Posted by: Harold Knight | 06/07/2011

A certain few things are never said, or What happens to old gay men?

. . . most of us at age 70 will only be able to identify 50 percent of the smells we could recognize at 40. More than half of us at 70 will not drive at night. . . (1).

I wish I’d paid closer attention in algebra class in high school, or perhaps taken some math class after that (music students were exempted from such mundane subjects). I’d be able to figure exactly what percentage of the smells I could smell when I was forty I can still smell at 66. Let’s say 56 percent, and it will go down slowly until I’m 70. Or perhaps I can smell 100% now, and suddenly on my 70th birthday it will drop to 50%.

That figuring what might happen to me when I am 70 seems at all logical is shocking! No one except one’s grandparents and a few old priests and college professors is ever 70. A friend used to say reaching 30 didn’t bother her at all; 40 meant nothing; 50 was a piece of cake; she hardly noticed 60. But 70—oh my, she resented 70. (She lived to 92.)

Since I never can be a grandparent or a priest, I’ll have to be satisfied knowing a bunch of college students think of me as that ancient professor. That is, if I reach 70. I haven’t taken care of my body. I’m way overweight. I smoked from age 15 to age 35. I was an active, practicing, falling-down drunk for about 20 years. Now I take medication that’s most likely destroying my liver in order to keep some semblance of balance in my brain. A trade-off, liver for brain.

I may never be a grandparent or a priest, but I can be a friend.

According to Robert C. Miner, Friedrich Nietzsche posited four kinds of people not to have as one’s friends. The first and third are “those who are essentially lazy or idle,” and “those who seek to make the status of their friendship into a topic of discussion” (2).

By “lazy or idle” Nietzsche does not mean those who don’t accomplish anything. On the contrary, he means those who are “slaves to their work, even if they happen to be statesmen, businessmen, officials, or scholars. [But] Off the job, they are essentially idle.” They are “active men” who are “lacking in higher activity” (3).

The third is more complicated. Rather than try to explain it, I will simply quote Miner quoting Nietzsche.

To experience this lack of intimacy between friends as a problem is not
necessarily wrong or unhealthy. But Nietzsche does not think that the solution
is to talk about it. The supposition that friends can “talk about everything” is
a vulgar error. To make the lack of intimacy into an item of discussion is to
take the first step toward killing the friendship. Thus he writes: “Lack of intimacy
among friends is a mistake that cannot be censured without becoming
irreparable.”

When I was taking a class in the history of Dallas, I interviewed several gay men who (in 1995) were over eighty years old. They were interesting men with fascinating stories to tell about their own lives and the lives of the gay community in Dallas pre-Stonewall. The man I remember most clearly was a retired Methodist minister living in a Methodist retirement community. Alone.

Lonely.

He had but a couple of acquaintances in a community of about 200 elderly folk. He was a person whose life had been devoted to, in Nietzsche’s terms, “higher activity.” I don’t mean being a minister. He read. He loved music. He was something of a Renaissance man who had had many friends, but he was alone.

I remember his saying he didn’t want a friend he could talk to about himself, about his sexuality. That was not necessary. He simply wanted someone to be with—not someone he could talk with about “anything,” but someone he didn’t need to talk with about “everything.”

He understood, I think, Nietzsche’s admonition that one does not need to be “intimate” with every close friend. The old preacher wanted someone to argue with, to confront new ideas with, to go to a movie with and talk about it afterward. Intimacy is a goal with some, but not with every friend.

One reason the old Methodist didn’t have the kind of friend he needed was that he was gay, of course. A retired gay preacher. He didn’t need or want to talk to some other old guy about being gay. If there were other gay men in that community, he did not know who they were. He wanted someone to be with.

Miner interprets Nietzsche as asserting that “our most intimate friends are likely to have opinions about us that we would be horrified to discover.” Such friends may, in fact, be our closest friends. Nietzsche says we need to understand that they

are, indeed, friends, but they were brought to you by error and deception about yourself; and they must have learned to be silent in order to remain your friend; for almost always, such human relationships rest on the fact that a certain few things are never said, indeed that they are never touched upon (4).

We gay men spend our lifetimes seeking out other gay men. They are our friends because we are comfortable revealing to them those aspects of ourselves we know non-gay people do not want to (cannot) hear. We hardly need to reveal those things to each other. Most of my best friends are gay, and our friendships are much deeper than mutually understanding our sexuality.

One of my closest friends, however, thinks all gay men are going to hell—except me. When I am old(er) and in some sort of facility for old folks, I want him to be nearby. We won’t have to talk about sex, the things I talk with my gay friends about. We can’t talk about them. But we can now, and will be able to then, talk about things that are more important.

Smelling or not smelling the coffee, or not being able to see to drive at night are not functions of sexuality. They are functions of personhood. Being able to talk about reading Death Comes for the Archbishop could well be a function of a relationship which “rest(s) on the fact that a certain few things are never said.”

Old gay men, given the realities of retirement living, are lucky to find those kinds of relationships. More about that later.
__________
(1) Andrews, Edward M. “Finding Peace in Successful Aging.” New Theology Review 23.4 (2010): 13-20.
(2) Miner, Robert C. “Nietzsche on Friendship.” Journal of Nietzsche Studies 40 (2010): 47-69.
(3). Miner. All of this material derived from Miner.
(4) Nietzsche, from Human, all too Human, quoted in Miner.

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Responses

  1. I resisted joining senior clubs for years but now enjoy them. The traveling is so much easier and you have company going to restaurants and casinos. The Internet is a joy for the many varied videos which are free. I also very enjoyable stories to read on some nifty sites. We at this age are adept at keeping a low profile and it continues maybe not clubbing but in my fantasy life inside my mind. In there I am forever young and attractive free and happy. We all live this life so make the best of a long life.

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