“Consume my heart away; sick with desire,
and fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is…”
The lines above, and the title, are taken from the W. B. Yeats Poem Sailing to Byzantium.
In my 20s, when I first read this poem – about the spiritual journey of a man, an old man, seemingly expelled from his desires, and from the arms of the young, his heart sick – I felt removed from its meaning. My heart had an excess of affections, and so I could not empathise with this Dying Animal. I was too young to get it. These days, as I journey into the colder climate of the Middle Ages, I too am wondering if age-enlightenment is any kind of decent replacement for the wonderful arrogance and physical lustre of youth.
When author Philip Roth was in his 60s he wrote, “Old age is not a battle, it’s a massacre.” Many of Roth’s novels are about relationships, and arguably even more about fucking. His massacre (contained in his characters) has been well documented over his career, and as massacres tend to do, things go from bad to worse. He wrote a book called Dying Animal, I guess in relation to the above poem, about a tragic, aged university professor in love with one of his female students. A story I’ve seen plenty of times in real life, in Thailand, a country where many dying animals have found both sanctuary, and hell, in the arms of young lovers. It is a story that tells not only of sexuality and sensuousness, but also of our often misjudged and obsessive take on morality.
If the slow-but-sure physical effects of ageing aren’t enough to deal with, especially in this era of youth worship, there’s the ignominy of still having childish desires to get it up, or at least get it on – “LOOK AT MY HEART!!”… “No thanks, old timer,” – that really must blow. I’m not looking forward to this kind of shame, if of course it should enter my life. To compound this age indignity, the young, with their unerring belief that they will never be old and hopeless, mock these old codgers at every turn if they dare to have fun or attempt to satisfy their unyielding desires. Old age becomes a kind of comic strip for young spectators, and the funniest bits involve sex.
I remember when I first came to Thailand, I’d see the funny old man arm in arm with his garish Loi Kroh hooker (or so I unfairly adjudged!), trotting on her high heels through Central: the diabolical couple, a staple of visual life in Thailand. My friends and I would mock these eclectic pairings, and I think we felt morally superior to them, especially as we were dating real girls, our age, “good girls,” as people used to ridiculously label them…
And now my arrogance, vanity, and moral superiority embarrass me as I sit alone in front of this computer.
It’s All About the Money
We so often throw around the denouncement “it’s all about the money,” as if we are above money and only deal in pure love, which is balderdash, because it’s always got something to do with money. Our lives are steeped in economics, and our relations are always contingent somehow on money. Blessed art thou that knows what real love is…
And because of the spectre of the old man and his young gal, and our ripe conviction that it’s immoral because it’s based on cold hard cash and not the sort of real love that we deal with daily, we take the moral high ground, and we say it’s just bloody wrong. As if these girls’ necessity to get hold of that filthy thing, money – the stuff that bought the nice shoes we walk in, or paid for our first world educations, and bought our tickets to Thailand – is/was not pivotal in our survival, and so these Thai women with not much of that stuff should get down on their bruised knees and apologise for cranking up the lies in an attempt to get some. It’s a kind of Olivier Twist logic, to feel outraged that a starving kid wants more food. I wonder how these moral extroverts who condemn these cash-based hook-ups would get along without their daily bread, or what tricks they’d be willing to turn if their source of money just disappeared.
Statistically, it’s probably true that these old men, whose hearts go mushy and penises experience their first natural high in years, will be taken to the cleaners if they date poor prostitutes born a good few generations after them. Statistically, it’s probably true that most men know this risk, just as smokers know the risks of smoking when they see the horror that faces them on their stark packs. You could argue that both are linked to what Freud called the Death Drive, the self-destructive urges that in many ways make us feel so alive, and better still, in touch with our own destiny. There’s nothing as revitalising as risking your life, and maybe even bank account. Safety, the onset of ubiquitous laws and rules designed to protect us, the keeping within the guidelines of social conventions, only serves to dehumanise us. It’s one of the reasons I live here; I could die in the shower tomorrow, and for some reason I like this. Perhaps these old men enjoy taking their lives into their own hands. But I’m also being sensational, because sometimes it’s just plain old TV watching, and napping in the afternoon (sun, at least).
Something we, and certainly I, are guilty of in youth is robbing old people of their life-force; we forget they were young like us; we seem to disallow them their desires, and even their vices. It’s no wonder so many ageing men leave a country in which they are talked to like children and expected to die slowly in a supportive chair.
Julian Barnes, in his novel The Sense of an Ending, wrote about how during much of a man’s life he’s Mr. Somebody in a formal climate, but when he gets really old people revert to calling him by his first name: “Do you know something I dread? Being an old person in a hospital and having nurses I’ve never met calling me Tony. ‘Have some more of this gruel, Tony’. ‘Have you done a motion, Tony?’ Of course by the time this happens, over familiarity from the nursing staff may be way down my list of anxieties; but even so.”
No man wants to be reduced to his first name in a hospital bed, waiting to die under condescending eyes. If there is any chance of clinging to life, even if it means it might end sooner than you thought, then I cannot blame these blokes for attempting to leave with dignity…although that’s debatable, because their detractors would say they lost their dignity in their attempt to rescue it.
I wrote a feature on the Old Man/Young Woman thing a few years ago. And the conclusion was that even though in ethical terms nothing trangressive has actually happened, many of us still find it difficult to swallow. It repels us still.
“Thailand might also qualify as mythical: a country that can reverse the ageing process in old men, where formerly old codgers, once languishing in the old folk’s home on a diet of dunked Rich Tea biscuits, are liberated from death row to become real life Peter Pans spouting a new found carnal knowledge. Unfortunately for the ageing heroes the fairytale isn’t all love hearts and bird songs, some men come undone at the hands of unscrupulous witches while others must live perpetually in the black forest of popular opinion surrounded by derisive echoes and thorny indignation. Thailand may well be a country for old men, but that doesn’t change western values and opinions, the mostly-female jury made up their minds a long time ago that the old bald hobbling spectre in the dock over there clinging to his twenty year old lover is guilty of . . . something.”
What Women Want
Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn. What do most women think when they see the old man with his floozy (my decidedly unloved mother used to use this word a lot)? Am I generalising if I say that the problem of the old man/young woman relationship is mostly a woman’s problem? Or that sometimes a blistering critique is a matter of envy, and a kind of understandable ill-will, not a matter of morality. Morality is often a trump card, a pretext, as envy is also a vice, and so it must remain hidden in order to protect its founder from looking like they harbor gratuitous, egoistic ill-will.
When I asked a 20-something American woman what she thinks of old Western men with young Thai women roving around Thailand, she replied, “I hate it.” “Why?” I asked. “I just don’t like seeing them getting away with that, it’s not fair.” She laughed, knowing that this is not the usual response. She told me she doesn’t feel envious, she just dislikes the arrogance of some western men in Thailand who seem to have found some kind of unearned sexual utopia. But why is one man’s happiness another woman’s bitterness?
Some of these men, she pointed out, perhaps lacking social charisma, education and good looks, may not only be arrogant, but also misogynistic towards western women after countless rejections in their home countries, and merely bring that misogynistic attitude here to inflict upon their young Thai lovers, often infantilising them in the process. But still, what do we know? Is it our right to burst their allegedly nefarious bubbles?
What many women may also fear, perhaps unconsciously, is a lack of opportunities for themselves, less chance of being successful in the marketplace, in which their own small business must compete for love, security, attraction, protection, etc. Self-interest is taboo, and therefore some women pull out the morality card. Young men on the other hand, as I did, can bask in the superiority of youth and take the shaky moral high ground. Though they might also be somewhat peeved at some old geezer taking what they should rightfully have.
As we continued to talk about the nuances of criticising these kinds of relationships, the 20-something woman added that in some cases the old man might be able to justify why he has the young woman, so if he’s attractive, wise, intelligent, funny, rich, kind – deserving, in some small way, of love – then it’s okay, she could handle the relationship. But because in Thailand it seems to her that many relationships cannot be justified on these terms, she has a harder time accepting that. Although… She laughs again, telling me she’s well aware that this is not fair. After all, the question remains: who judges the justifications, and by what criteria? When is an old bloke right for a young gal? It seems unjust that money and looks could circumvent moralistic criticism, but nevertheless, it seems that that’s the case. Hollywood is a glaring example.
Many women tell me they are just concerned that their compatriots will fall foul of a Thai harlot’s propensity to hoodwink and excoriate a bank account. We’ve all read the books about the daft man getting done over for his life savings after falling in love with Number 34. But it’s difficult to tell what is real concern, and who is just angry, envious or scared of this East/West phenomenon.
Still, even for the most non-judgmental bystander, an old man walking hand in hand with a teenage girl seems, if not morally wrong, then at least aesthetically wrong. Perhaps this is just a matter of convention; after all, two men kissing in the 80s would have given most strong homophobes a reason to write letters to the BBC or go steaming into a gay bar with a mouthful of obscene invectives. Nowadays being gay is hardly a challenge to even the most bullheaded twerp. You’d have to fuck a squirrel live on the Beeb to elicit an angry complaint. We get used to most things in time, given that they occur often enough. But will we ever get over the age difference, or will it always cause some amount of internal distress when grandpa rocks up to the Christmas party with his twenty-year-old wife? I don’t know. I’m trying not to judge. It’s your life, enjoy it. It’ll be over soon enough.
And so, I come to the conclusion that all these bad feelings towards these old folks, and towards their young brides, is just a bad habit passed on through the ages, from mother to son, and so on.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
“It’s disgusting!” my mother would say when she saw romantic pairs coupled in some way that did not fit her idea of what was normal: discrepancies in age, colour, or gender. The cold fact is (and I apologise, mother) she just wasn’t getting any herself, and this made her embittered towards loved-up others. Someone had to take the blame. My mother probably needed to be a little more self-aware. If she couldn’t solve her internal strife, then at least she might not have taken it out on others. So many ostensible faults in this world are contrived projections of our own suffering.
And if we see that these old style geezers are in for the worst time of their lives, maybe the best we can offer them is advice, not our constipated moral judgments. All dying animals, men and women, are sick with desire, the desire to be liked, or loved, or (I’m sorry to all you prigs that find sex obscene) to have their genitals rubbed, sucked, or just looked at.
A debate on Facebook the other day inspired me to write this editorial. In the debate one young woman argued that these men will become slaves to their young prostitutes’ fiscal desires, and for that they will become destroyed, emotionally and financially. She has a point; it does happen. Still, who are we to judge them? Do we not make our own mistakes, mistakes that are often signposted, that everyone else can see, and yet we make them anyway? Because this is us truly being us, fucking up, and feeling exhilarated making our mistakes, if only until the trapdoor closes behind us. We were at least on the loose for a short time. Who are we to say these people shouldn’t do what they want to do? Our mistakes, if that’s what happens, become us; it’s our mistakes that prove to be our best education in life, and we should demand the right to make them.
I’m scared of getting old, I guess because right now I feel that no country is a country for an old man. I just hope that if I get there, to the old stage, I won’t become a character in a comic strip, or James to a nurse. Spare me some dignity, kids.
James Austin Farrell