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A sea of possibilities

Thea Dorn considers two takes on life after 40

The population in Germany is ageing, there's no denying it. Generation Golf (known elsewhere as Generation X) is not sure whether to mourn or celebrate their arrival at the roughly halfway mark. Philosopher and crime writer Thea Dorn (b. 1970) has a look at two books that address this chapter in life. Is the glass half empty or half full? While FAZ editor Claudius Seidl (b.1959) enjoys eternal youth by simply refusing to age, cabaret artist Desiree Nick (b.1960) has no fear of ageing beyond 40: that's when life for women really begins.

Can you remember the summer of 2000? The weather held back and its boredom was somehow fitting: it was the summer of pop lit, the only summer that the "Generation Golf" danced. In his book of the same title, Florian Illies finally found the right label for the generation of 30 somethings whose entire lives, from kindergarten on, had been defined by labels. He described the sound made when opening a jar of Nutella, the only true hazelnut cream, with such elegiac detail that an entire nation began to wallow in the memory of the brown mush of childhood; the author became known as the Marcel Proust of the Nutella jar.

A little earlier in the noble Adlon Hotel, the "pop cultural Quintet" around Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre had laid their credit cards on the table and played a round of aphoristic gentleman's poker, the result of which was published in book form as "Tristesse Royale": a manifesto of those who felt they had outgrown Nutella and preferred to discuss the pros and cons of designer shirts. It was the summer that those with drivers licences – or rather, theoretically grown-up web designers, newspaper editors and dramatists - terrorised the German sidewalks on their high speed roller boards, also known as kickboards. It was the summer when I began to realise that my generation deserved to be slapped in the face by world history.

We all know, since September 2001, who took this initiative. For a moment it really looked as if the entire pop literature and blabber about 'in' party behaviour, 'in' taste in music and 'in' hazelnut cream was going to suffer the same fate as the Twin Towers in New York. Yes, for a while I really believed that after 9/11, an autumn of reflection would begin: real self-criticism by a generation that seemed to have concluded from their birth into a solvent world, that they had the right to lead lives of excess.

But then a "Generation Golf Two" appeared in the summer of 2003; on the cover was the picture of a car in tail-spin. The only thing different about the text was that the contemptuous self-contentment "and if Nutella is the only important thing in our lives, then so be it" was complimented by a childish maudlin tone "Mum, I'm not ready for such ugly things, like what the terrorists did in New York!" The book was not the mega-success that the first one had been, but my generation kept nodding like the car-window-dog with the bobbing head, and kept buying en masse. Yes, that Florian, he writes exactly what we're feeling.

In these days, another representative of the (expanded) Generation Golf set out to research the anatomy of this species. Claudius Seidl, born 1959, Feuilleton editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (Illies was in charge of the "Berlin Pages", which the FAZ was able to afford for a while as a trendy accessory) wrote an essay whose thesis was clear from its title: "Schöne junge Welt. Warum wir nicht mehr altern" ("Brave young world – why we don't age any more".)

Seidl begins with the observation he made one morning; even though he knew that his 40th birthday was behind him, he still felt so damned young. Young meant for him physically fit, with few wrinkles on his face, happy to put on shoes without socks or suits without ties, still capable of hanging out till dawn at 'in' parties with "women, wonderful women". The author compares this behaviour with that of past generations and comes to the conclusion that a "revolution" has taken place: "The entire framework of life has collapsed. The 'biographical floor plans' are no longer useful." Looking at photos of his parents, he concludes that they look older and more established at 30 than he does in his mid-40s. In Biblical fashion, one could say: in the past, a man planted a tree, built a house and bore a son at 40. Today the son is still sitting in the tree house at 40.

And precisely at this moment, the author gets a little uncomfortable. Is it not a bit embarrassing, "inadequate" (a seminal category of my generation) to still be playing career starter at 40 or 50? Referring to the 1950s comedy "Monkey Business", in which Cary Grant gets good laughs as a 40 year old man who takes a youth serum and suddenly begins behaving as though he has just slid through puberty, Seidl writes: "The 40 year old who still feels strong and can dress and behave halfway decent is anything but a ridiculous figure. He is a representative inhabitant of the present day."

It is revealing that in trying to assess the "appropriateness" of contemporary behaviour, Seidl constantly refers back to the 1950s and early 60s, the heyday of philistinism. He thereby refutes his own thesis that the "biographical floor plans" are fully obsolete. The ultra-philistine "biographical floor plan" – "party yourself brainless till 30, then look for a respectable career, then have a family and get a house" – is never questioned by him or, I fear, my entire generation. The only thing that threatens this plan is the possibility that the partying should in fact carry on into the old age home. Seidl never says outright that the hip, laid-back coolness of my generation only serves to disguise bourgeois desires. But he does recognise that today's "youth culture" stems from those of the late 60s and 70s to the same extent that the chihauhau stems from the wolf. He quotes the legendary lyrics of The Who - "I hope I die before I get old" - and mentions those who have taken the words literally: Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, musicians and rebels who already looked completely destroyed at 25 and by 30 were no longer thinking of how to age in a fitting and at the same time trendy way – they were, in fact, already dead. (Interestingly, Seidl neglects Janis Joplin.)

With this motif of the prematurely completed and the prematurely dead, the central issue finally comes to light: the man who understands himself as belonging to a social elite (and the fact that Seidl does as Feuilleton editor of the FAS can hardly be refuted) arrives at the middle of his life, looks back and realises: damn, I haven't left any legacy more lasting than the doggies and the men from Mars that I finger painted on the walls of my bedroom as a child. The history of the world will wipe away my traces with the same gentle smile that Mummy had on her face as she washed away my paintings. With masochistic fervour, the author keeps returning to the "great men" of the past - Beethoven, Schiller, Hegel, Einstein, Thomas Mann – and is unable to find one that had not made history by the age of 30. Seidl dedicates a lengthy paragraph to the "Büchner-Syndrom", the pain he experienced on his own twenty-fourth birthday knowing that at that age, Georg Büchner was already dead, Fassbinder had already directed his first film and Orson Welles had already made the front cover of Time magazine. Against this backdrop, it becomes quite clear what function the eternal prolonging of the teenage disco serves: he who doesn't consider himself an adult, can dream of what heroic acts he has yet to perform.

At this point, I want to jump to another recently published book which deals with what it means to turn 40. Desiree Nick, born 1960, entertainer, cabaret artist, single-mum, and crowned "Queen of the Jungle" by her RTL TV audience, turned her last programme, "The joy of ageing – and how to avoid it" into a survival guide for the single woman in the second half of life. Already the ironically anxious title "Gibt es ein Leben nach vierzig?" ("Is there life after forty?") hints that the topic is being tackled from a completely different angle.

Her focus is not on the (luxurious) concern that one is still at middle age an embarrassing young boy who has not accomplished anything and is unable to commit to anything, but the very real fact that women at 40 have only been entitled to what one might call a "life" for what amounts, in a historical perspective, to the wink of an eye. Soundbite from Nick: "From a sociological point of view, today's woman of 40 is a new species, a mutation. Fit, experienced, eloquent, financially independent, self-confident and, thanks to minimal surgical interventions, more beautiful than ever: you almost have to call them unnaturally attractive. Women pushing 40 are on the way up!"

Seidl would be the first to agree with this last statement, and explains at length how the women we find attractive and sexy (Rene Russo, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman) are closer to the 40 than the 30 mark; but he completely misjudges the power of the freedom of women who are beyond 40, and who are entitled to life ambitions other than experiencing the birth of a grandchild or being buried alongside their husbands.

Whereas Seidl fears drowning "in the sea of possibilities" as he says, quoting freely from Kierkegaard, Nick says: it's great that I can finally get out onto this sea. And: at forty, I know so much more about life and am a far better captain than ever before. This perspective is eerily lacking from Seidl. His book ends with the hope that he'll finally reach shore and hindsight will be gentle. The idea of spending a life afloat in the sea of possibilities and thereby becoming a more adult, more experienced, more responsible (and then perhaps more significant) person has obviously never occurred to him.

I want to note on the margins that in the dishonourable cockroach-munching Australian jungle in which Nick appears in television, none of the young men show anything approaching a backbone or maturity – only Nick, with her notorious sentence: "Mummy's going shopping".

Shortly before the end of his essay, Seidl voices the suspicion "that the price of time's hardly leaving a trace on us will be paid with our hardly leaving a trace on time". He thereby offers a variation on the anti-liberal theme that the (bourgeois) citizen has to be shaken awake from time to time by large-scale catastrophes or, better yet, wars.

I on the other hand say: we live in a time in which my generation must find its own way out of the nursery, without waiting to be sent through a "storm of steel". In the last century Alfred North Whitehead, British philosopher and mathematician, defined youth as "life still untouched by tragedy". We had 9/11, we are confronted by a growing, deadly and aggressive hatred of the West, we have more than five million unemployed in Germany and an obviously overtaxed government - is that not tragedy enough to make us screw the lid of the Nutella jar back on and relegate the kickboard to the cellar? Let's stop mistaking the sea of possibilities for a splashing pool, let's finally take on the challenge of rowing towards and seeking the horizon of our lives. And if the boys want to carry on waiting for a great fire to smoke them out of their tiny party worlds, then the women who aren't plagued by angst and who know to appreciate that sea, will have to take this initiative. It is not just a choice between Prada and Gucci.

Desiree Nick: "Gibt es ein Leben nach vierzig?" Lübbe Verlag, Bergisch-Gladbach. 253 pages, 14,90 EUR.
Claudius Seidl: "schöne junge welt. Warum wir nicht mehr älter werden"
. Goldmann, München. 190 pages, 18 EUR.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on 26 March, 2005.

Thea Dorn
, born in 1970, has lectured in philosophy at the Free University of Berlin, and given seminars on modern ethics and aesthetics. Today she writes detective fiction and is moderator of a literary program for the television broadcaster SWR.

translation: nb, lp.

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