Nobody knows what he might be working on up in Anglican Heaven, but back on earth, Edward Said's last article is a reminder that, before he attracted cheers and jeers as a political commentator, Said was himself both a cheering and jeering critic of art, music, and literature. This article, "The rage of the old," takes on an interesting topic: late-career works, and what coherent statements they make about a creative life:
Each of us can supply evidence of how it is that late works crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavour. Rembrandt and Matisse, Bach and Wagner. But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction? What if age and ill health don't produce serenity at all?
This is an edited version of a longer article in the London Review of Books, but I wish Said had addressed two questions. The first is how late works are so often hated. It's a truism (and it's also true) of rock concerts that nobody is there to hear the new material, and this is applicable across the creative universe. Late-career work is almost always a catch-22: People hate you for doing the same thing you've always done or hate you for not doing what you've always done. James T. Farrell's readers never forgave him for leaving Chicago; Hemingway wrote one bad book after another from the 1930s on. Said himself is known mainly for his early stuff. How earlier fans react to later work has to have some effect on the work itself.
The other question, considering how widely career spans vary, is whether "late" works can be compared at all. Said mentions two artists with recognizable late-period works: Shakespeare and Giuseppe Verdi. Shakespeare was in his mid-40s when he did his late work; Verdi was 80. The number of years lived and brain cells lost are so different that it's hard to see how the two examples are comparable. Even short careers are hard to compare because people die in different ways. John Keats knew he was dying young; Nathanael West didn't. And where do you place rock and/or roll's class of 27, or the popular poetry of Mattie Stepanek? The writer Steven Millhauser threw a monkey wrench in the works with his book Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, a mock-reminscence of a great American novelist who dies at the age of 11. Still, this is an interesting discussion of a great subject, that will only get more complex if the promise of doubled life spans is ever fulfilled. Thanks to ArtsJournal for the link.