Lastingness: The Art of Old Age
By Nicholas Delbanco
Hardcover, 272 pages
Grand Central Publishing
List Price: $24.99
Grow old along with me.
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Robert Browning, Rabbi Ben Ezra
America grows older yet stays focused on its young. Whatever hill we try to climb, we're over it by fifty — and should that hill involve entertainment or athletics we're finished long before. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but supermodels and newscasters, ingenues and football players all yield to the harsh tyranny of time. They turn on Fortune's wheel. Look what happens to the overnight sensation or pick of the week or fashion of the season or rookie of the year. First novels have a better chance of being noticed than a fourth or fifth. Although we're aging as a nation we don't do it willingly: The face-lift and the tummy-tuck are — against the law of gravity — on a commercial rise. Still, we join the workforce older; we get married and have children older; we live, the actuaries tell us, longer than ever before. In Sun City or Las Vegas, the retired "golden codgers" — in William Butler Yeats's phrase — rule the commercial roost. And if younger is better it doesn't appear that youngest is best; we want our teachers, doctors, generals, and presidents to have reached a certain age. Our oldest elected chief executive, Ronald Reagan, famously quipped he wouldn't hold his opponent's youth against him. In context after context and contest after contest, we're more than a little conflicted about elders of the tribe; when is it right to honor them, and when say "Step aside"?
This book is about tribal elders in the world of art. What interests me is lastingness: how it may be attained. For obvious reasons, this has become a personal matter; I published my first novel in 1966 and very much hope to continue. Too, such hope feels representative: a "generational" problem in both senses of the word. An ever-growing number of Americans are middle-aged or elderly; no natural catastrophe has thinned our swelling ranks. And the habit of creation does not die, so there are more who paint the sunset or take piano lessons or hunt the perfect end-rhyme at day's end. Our generation, like all others, yearns to produce some something that continues — and the generative impulse, when artistic, lingers on.
Yet it's a daunting proposition. To try to fashion work that might last more than a season is to recognize how hard it is to make a thing of beauty be "a joy forever" —that proud boast of a poet who died at twenty-five. John Keats tricked time; few can. (Mistakenly if modestly, he further claimed that his own epitaph should read: "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.") There are pitfalls and pratfalls abounding; much can and does go wrong. Late style only rarely consists of advance, even when we're dealing, as one critic has described it, with "the senile sublime."
So what does cause some artists just to fade away, and why is it that others soldier on? This introduction's epigraph comes at least partly tongue-in-cheek; "the last of life" is not routinely thought of as "the best." There are instances of quick success that lead to later failure — incandescent personalities who flare or gutter out. Some die too soon to confront diminution; others begin their work late. Still others remain at the easel or desk till exhaustion trumps exuberance and the whole system shuts down.
Issues of physical health and life expectancy enter in as well; what does it mean to be old in the twenty-first century as opposed to the sixteenth? (For those who suffer rapid loss — a stroke, a debilitating illness — the problem is a very different one. Yet my intention is, as much as possible, to leave to one side the complicating factors of physical collapse.) Late-stage creative personalities no doubt confront the human condition in ways analogous to those who deal with it from the ninth tee or nursing homes, but their response takes form in the concert hall or on the canvas or page. They leave evidence behind of having grappled with mortality, and — once mortality has claimed them — the evidence remains.
In these pages I consider what's been left behind: testimonials we hear and see and read. When that act of witnessing is offered up as language, what wording do we have that best describes old age? The late self portraits of Rembrandt or the final songs of Richard Strauss, are manifestly not the same as those produced while young. Which challenges continue and which ones are new?
When John Updike died at age seventy-six, on January 27, 2009, it was with work still to be published and some sixty volumes in print. He was my teacher at Harvard in the summer of 1962 — the only time, to my knowledge, he taught. (He did once substitute for the indisposed John Cheever, but ours was a course he had signed on to offer; thereafter he removed himself from academe.) Updike lived on in Massachusetts as a private though increasingly public citizen, and we stayed in touch. I continued to admire him, to solicit his opinions, and therefore asked him the following questions on the topic of this text:
1. How have your work habits changed at present from the days when you were an apprentice to the trade?
2. How have your aspirations changed; do you think of a day's work as "more of the same" or have you set yourself different goals?
3. Can you point me to a passage — or passages — in your own writing which deals with these issues, either head-on or obliquely?
From a letter dated August 26, 2007, these are John's replies:
1. When I was still a college student and then an employee for the New Yorker for twenty months, I of course fit my poetry and fiction into what gaps the traffic allowed, evenings or weekends. But once I left New York, in 1957, and set up shop as a free-lance writer in Massachusetts, with no other job, I tried to work faithfully, from breakfast to a late lunch, producing at least three pages a day, with whatever afternoon labors needed to be added. Fifty years later I am on the same schedule. In fact I seem to work longer hours, perhaps because I am slower and/or more careful now, or more is asked of me — certainly book reviews did not take much of my time or energy until the 1960's. I don't have much advice to offer to younger writers, but when asked I do suggest setting a regular schedule and a modest daily quota, even if the day is low on inspiration. Make it a habit. The pages do accumulate.
2. The aspirations have not been dulled, but after years in the mines I am aware that my major veins have probably been dug out, and the urgency of my youthful "news" presses less groaningly. In the beginning, you are full, as they say, of yourself, and when elderly somewhat less so, having dispensed yourself through so many books. Still, each day slightly changes your angle on life, and the blank page remains a site of hopeful possibility. Some sentences as they take form still give me a frisson of pleasure. When the words quicken into what seems to be life, the writer is doing useful work. The little inspirations that used to feed poems and short stories don't come as often as they used to; I tend now to think in terms of books, each one possibly my last. The image at the end of all those hours with pen and pencil/typewriter/word processor is that of a finished book, with its beautiful trimmed edges and scent of fresh paper and binding glue.
3. The long essay on "Late Works" . . . dealt with the issues of longevity if not with lastingness. The way the individual investment in entertainment shapes up these days, the author does best who travels light — The Great Gatsby over Dos Passos's USA. But then you don't want to cater to a high-school reading level, and a certain capaciousness, involving the passage of time in its fabric, seems intrinsic to the novel. By and large what lasts best is the most concrete, the most actual, delivering to the reader a piece of earth and humanity. Aesthetic flourishes fade and wrinkle, though they may get attention when new. A blunt sincerity outlasts finely honed irony, I would think. An ability to see over the heads of important contemporary issues into the simple truth of daily life is what we can respond to a century later. . . . My own continuing to write at the age of three score and fifteen is a matter of genetics, long habit, and concrete aspirations. I set out to make a living with my pen, in privacy, in the commercial literary world as it existed, and am grateful that I managed. It's been a privilege and a pleasure, and it goes without saying that I've been lucky. No impairing disease. No war I was asked to help fight. No stupefying poverty yet no family wealth or business to limit my freedom. No appetite for fi ne living and racing sloops to assuage. Lovely bright loving parents, then good loyal women and healthy children living with me. The New Yorker when it still published many pages of fiction and Alfred A. Knopf Inc. when publishing was still a gambit for sensible gentlemen who trusted their own taste. A world where books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry. Who wouldn't, thus conditioned, want to keep writing forever, and try to make books that deserve to last?
In Monet's last landscapes we see the final outcome of a lifelong development, during which the subject matter was gradually absorbed by an ever more conspicuous texture, fully realized in his water lilies, his footbridge paintings, and other late works. Essential to our appreciation of these works, however, is the fact that, despite the radical transformation of the subject matter, all the fullness and wealth of experienced reality remains present. The greatest possible range of artistic content reaches from the concreteness of the individual things of nature to the uniformity of the artist's all-encompassing view.
Born in 1840, Monet died in 1926, and only in the final months, when entirely enfeebled, did he cease painting. One of the six founders of Impressionism as an artistic movement, he had a long embattled history (of exclusion from juried exhibitions, then inclusion in the vanguard and acceptance by collectors). The slow shift in status from outsider to elder statesman describes the arc of a career that's not so much an arc as a straight upward trajectory. Less and less did he care for commercial success, staying home in Giverny, a village on the River Seine, forty miles northwest of Paris. By preference Monet showed pictures only to his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, and a trusted circle of friends; at the last, one has the sense he painted for himself, and himself alone. As early as April 27, 1907, he wrote Durand-Ruel:
I'm very dissatisfied with myself, but that's better than producing things that are mediocre. I'm not postponing this show because I want to exhibit as many pictures as possible. On the contrary, I feel I have too few works worthy of being shown to the public. I have five or six at most that merit consideration, and have just, to my great satisfaction, destroyed at least thirty. . . . As time goes by I recognize those pictures that are good and those that should not be kept.
The paintings "that merit consideration" remain; they are objects preserved while a morning cadenza or scrap of rhymed verse disappears. Imagine for a moment what would happen to the record of Impressionism if the work of this artist's old age had been nonselectively destroyed. A canvas is an artifact that can outlive its maker, and the hundreds of thousands of visitors who now stand rapt in front of his water lilies would have astonished Monet; he labored in a privacy that grew near absolute.
Some of this had to do with his horror of the First World War, the catastrophic conditions abroad. Some had to do with deteriorating health, in particular his rheumatism and the cataracts that afflicted his sight. (As with Edgar Degas, whose eyes failed, or Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose arthritis required he wedge the paintbrush to his fi ngers, the physical decline of Claude Monet had pictorial ramify cations; his outlines grew less definite, his colors more pronounced.) One of the ways an aging artist comes to terms with physical change — as suggested by Casals — is to shift the locus of endeavor, and the painter narrowed focus to the point of near obsession. When young he had painted in all sorts of weather; now he no longer felt compelled to work outside. Increasingly reluctant to leave the house in Giverny, and solvent enough to maintain the establishment (he employed six gardeners), Monet fashioned a sequence of oils exponentially more numerous than the series of bridges or poplars or grain stacks or cathedrals he had already produced. Before, he had traveled to locate his subjects; now canvas after canvas reported on home ground.
In this regard, his "final" period is a function of geography: the farmhouse and its teeming garden in the town of Giverny. Monet afforded to his flowerbeds the kind of close attention he had earlier paid railway stations or rivers in winter or outcroppings of rock — with the important distinction that all these preexisted his attempt to capture any "impression" they made. The cities of London and Venice, it goes without saying, did not require his pictorial rendition in order to be viewed. In his farmhouse, however, he was both principal witness and maker; the lily pond was his to shape, the garden and Japanese bridges to build. And if his vision now was less than twenty-twenty, what he trained himself to paint had an inward-facing coherence that outstripped mere accuracy; his final efforts prefigure abstraction, making clinical exactness seem beside the point. The aesthetic of "Impressionism" must have helped him here. The notion, for example, of the shifting play of light (as opposed to unaltered illumination) would have enabled the old artist to rely on what he saw while looking — this even when his eyesight had gone dim. As he told the American painter Lilla Cabot, "When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field." The pictures of the Nympheas take advantage of the wavering imprecision an oculist might hope to mend, so that vision — in its secondary meaning — may make luminous a blurry scumbled scene.
The poet Lisel Mueller has captured all this brilliantly, in "Monet Refuses the Operation." As of 1919, the painter was urged (among others, by his friend Georges Clemenceau) to have the cataracts attended to; in 1923 he had operations on his right eye, and glasses improved his eyesight — but only briefly, fitfully, and he had trouble distinguishing color. Mueller's poem begins:
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don't see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being . . .
From Lastingness: The Art of Old Age by Nicholas Delbanco. Copyright 2010 by Nicholas Delbanco. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group USA.