Benjamin Button and the Shepherd of Hermas

We all know the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the story of the man born with the physical appearance of a 70-year-old who, aging backwards, gets ever younger. We know it either from Scott Fitzgerald’s original story or the 2008 film loosely based on the former, starring Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett. Some of us may also know Mircea Eliade’s 1976 novella ‘Youth without Youth’ (also made into a film by Francis Ford Coppola). A similar plot occurs in Samuel Butler’s Note-Books, and there are at least four other stories based on the same topos in the 20th century. Where does the idea of reverse aging come from? A strict Jungian might say that’s part of our collective unconscious, driven by our death-defying desire for eternal youth. While that may very well be the case, it is worth pointing out that the topos of rejuvenation was already being used in the 2nd century AD. Interestingly, I haven’t been able to find a single reference to this literary kinship in online scholarship (I wish I had more time). The earliest text I could find that makes use of this idea is the Shepherd of Hermas, written in the early 2nd century AD. The Shepherd was a popular work in the early Christian Church, comprising of allegorical visions and parables, calling the faithful to repent of the sins that have harmed the Church. The visions were given to a slave called Hermas, whom some early Christian authors believed to have been the same Hermas that Paul the Apostle sent greetings to in the Book of Romans (16:14).

The idea of gradual rejuvenation occurs in the visions, where Hermas sees the Church as an old woman, first old, then getting increasingly younger.

For she had appeared to me, brethren, in the first vision the previous year under the form of an exceedingly old woman, sitting in a chair. In the second vision her face was youthful, but her skin and hair betokened age, and she stood while she spoke to me. She was also more joyful than on the first occasion. But in the third vision she was entirely youthful and exquisitely beautiful, except only that she had the hair of an old woman; but her face beamed with joy, and she sat on a seat. (trans. by Joseph Barber Lightfoot)

The allegorical woman is not a perfect match for our Benjamin Button, whose rejuvenation is cause for both humour and sadness. The rejuvenated Church taps into a number of topoi, such as that of renewal, the idea that one starts from a position of feebleness, langour and sin and is transformed, through the Holy Spirit, into one of youth, strength and bloom. The words of the Book of Revelation are the underlying engine of the Shepherd‘s use of the rejuvenation topos: ‘And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new”. (21:5). The salvation of the Church, according to the Shepherd, depends upon this progressive rejuvenation. Whilst both Button and Dominic Matei (the hero of Eliade’s novella) die through a dissolution of the self under the tyranny of time (even the backwards passing of it), the old woman gets, one suspects, forever younger, Christically transcending death. (I am tempted to write another paragraph about socialism and the old world getting younger, but this is neither the time nor the place).

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