Timeliness and Lateness
The relationship between bodily condition and aesthetic style seems at first to be a subject so irrelevant and perhaps even trivial by comparison with the momentousness of life, mortality, medical science, and health, as to be quickly dismissed. Nevertheless, my contention is as follows: all of us, by virtue of the simple fact of being conscious, are involved in constantly thinking about and making something of our lives, self-making being one of the bases of history, which according to Ibn Khaldun and Vico, the great founders of the science of history, is essentially the product of human labor.
The important distinction therefore is that between the realm of nature on the one hand and secular human history on the other. The body, its health, its care, composition, functioning, and flourishing, its illnesses and demise, belong to the order of nature; what we understand of that nature, however, how we see and live it in our consciousness, how we create a sense of our life individually and collectively, subjectively as well as socially, how we divide it into periods, belongs roughly speaking to the order of history that when we reflect on it we can recall, analyze, and meditate on, constantly changing its shape in the process. There are all sorts of connections between the two realms, between history and nature, but for now I want to keep them apart and focus only on one of them, history.
Being myself a profoundly secular person, I have for years been studying this self-making process through three great problematics, three great human episodes common to all cultures and traditions, and it is the third of these problematics that I want specifically to discuss in this book. But for purposes of clarity, let me quickly summarize one and two. The first is the whole notion of beginning, the moment of birth and ori- gin, which in the context of history is all the material that goes into thinking about how a given process, its establishment and institution, life, project, and so on, gets started. Thirty years ago I published a book called Beginnings: Intention and Method about how the mind finds it necessary at certain times to retrospectively locate a point of origin for itself as to how things begin in the most elementary sense with birth. In fields like history and the study of culture, memory and retrospec- tion draw us to the onset of important things—for example, the beginnings of industrialization, of scientific medicine, of the romantic period, and so on. Individually, the chronology of discovery is as important for a scientist as it is for someone like Immanuel Kant who reads David Hume for the first time and, he says memorably, is briskly awakened from his dogmatic slumber. In Western literature, the form of the novel is coincidental with the emergence of the bourgeoisie in the late seventeenth century, and this is why, for its first century, the novel is all about birth, possible orphanhood, the discovery of roots, and the creation of a new world, a career, and society. Robinson Crusoe. Tom Jones. Tristram Shandy.
To locate a beginning in retrospective time is to ground a project (such as an experiment, or a governmental commission, or Dickens’s beginning to write Bleak House) in that moment, which is always subject to revision. Beginnings of this sort necessarily involve an intention that either is fulfilled, totally or in part, or is viewed as totally failed, in successive time. And so the second great problematic is about the continuity that occurs after birth, the exfoliation from a beginning: in the time from birth to youth, reproductive generation, maturity. Every culture offers and circulates images of what has been wonderfully called the dialectic of incarnation, or in François Jacob’s phrase, la logique du vivant. Again to give examples from the history of the novel (the Western aesthetic form that offers the largest and most complex image of ourselves that we have), there is the bildungsroman or novel of education, the novel of idealism and disappointment (L’Education sentimentale, Les Illusions perdues), the novel of immaturity and community (like George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which the English critic Gillian Beer has shown was powerfully influenced by what she calls Dar- win’s plots for the patterns of generation that structure this great novel of nineteenth-century British society). Other aesthetic forms, in music and painting, follow similar patterns.
But there are also exceptions, examples of deviation from the overall assumed pattern to human life. One thinks of Gulliver’s Travels, Crime and Punishment, and The Trial, works that seem to break away from the amazingly persistent underlying compact between the notion of the successive ages of man (as in Shakespeare) and aesthetic reflections of and on them. For it bears saying explicitly that both in art and in our general ideas about the passage of human life there is assumed to be a general abiding timeliness, by which I mean that what is appropriate to early life is not appropriate for later stages, and vice versa. You will recall, for example, the stern biblical observation that to everything there is a season and a time, to every purpose under the heaven, a time to be born, and a time to die, and so on: “wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him? . . . All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean.”
In other words, we assume that the essential health of a human life has a great deal to do with its correspondence to its time, the fitting together of one to the other, and therefore its appropriateness or timeliness. Comedy, for instance, seeks its material in untimely behavior, an old man falling in love with a young woman (May in December), as in Molière and Chaucer, a philosopher acting like a child, a well person feigning illness. But it is also comedy as a form that brings about the restoration of timeliness through the kommos with which the work usually concludes, the marriage of young lovers.
I come finally to the last great problematic, which for obvious personal reasons is my subject here—the last or late period of life, the decay of the body, the onset of ill health or other factors that even in a younger person bring on the possibility of an untimely end. I shall focus on great artists and how near the end of their lives their work and thought acquires a new idiom, what I shall be calling a late style.
Does one grow wiser with age, and are there unique qualities of perception and form that artists acquire as a result of age in the late phase of their career? We meet the accepted notion of age and wisdom in some last works that reflect a special maturity, a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of common reality. In late plays such as The Tempest or The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare returns to the forms of romance and parable; similarly, in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, the aged hero is portrayed as having finally attained a remarkable holiness and sense of resolution. Or there is the well-known case of Verdi who, in his final years, produced Othello and Falstaff, works that exude not so much a spirit of wise resignation as a renewed, almost youthful energy that attests to an apotheosis of artistic creativity and power.
Each of us can readily supply evidence of how it is that late works crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor. Rembrandt and Matisse, Bach and Wagner. But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction? What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of “ripeness is all”? This is the case with Ibsen, whose final works, especially When We Dead Awaken, tear apart the career and the artist’s craft and reopen the questions of meaning, success, and progress that the artist’s late period is supposed to move beyond. Far from resolution, then, Ibsen’s last plays suggest an angry and disturbed artist for whom the medium of drama provides an occasion to stir up more anxiety, tamper irrevocably with the possibility of closure, and leave the audience more perplexed and unsettled than before.
It is this second type of lateness as a factor of style that I find deeply interesting. I’d like to explore the experience of late style that involves a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against. . . .
Adorno used the phrase “late style” most memorably in an essay fragment entitled “Spätstil Beethovens,” dated 1937 and included in a 1964 collection of musical essays, Moments musicaux, then again in Essays on Music, a posthumously published (1993) book on Beethoven. For Adorno, far more than for anyone who has spoken of Beethoven’s last works, those compositions that belong to what is known as the composer’s third period (the last five piano sonatas, the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the last six string quartets, the seventeen bagatelles for piano) constitute an event in the history of modern culture: a moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it. His late works constitute a form of exile. One of Adorno’s most extraordinary essays, included in the same collection with the late-style fragment, is on the Missa Solemnis, which he calls an alienated masterpiece (verfremdetes Hauptwerk) by virtue of its difficulty, its archaisms, and its strange subjective revaluation of the Mass (EM 569–83).
What Adorno had to say about late Beethoven throughout his voluminous writings (Adorno died in 1969) is clearly a philosophical construction that served as a sort of beginning point for all his analyses of subsequent music. So convincing as cultural symbol to Adorno was the figure of the aging, deaf, and isolated composer that it even turned up as part of Adorno’s contribution to Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, in which young Adrian Leverkühn is impressed by a lecture on Beethoven’s final period given by Wendell Kretschmar, and you can perceive in the following passage how unhealthy it all seems:
Beethoven’s art had overgrown itself, risen out of the habitable regions of tradition, even before the startled gaze of human eyes, into spheres of the entirely and utterly and nothing—but personal—an ego painfully isolated in the absolute, isolated too from sense by the loss of his hearing; lonely prince of a realm of spirits, from whom now only a chilling breath issued to terrify his most willing contemporaries, standing as they did aghast at these communications of which only at moments, only by exception, they could understand anything at all.
This is almost pure Adorno. There is heroism in it but also intransigence. Nothing about the essence of the late Beethoven is reducible to the notion of art as a document—that is, to a reading of the music that stresses “reality breaking through” in the form of history or the composer’s sense of his impending death. For “in this way,” if one stresses the works only as an expression of Beethoven’s personality, Adorno says, “the late works are relegated to the outer reaches of art, in the vicinity of document. In fact, studies of the very late Beethoven seldom fail to make reference to biography and fate. It is as if, confronted by the dignity of human death, the theory of art were to divest itself of its rights and abdicate in favor of reality” (EM 564). Late style is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favor of reality.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from On Late Style by Edward W. Said. Copyright © 2006 by Edward W. Said. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.