How to Die: Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery has become commonplace. I have several acquaintances who have had operations, and we jokingly refer to the cougars at the local hot spots as “50/50 ladies” (50 years old and 50 percent plastic). It’s no longer just the older people; one of my colleagues died from complications of plastic surgery at the age of 23, and it seems like the girls in China and Korea are now competing to see who can get the most plastic at the youngest age.

I don’t have a problem with orthodontics or other mainstream cosmetic treatments, so I might be accused of hypocrisy for having a problem with plastic surgery. But I fear there is something terribly wrong in this obsession with youth. Life shouldn’t be about clinging to youth as long as possible — life is about growing old and dying gracefully.

Around age 12, one of my favorite poems was Yeats “When You are Old”:

WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

What kind of person would trade Yeats’ vision of graceful aging for plastic? Yeats had advice for those who rejoice in youthful beauty in “To a Young Beauty”:

DEAR fellow-artist, why so free
With every sort of company,
With every Jack and Jill?
Choose your companions from the best;
Who draws a bucket with the rest
Soon topples down the hill.

You may, that mirror for a school,
Be passionate, not bountiful
As common beauties may,
Who were not born to keep in trim
With old Ezekiel’s cherubim
But those of Beaujolet.

I know what wages beauty gives,
How hard a life her servant lives,
Yet praise the winters gone;

There is not a fool can call me friend,
And I may dine at journey’s end
With Landor and with Donne.

Around 200 BC, a Greek sculptor created a statue of a “Dying Gaul“, which has ever since been a symbol of how to die. Upon seeing the statue of the dying Gaul, still a dead ringer for Yeats’ countrymen, Lord Byron was inspired to write:

I see before me the gladiator lie
He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one..

Rather than being a celebration of youth, the dying Gaul shows the wisdom of Montaigne’s advice:

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.

He doesn’t try to prolong his youth any longer than is given to him. Montaigne examines this topic in his essay 17, “To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die“, as well as a few other essays.

I recently read through “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer“, in which the author collects Montaigne’s thoughts on life, death, and much between. It’s not fantastic, but not bad, and I’m convinced that Montaigne would share my same misgivings about plastic surgery.

2 thoughts on “How to Die: Plastic Surgery”

  1. I love that Yeats line “when you are old and gray and full of sleep”. (Although something tells me he wouldn’t have spelled it “gray”).

    In secondary school (equivalent of high school, I guess) in Ireland you are force-fed Yeats on a daily basis. You’re told he was this great poet – perhaps one of the greatest – but often you just get the feeling he was a slightly grumpy, overly earnest guy who should have forgotten about Maud Gonne and moved on with his life.

    But then, years later, you read over poems like “Among School Children”, “An Irish Airman Foresees his death”, “Sailing to Byzantium” and so on, and you think maybe he wasn’t half bad.

  2. LOL, I can see that! I always thought that Yeats was the kind of guy who wouldn’t have made a marriage proposal that he didn’t know would be rejected, though. Convincing oneself that God has sent a muse is a lot more rewarding than getting bogged down in the drudgery of making a life with someone else. But Iseult? WTF?

    I hear enough stories from colleagues who were raised in Ireland proper that I imagine I’d have a hard time appreciating Yeats if I was raised there. My grandmother was Ulster, so I guess that reading Yeats was slightly subversive for me.

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