Here's a song from our new album

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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.

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  1. Who said “You have 20 years to write your first album and 6 months for your second”?

  2. “It’s a truism (and it’s also true) of rock concerts that nobody is there to hear the new material,”

    Rock music is arguably a special case, quite different from all your other examples because it makes a big deal of youthful rebellion, edginess, hair-styles etc. One can prefer Beethoven’s 6th to the 9th but it probably won’t be because Ludwig disappointed by abandoning his “roots” and moving into a mansion.

  3. True, SM, but I think that has more to do with developments in media and distribution than with the youthful rebellion angle. Twentieth century popular music reached such a wider audience than early Romantic music that anybody making it had an incomparably huge mass of people to please. Movie actors, popular novelists, comedians: They all have the exact same problem. None of which means you haven’t raised another interesting problem with this whole topic. Beethoven alone is a practically unique late-period situation. How do you find an analogue to a deaf composer? A photographer who goes blind? A poet who forgets how to speak his native language? It’s too weird for comprehension.

  4. BTW – kudos for mentioning James T. Farell; the poor guy seems to have dropped completely off the literary charts. The Lonigan trilogy ranks among my favorite americana.

  5. “Yes, Mr. Joyce, your Ulysses is quite… err… something. But what is this new book you say you’re working on, a little more like Portrait, maybe?”

    Anyway, not comparable? The comparison is that they (Verdi, Shakespeare, etc) kept turning corners and innovating when they were expected to do boring (i.e. more traditional) things like try and sum up their life’s work or curl up and die.

    If it was easy to pick out the cause and effect from their biographies (‘it always happens at age 56 and only to left-handed geniuses born under a full moon in the middle of an unmuddied lake’) it wouldn’t be as fascinating and lakes would be crowded with expectant mothers come every full moon.

    And to me Beethoven continuing to compose after going deaf isn’t as fascinating as what he composed and the effects his works had. Faure (and others) went deaf and kept composing but he didn’t completely change Western classical music. Beethoven did, twice.

    Ludwig’s late period work broke with the musical world created by his middle period work; and the whole of it provided the main inspiration for much of the music of the next hundred years.

  6. I’ve always thought that part of the perception that great artists (in various fields) mellow out late in life is due to the fact that we’ve just become accustom to their fire. Often, part of their being considered “great” is that they have changed our sensibilities.

  7. There’s a reverse effect for certain revered artists, as well, where any half-way listenable album becomes their “best since Masterpiece X,Y or Z.” See Costello, Elvis and Dylan, Bob.

  8. “Who said “You have 20 years to write your first album and 6 months for your second”?”

    William Shatner?

  9. How much of that dynamic can be explained with a model of the following sort:

    The typical artist has a certain number of “good” works in him, distributed randomly through his career.

    The artists that become famous are the ones whose “good” works happen to disporportionately be the early ones.

    The artists whose “good” works tend to to be at the end of their careers are ignored by then (or don’t get to make their late works because of their early lack of success)?

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