between the awakened elderly consciousness and the senior identity conceived by such external powers as language, culture, and ideology during old age; (2) the construction of senior subjectivity is a long, dynamic and fluid process, which is determined by the elderly person’s encounters and challenges throughout life; (3) healthy senior subjectivity depends on a successful resolution of the conflicts between self-alienation and self-disalienation. The success or failure in achieving satisfactory subjectivity in old age is determined by whether or not a senior person is able to find peace and tranquility for the soul before reaching end of life.



Old age in literature, Older people—Social conditions, Subjectivity, Intellectual life, Literature—Research, East and West



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