Herodotus was one of the first to describe a fountain of youth, splashed about in by the legendary Macrobian people, who lived to be at least 120. ‘They ate boiled flesh’, he wrote, ‘and had for their drink nothing but milk. When the Ichthyophagi showed wonder at the number of the years, [the king] led them to a fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil—and a scent came from the spring like that of violets. The water was so weak, they said, that nothing would float in it, neither wood, nor any lighter substance, but all went to the bottom. If the account of this fountain be true, it would be their constant use of the water from it which makes them so long-lived.’ The Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León was looking for just such a prize when he travelled to what is now Florida in 1513, and the fine reputations of Miami’s cosmetic surgeons aside, these days the search has migrated across the continent, to California, where Silicon Valley’s titans go in for transfusions of ‘young blood’ and hold such competitions as the Palo Alto Longevity Prize. Those of us who’ve earned our wrinkles and think of them as adding depth, akin to the rich toning on a silver gelatin print, may not subscribe to the notion that living longer and longer is necessarily for the best; and indeed it would seem, according to research published in Nature, that there may be an upper limit to human lifespan that we’ve hit already. While life expectancy at birth has significantly increased over the past century, thanks to advances in childbirth and maternity care, clean water and the development of antibiotics and vaccines, once you pass 100 all bets are off. The oldest old people living today are still unlikely to get to 120. In a trenchant 2015 essay about the indignities of ageing, Helen Garner writes of ‘surveying my lengthening past and shortening future’—one in which she has ‘become invisible in public spaces’. However, she counters further on, decades of experience, and the fearlessness that comes of having less to lose, can teach us to listen deeply and to instigate rewarding exchanges: ‘you know how to strike up long, meaty conversations with strangers on trams and trains.’ Let her words be a reminder to strike up our own conversations with those who’ve been in the world longest, who may have secrets to pass along, if only we remember to ask.
Pando, also known as the Trembling Giant, is a forest of 40,000 quaking aspens growing near Fish Lake, in Utah. Pando (Latin for ‘I spread’) is a clonal colony—all the trees in the forest are genetically identical and share one combined root system, with roots that are believed to be somewhere between 80,000 and one million years old, making it the oldest and largest living organism on Earth. For those who consider it cheating to break records by cloning yourself (wait for the far future of humanity, Reader), the United States has other venerable specimens worth visiting: the oldest of them are Great Basin bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of California that clock in at around 5,000 years. There are also sequoias nearly that old, and grander in scale, in the Sierra Nevada range. In Lebanon, you can find the ‘Sisters’, also known as the Olive Trees of Noah, which are the oldest olives in the world. The grove of sixteen trees, which may be up to 6,000 years old, grows outside the small village of Bechealeh; local lore says that they have survived many cycles of political unrest and environmental change thanks to some protective patch of divine providence. Those of us not in the dramatic, arid climes of the American West or the Levant can always venture into the great outdoors closer to home, and seek the sanctuary of a tree of relatively advanced age in a local park or forest.
The chambered nautilus is a living fossil that pre-dates the dinosaurs and makes a nightly hunting trip from the inky ocean floor to the shallows around the coral reefs of Oceania. That journey is a good metaphor for the nautilus’s evolutionary history, according to the palaeontologist Peter Ward, who has been studying its various species in their natural habitat since 1975. The nautilus, he writes, ‘comes up to our world unchanged from the great depths of time.’ Residing in the front portion of its pearly shell, it has tentacles and a jet propulsion system like its fellow cephalopods—the class of molluscs that also includes octopuses, cuttlefish and squid. Its primitive eye has no lens. Its shell is a spectacular unfurling spiral that fascinated the ancient Greeks and inspired the English natural historian Robert Hooke to correctly surmise, in the 1600s, that its chambers held gas rather than animal flesh, which lent it buoyancy and aided its swimming adventures. It grows to the size of a dinner plate, and if you’re lucky enough to catch sight of a live one under the cover of night, when it is less likely to encounter predators (turtles and triggerfish), check to see whether the shell bears a covering of shaggy orange fur. That’s the marking of the king nautilus, also known as A. scrobiculatus, which translates to ‘crusty’.
In Poetry (2011), the Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong tells the quietly mesmerising story of Mija, a woman in her sixties played by Yun Jung-hie, who works as a nurse and lives with her troubled teen grandson, Wook (the boy’s mother lives in in another city). Mija has a certain vanity—she was once a great beauty, as the cliché goes, and still receives compliments about her appearance—and a secret health issue: she has found that she can no longer remember basic words, a symptom of early-onset Alzheimer's. The diagnosis prompts her to sign up for a local poetry class, her goal being to write a single poem. ‘I do have a poet’s vein’, she says at one point, talking on her mobile. ‘I do like flowers and say odd things.’ Against this almost prosaic backdrop comes a terrible revelation—that Wook and five of his friends, all boys, have been charged in the death of one of their classmates, a girl whose body we see floating in a river in the opening scene. The father of one of the other accused boys calls an afternoon meeting with Mija at a restaurant, where he tells her that he plans to give the dead girl’s mother a large sum of cash (with the school’s tacit endorsement). Mija sits there quiet, unreadable. After the meeting, she suddenly begins to write. At one point she had asked her poetry teacher, ‘When does a “poetic inspiration” come?’ He tells her that she has to ask for it and seek it out in the world, but that it’s there, right where she stands.
London’s Barbican has a double bill of formidable female photographers on view through 2 September, featuring Dorothea Lange—who in 1936 made a portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, now known simply as ‘Migrant Mother’, which came to symbolise the Great Depression—and Vanessa Winship, winner of the 2011 HCB Award presented by the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation. Lange’s work as a pioneer of modern documentary photography feels as urgent as ever: her images are unsparing in their depiction of poverty, displacement, environmental catastrophe and racial inequity. Capturing the United States from the 1930s to World War II and beyond, she was a quiet activist, deploying her camera as a political tool. Reflecting on her career, Lange said, ‘I believe I can see, that I can see straight and true and fast.’ Winship could be considered her inheritor. In her travels through Albania, Serbia, Kosovo and Greece in the early 2000s, and through America in 2012, when she trained her camera on the Obama re-election campaign as it zigzagged the country, she has explored ‘concepts of borders, land, memory, desire, identity and history’. Her method of using a large-format field camera, which she has described as a ‘process and procedure [with] its own internal rhythm and musicality’, seems to slow down her subjects and present them with contextual subtlety. The Barbican is showing 150 of her photographs, many of which have not previously been exhibited in the UK.
Absorbed by questions of the divine, the Malaysian artist Ahmad Zakii Anwar has depicted such immemorial subjects as the historical Buddha's face, Hindu deities and the Sufi symbol of a single rose. One of his country’s most celebrated contemporary artists, Zakii, born in 1955, chanced at the age of five upon a Renaissance nude painting published in Life magazine, which sparked his interest in realistic renderings of the human body. As a child he secretly practised copying nudes, ashamed of his fascination because of his conservative Muslim upbringing. After studying graphic art at university, he found steady and lucrative work as a freelance designer and illustrator until committing to a full-time fine art practice at the age of 36. A series of paintings he undertook in the late 1990s were of kitchen items he associated with his recently deceased mother. A subsequent series on traditional dancers and actors included etchings of Mak Yong actors performing a folk dance-drama under the cover of night (by necessity—the art form is banned in Malaysia). The rippling musculature and electric postures of Zakii’s figures—not to mention his choice of subjects—have put him at times in his own conflicts with authority. ‘Does painting a Christlike figure or a Buddha make me less of a Muslim? Is my faith in my religion so easily shaken?’ he asked a reporter. ‘The answer is no. I go very deeply into my religion and I find Islam to be a beautifully tolerant religion.... I want people who look at the work to feel inner peace.’
In 2016, the young tenor saxophonist, bandleader and composer Shabaka Hutchings went to Johannesburg and recorded Wisdom of Elders in a single day. A collaboration with a group of South African musicians under the name Shabaka and the Ancestors, the album has an ambitious Afrofuturist flavour and features the rich instrumentals of Hutchings and of the talented trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, the pianist Nduduzo Makhathini and the percussionists Gontse Makhene and Tumi Mogorosi. The tracks ‘Joyous’, ‘Natty’ and ‘Mzwandile’ are indeed impish and lodge themselves in one’s third ear, so to speak. There are hints of Caribbean calypso—Hutchings was born in London but moved to Barbados at the age of six, where he studied classical clarinet before switching to saxophone when he was ten—as well as of central African folk and southern African Nguni music. You can also hear the influence of John Coltrane, Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders in some of the riffs and detours. ‘I see energy as being a form of wisdom to be passed down through the ages’, Hutchings said at the time of the album’s release. ‘When we study the music, the lives, the words of our master musicians we obtain a glimpse of that artist’s essential energy source.’
O Chonghui published her first story, ‘The Toyshop Woman’, in 1968, when she won an annual new writers’ competition in the Chungang-ilbo, a Seoul daily. In the story, a young woman pillages an empty classroom for money and things she’ll be able to sell, then takes her loot to an old toy shop; by the end, we’ve learned of the scarcity and family trouble that have pushed her to this point. This and eight other strong, memorable tales make up the collection River of Fire and Other Stories—all forbidding accounts of family and statewide dysfunction that reveal the decline of an agrarian society and the alienating urban, industrial life that has replaced it. In ‘One Spring Day’, for example, a woman describes a marriage so safe it has become claustrophobic: ‘Peace filled our home, imbued my relationship with Sungu, a peace absolute and invulnerable in which no leaf on a tree could be disturbed. But what had I sacrificed for it? Our relationship was like stagnant water—stale, peaceful.’ In the title story, a working-class couple struggles along, the wife dutiful, the husband itchy with dissatisfaction. ‘I was surprised at the loathing I detected in his voice. “All I ever hear is the machine, whether I'm at home or on the bus. I feel like the pedals are attached to my ears. Sometimes I think I'm going crazy. Your breathing at night—that gets me thinking of the machine too. It really bothers me—I don't want to be stuck in a cage like a squirrel turning a wheel for the rest of my life.”’ This work provides a vivid and moving perspective on specifically Korean mores as well as on universal themes of loneliness, ageing and disappointment; O Chonghui’s tonal control and dispassionate voice belie the current of feminist candour that courses through it.
Daniel Torday’s first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, explores a worshipful relationship between an impressionable youngster, Eli, and his dashing uncle Poxl, the author—and unreliable narrator, it turns out—of a memoir about his time as a bomber pilot during World War II. The book is a nuanced look at the pitfalls of hero-worship, and Torday delves further into this theme in a beautiful, wide-ranging essay in The Paris Review. ‘A Writer in the Family’ looks at his literary inheritance in the form of a great-great-uncle, Frederic Neuburg, who collected rare glass and wrote about it in prodigious detail; the essay looks as well (more diffusely and allusively) at Torday’s great-uncle György, a novelist of socialist-realist propagandist material whose books have never been translated into English, which renders them abstract touchstones. From there Torday ranges into a discussion of Pliny the Elder and his death during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the exact circumstances of which remain a mystery only partially dispelled by the account of his nephew, Pliny the Younger. Torday concludes with lingering questions of his own, after a letter to Honza North, Frederic Neuberg’s son, goes unanswered and he learns from North’s daughter that the old man has died. ‘Honza was the last of that generation of my Eastern European family. With him died the answers I’d longed to have—Where is Neuburg’s glass? ... What did that glass smell like on a shelf in Leitmeritz? What did it sound like when two pieces of Roman glass clinked against each other? ... These are questions now for the next generation, hearing the old voice in our heads or clanging leaden on the page, full of conjecture, every day floating just farther from the island of fact.’
Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber
‘You are not too old and it is not too late to dive into your increasing depths where life calmly gives out its own secret.’