Heirs of history – or its orphans? Michael Krasny in conversation with Robert Harrison


Robert Harrison on radio (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Neoteny. It’s a word that combines two Greek roots: neos, meaning new or young; teinein, meaning to stretch or retain. In evolutionary biology, it’s “a general slowing of the rate of development that makes it possible to retain juvenile features in later stages of the life cycle,” writes Robert Pogue Harrison in his new book Juvenescence (we’ve written about it here and  here and here). “We don’t know if society can survive on genius alone without wisdom,” said Robert during a recent radio interview. “We may be on cusp.”

He spoke with Michael Krasny on KQED’s “Forum” (listen to it here), arguing that as the world gets older and the millennia stack up, we nevertheless have become younger than all previous generations – a very difficult paradox, he says.

Like Robert, I have pondered neoteny in our culture. We live longer and longer, on average – but have we had any net gains for human wisdom? Lately I’ve wondered if the added years are simply chunked onto a prolonged adolescence and youth. Education continues into one’s twenties and beyond. People wait till their forties and even fifties to have children. Old age has become a prolonged period of taxidermy.


KQED interlocutor

Still, we’re under the illusion that more time means better life, a greater fulfillment of potential. Does it? Mozart didn’t require middle age to finish his work (well, not much of it – he died at 45), John Keats completed his oeuvre at 25 – both relied on the youthful fire of genius. But what of the balancing wisdom of age? As Silicon Valley strives to extend our lifetimes to the brink of immortality (no doubt only prime specimens will be selected for the honor) – what kind of society will it yield, when the gravitas that traditionally comes with maturity is eschewed in favor of a fevered quest for the trappings of youth?

“I don’t deny that Silicon Valley high tech is every day changing our way of being in the world,” Robert said in the interview. But both he and Krasny  pointed out that the most highly touted “revolutionary” changes wrought by Silicon Valley are often producing … well … sophisticated toys and doodads.  A new app for local restaurants, for example. The trade-off should cause reflection, Robert said, for we’re increasingly passing our “reality” through the screen of a smartphone. Social media? I’m on Twitter, too, but I realize that it’s driven by a world of children – for teenagers with time on their hands, tweeting their grumbles about school lunches. We can never keep up. In the face of dizzying change, “we need a certain amount of inter-generational stability,” Robert said. Good luck with that. In a world of toys, who wants to be a grown-up? What’s the payoff?

Hey baby, it's you.

Hey baby, it’s you.

I recall  of comedy in the early 60s, the era of the beach party movies and others of that ilk, where you have fun, fun, fun till your daddy took the t-bird away. A staple comedic figure in these films would be a guy who had a title like “Dean of Students,” balding and a little stout and stuffy. He’d burst into the students’ dorm rooms where the girls in bikinis were partying with the boys. Arms akimbo, he’d open his mouth to raise his voice in outrage – and bam! – a bucket of slops prepared for a nerdy student would empty on his head instead. Laughter for all.

As I grew up, I realized what an essential figure the Dean of Students is – and not just for comedy. Somebody had to be the authority figure to say no. Somebody had to be willing to make themselves the figure of fun and face the ridicule of reckless youth, that hasn’t yet learned of the big pricetag attached to early decisions. It’s a thankless role – but part of a grown-up is not waiting for thanks or some sort of payoff to do what needs to be done. Maybe that’s words like “duty” have passed out of our rituals of praise – duty is a drag.

My father used to say that kids don’t need a dad to smoke marijuana with – they’ll find those buddies on their own. (Actually, his example was “to learn to skate,” not marijuana, but still…) Kids need parents to make sure they do their homework, are kind to animals, and can eat without revolting other people. They need grandparents for the lessons of time. Instead, our media regularly shows us a series of elderly women (cough, cough, Helen Mirren, Madonna) in bikinis, to prove to us they can still “get away with it” – and regularly features the masks of famous Hollywood zombies who have had so much surgery that they are now unrecognizable. In that sense, every Oscar ceremony is a “Night of the Living Dead.” This is what maturity offers us – the opportunity to compete with youth.

Who wants to be an adult? Growing up outside Detroit, the new Mrs. Henry Ford II, the Italian socialite Christina Ford regularly filled the local newspaper pages – her husband, in fact, rather resembled the Dean of Students in those beach party movies. I remember my mother reading one article where the forty-something Mrs. Ford lamented the disappearance of the Italian mamas of her youth, the thick-waisted, enveloping women in shapeless black dresses, who always had something wonderful about to pop out of the oven. My mother hooted with derisive laughter. “She’s supposed to be one of those women!” And well, you can see from the Life cover above.

juvenescenceWhich is not an argument in favor of wearing shapeless black rags. The emphasis on wishing to be mothered, rather than wishing to mother – the wish to be loved, rather than exposing oneself to the great suffering that loving often entails – makes me wonder. What became of maturity, and eventually the graceful surrender to time? There’s a great freedom in not needing to be cool. The evening by the fireside with conversation and port instead of the evening with the trophy bride and papparazzi. (Cough, cough, Salman Rushdie – we wrote about that here.) In our public and political life, many keep calling for a Churchill – but would we want one if we could find one, and would we recognize one if we saw one?

So does that mean that we are all in the throes of adolescence, that we are all young? Not really, says Robert. “We’re a youth-worshiping society,” and yet “our society is waging pitiless war against the condition of youth, which requires idleness, shelter, freedom to fail, full-bodied relationship to nature.” It also requires “the freedom to pursue idiosyncratic call of the self, which requires disconnection from the noise of collective. It bears fruit later in human relations. We have made it more difficult to be truly young.”

Robert recalled leafing through his father’s school yearbook – the teenagers were “fully grown adults – youngish, but fully grown adults. I hardly see that in my undergraduates today.” Similarly, the faces of boys in developing countries who look like “weathered, fully formed adults. Dignfiied, majestic, senile traits – in the First World, we hardly ever acquire them.” Senile, that is, in the classic OED sense – “characteristic or caused by old age” opposed to puerile, “like a boy.”  Our older people crave youth, and our youth are born into a vacuum. Are we the heirs of history – or its orphans?

A passage from his book:

“…neoteny resists the tyranny of legacy. To delay the rate of development entails not only a reluctance to grow up but a reluctance to reproduce a fixed and senile form that links us to ancestry by the laws of repetition and identity. In that regard neoteny gives humans a greater species freedom, both from the genetic dictates of the past and for new, as yet unrealized, possibilities. By holding on to the plasticity of youth for much longer periods, and in some cases throughout our entire lives, we have expanded our evolutionary options considerably, becoming over time a lighter, freer, more agile, and adventuresome species. In short, a more intelligent and youthful species. Or better, a more intelligent – because more youthful – species.

“The Ode on Man in Antigone offers us a glimpse into the more terrifying side of this youthful openness to wonder, discovery, and knowledge of the world. The determination to boldly go where no one has gone before takes us to the moon and into the arcana of chromosomes; it gives us the microchip and the atom bomb. Yet for all the novelties it has brought into the world since Sophocles composed the ode, there is one part of the ongoing human story that doesn’t change. Even if our youthful intelligence one day succeeds in rendering death optional rather than necessary, what the chorus says about anthropos will remain true: ‘everywhere journeying, inexperienced and without issue, he comes to nothingness.’ Thus, if our genius derives from our reluctance to grow up, our wisdom derives from our heightened awareness of death … it is when the two work together – and not one against one another – that human culture flourishes.”

Listen to the Robert Harrison interview on Michael Krasny’s “Forum” here.


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One Response to “Heirs of history – or its orphans? Michael Krasny in conversation with Robert Harrison”

  1. George Says:

    Churchill seems to me to have preserved boyish traits into his middle years and beyond, much to the world’s benefit in 1940 and 1941, somewhat less before and after that.

    I could not find my father’s high school yearbook, but I did find my grandfather’s college yearbook. At 18 I might have have taken the college men in those pictures for fully grown adults. Now they look like intelligent, well dressed young men, but I see youth more than maturity.