Late Work And Shying Away From Decay And Death

In ‘Late Francis Bacon: Spirit and Substance‘ Colm Tóibín writes:

It would be easy to imagine…that Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was written toward the end of his life. In fact, it was written in 1911, when Mann was thirty-six. It is a young man’s book; its images of desire, decay, and death could not be so easily entertained by a writer facing into late or last work.

Tóibín does not make clear why we would imagine that Death in Venice “was written toward the end of [Mann’s] life” but be that as it may, of more interest here is the claim that an artist (of whatever stripe) would find it difficult to entertain “images of desire, decay, and death” in “late or last work.”

Tóibín has found himself making this claim, I suspect, as a way of pushing further the speculative query by Edward Said with which he opens this essay:

In his book On Late Style…Edward Said ponders the aura surrounding work produced by artists in the last years of their lives. He asks: “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?”….he also questions the very notion of late serenity:….What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?”

Said further ponders…the sheer strangeness of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets and his last piano sonatas, their insistence on breaking with easy form, their restlessness, their aura of incompletion…the feeling that they are striving toward some set of musical textures that have not yet been imagined and cannot be achieved in Beethoven’s lifetime….these late pieces wish to represent the mind or the imagination not as it faces death but rather as it faces life, as it sets out to reimagine a life with new beginnings and new possibilities.

The obvious counterpoint to Tóibín’s claim is implicit in Said’s first query: as artists approach death, they, like other humans, find a new openness to the very idea of death and non-existence and the bodily decay that precedes it. An excellent example of this might be Roger Angell‘s essay ‘This Old Man’ which begins with the following lines:

Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.

Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.

And so it goes on. Angell, of course, is writing an essay on old age; he is not working these images into his sports writing. What about other writers? I will rest content with another example: Phillip Roth, whose late work was replete with such ‘images’; he never  shied away from them. Comments with support or refutation for Tóibín’s claim welcome.

Some Philip Roth Moments

Philip Roth is dead. I read many of his books over the years. Here, in no particular order, are some recollections of those encounters:

  1. I discover Portnoy’s Complaint in graduate school. This, I’m sure you will agree, is a strange time for someone to ‘find’ Roth, especially when you consider that the person doing the ‘finding’ is a thirty-something Indian man, undergoing a career change from being a systems analyst to a graduate student of philosophy. I found Portnoy’s Complaint hilarious, side-splittingly so; its depiction of an unabashed psychosexual insanity curiously sanity-inducing; the Jewish mother was someone I could recognize, and even love from afar. I did not think that I would find resonances with my life here, in this text, written by this person, in that time and place. But I did; it was one of the most American moments of my many years in America.
  2. I turned my girlfriend onto Portnoy’s Complaint; she went ahead to read Goodbye Columbus and told me she loved Roth so much that she would read anything and everything he wrote; I was possessed by jealousy for a few moments (fine, a little longer than that), but it soon passed. He could write.
  3. Roth could be very insightful; he could also be very tedious. The Human Stain was the most tedious of his works. It was too long by about two hundred pages. I recognized the attempt for the story-telling to be capacious in it, but it did not work.
  4. The women in Roth’s novel often made me uncomfortable; they fucked a lot, they had lots of good lines, but they seemed, not in a good way at all, to be figments entirely of Roth’s imagination. They seemed to be as he wanted women to be, desperately: sexually voracious, uncomplicated, roughly and strongly accepting of the stupidity and cruelty and blindness of the men in their lives because they saw past all of that to the hurt, the fear, the desperate desire to be alive in their own uncompromising way that was very often the hallmark of the Roth man. For Roth, their sexual appetites made them alive; more alive than those who claimed to speak for them or protect them from writers like Roth. For all that, they still seemed to hew close to cliche.
  5. Once, in my own classic ‘Jewish encounters in Brooklyn’ story I met a young man at my gym whose father also lifted weights here. The father was loud and profane and strong; he was a dirty old man who liked asking about other mens’ partners in ever-so slightly leering ways. His son was proud of him, perplexed by him. His father was not as observant as his mother; his mother was orthodox. The young man’s girfriend was a shiksa; his father liked her but wanted his son to date a Jewish woman so that it would make his mother happy. The young man loaned me a lot of his Roth collection; I finally read Goodbye Columbus thanks to him. We talked about tribalism; we talked about identity. He was half my age, but very thoughtful, and I don’t think it was accidental that the bridge between us was Roth’s writing.

James Baldwin On The Non-Existence Of The American Worker

In The Fire Next Time (Vintage International, New York, 1993(1962), p. 88), James Baldwin writes:

People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal…but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here [in America], where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hands of the boss’ daughter.)

What does it mean to say that in this country, ‘spiritually speaking, there are no workers’? I can only venture an educated guess here as someone who has read a bit of Baldwin and been awed by the catholic generosity of spirit that is visible in the angriest of voices; I do not claim to understand Baldwin’s complicated relationship with spirituality for this is a man who was of the church, and left it, and indeed, claims that a certain kind of membership in, and affiliation with, the Christian Church is incompatible with morality (p. 47). So, to be a worker, spiritually speaking, for Baldwin would be to envision yourself as a member of a community first and foremost, a brotherhood and fraternity, a sorority and a sisterhood, one drawn together by common purpose and shared ideals, by a vision of a shared life and a common good, one achieved by joint effort, where the inevitable pitfalls of life are safeguarded by mutual security and respect and love. The workers’ union in this vision is a collective community, one dedicated to the common good of all its members, safeguarded with the passion that can only spring from mutual love. Idealized yes, but that is nature of visions imbued with love.

Such is not the community of workers here in America; here instead, workers are caught up in a zero-sum fantasy in which the rights and privileges earned by others are occasion for envy and rancor and self-hatred. As I’ve noted here, the American worker wants company in his misery, his lack of vacations, his shrinking wages, his implacable downward mobility; the unionized worker, one who has bargained collectively to secure better wages and working hours and vacation and healthcare, is not an object of admiration, but of envious fury. There is no aspirational ideal here.

Candidates for the boss’ daughter know there can only be one ‘winner’; all others are competitors to be vanquished. There can be no co-operation here; no mutual support; a ‘win’ by one is a ‘loss’ for another. Suitors compete; they are racked by envy and jealousy alike; they do not entertain noble emotions. They are hoping for luck, for recognition, for the hand of fortune to reach out and touch and elevate them; they are possessed by the desire to possess’ the boss’ riches as an inheritance that will make their dream come true, that of wealth and power and fortune made theirs by dint of a magical selection. Not by collective effort and solidarity.

How can the suitor ever see another suitor as a brother?

On Being An Educated Philistine

I’m an uncultured bumpkin with little taste for the finer things in life. My list of failures is long and undistinguished. I do not like opera: God knows, I’ve tried; I’ve attended a few performances–thanks to some free tickets sent my way by discerning friends and culture consumers–but no dice, it didn’t catch. I cannot abide ballet: I’ve attended one performance, that of Don Quixote, right here in New York City at a beautiful recital hall, and despite admiring the athleticism of the performers found their choreographed pyrotechnics did not touch me emotionally; indeed, I do not like most dance, have never attended a modern dance recital, and have only briefly viewed a few performances of classical Indian variants like Kathak, Odissi, Bharatnatyam or Kathakali, and as a result never developed a taste for them, despite the fact that one of my paternal uncles was a distinguished choreographer in that tradition. My tastes in poetry are restricted to the usual suspects like Yeats, Bishop, Rilke, Auden (and some of the older romantics) et al–the stuff that almost any educated layperson can lay claim to. Like your true denuded post-colonial I have not developed any taste in Hindi poetry and have not read a  novel in Hindi since my high school days. I do not like reading reviews of poetry–indeed, I find these almost impossible to get through, despite gamely struggling with Helen Vendler‘s essays in the New York Review of Books. I’ve discovered recently that I do not like reading the standard literary review of a novel either. In fiction, I struggle to read short stories, and prefer novels when I can get to them.

Perhaps, most embarrassingly, I do not like spending time in museums–and oh, dear Lord, believe me, I’ve tried and tried to summon up enthusiasm for this excruciating social and cultural ritual but I’ve been found wanting. There are certainly times when I’ve played the part of a connoisseur of art reasonably well in these settings but it’s not an easy appearance to keep up. I’ve visited cities in foreign lands and dutifully trooped off to the Famous Museum Which Houses An Amazing Repository of Famous Art by Famous Artists, the one I’ve been told is a must-visit, but no dice. Most of it didn’t catch–perhaps because of the venue, as trooping around, popping my head into one room after another to gaze at art wrenched out of its context failed to do it for me.

I consider myself interested in art and music and culture and literature but my tastes have not developed or become more refined over the years; they seem to have become narrower despite my game attempts to push them further. Though this state of affairs has often caused me some embarrassment–especially because I’m an academic in the humanities–it has also started to offer me some reassurance. Life is short, time is limited; I will never read the all the books on my shelves (and in my digital stores); better to have fewer things to serve as diversions. More airily, I’ve come to know myself better; I’ve tried to like the things I was ‘supposed’ to, and I couldn’t. That’s me, for better and worse.

Note: In a future post, I will make note of the many philosophical and literary classics which I have not read and seem unlikely to read.

Rereading Native Son

I’ve begun re-reading a book (with the students in my philosophical issues in literature class this semester) which, as I noted here a while ago, made a dramatic impact on me on my first reading of it: Richard Wright‘s Native Son. Thus far, I’ve read and discussed Book One with my students (on Wednesday last week); we will resume discussions on April 8th once spring break is over. But even on this brief revisitation I’m struck by how my reading has changed. I’m now twenty-six years older than I was on my first reading. Then, I was thinking about returning to graduate school; now, I’m a tenured professor assigning the same text to my undergraduates. Then, I read Native Son in the anticipation of discussing it with my girlfriend, who had gifted it to me; I think I subconsciously hoped to impress an older and wiser woman with my sensitive and nuanced take on Bigger Thomas’ fate. Now, I read Book One (Fear) of Native Son in anticipation of discussing it with my students, many of whom have already shown themselves capable of sensitive and nuanced readings of the novels I have assigned them thus far; I therefore look forward to their understanding of this classic novel, daring to hope that they will bring a new interpretation and understanding of this material to my attention.  For my part, I’m far more attentive to many plot details and devices on this reading; I’ve become, I think, a more careful and sensitive reader over the years, looking for more, and often finding it, in the texts I read.

Before we began class discussions I subjected my students to a little autobiographical detail: I informed them of my prior reading, of the book’s influence on me, of the passage of time since then, how I would be re-reading the text with them, and so on. I did not detail the full extent of Native Son‘s impact on me; that discussion will have to wait till Bigger’s trial and his defense by Max. But I cannot wait to do so; I wonder if I will be able to capture the sense I had twenty-six years ago of suddenly seeing the world in a whole new light. One part of that anticipation also fills me with dread; what if my students simply do not ‘get’ from it what I was able to? What if, indeed, as I read on, I find myself disappointed by Native Son?

But if the first class discussion last week was any indicator, I needn’t entertain such fears. My students ‘came through’: they had read the first book closely; they had responded to Wright’s dramatic evocation of a fearful, angry, and violent Bigger, living in a ‘black world’ disjoint from a ‘white world,’ destined to run afoul of those forces that had conspired to make him who he was, to drive him to kill, negligently and willfully alike, onwards to his fatal rendezvous with America, his home and his graveyard. Bigger’s story endures; it does so because much else–like the forces that harried him–has too.

Iris Murdoch On Interpreting Our Messages To Ourselves

In Iris Murdoch‘s Black Prince (1973), Bradley Pearson wonders about his “two recent encounters with Rachel and how calm and pleased I had felt after the first one, and how disturbed and excited I now felt after the second one”:

Was I going to “fall in love” with Rachel? Should I even play with the idea, utter the words to myself? Was I upon the brink of some balls-up of catastrophic dimensions, some real disaster? Or was this perhaps in an unexpected form the opening itself of my long-awaited “break through,” my passage into another world, into the presence of the god? Or was it just nothing, the ephemeral emotions of an unhappily married middle-aged woman, the transient embarrassment of an elderly puritan who had for a very long time had no adventures at all? [Penguin Classics edition, New York, 2003, p. 134]

Pearson is right to be confused and perplexed. The ‘messages’ we receive from ‘ourselves’ at moments like these–ethical dilemmas being but the most vivid–can be counted upon to be garbled in some shape or fashion. The communication channel is noisy; and the identity of the communicating party at ‘the other end’ is obscure. Intimations may speak to us–as they do to Pearson–of both the sordid and sublime for we are possessed, in equal measure, by the both devilish and the divine; these intimations promise glory but they also threaten extinction. What meaning are we to ascribe to them? What action are we to take at their bidding? A cosmic shrug follows, and we are left to our own devices all over again. ‘Listen to your heart’ is as useless as any other instruction in this domain, for ‘the heart’ also speaks in confusing ways; its supposed desires are as complex, as confusing as those of any other part of ourselves. Cognitive dissonance is not an aberration, a pathological state of affairs; it is the norm for creatures as divided as us, as superficially visible to ourselves, as possessed by the unconscious. (Freud’s greatest contribution to moral psychology and literature was to raise the disturbing possibility that it would be unwise to expect coherence–moral or otherwise–from agents as internally divided, as self-opaque as us.)

We interpret these messages, these communiques, from ourselves with tactics and strategies and heuristics that are an unstable mixture of the expedient, the irrational, the momentarily pleasurable; we deal with ‘losses’ and ‘gains’ as best as we can, absorbing the ‘lessons’ they impart with some measure of impatience; we are unable to rest content and must move on, for life presses in on us at every turn, generating new crises, each demanding resolution. Our responses can only satisfice, only be imperfect.

The Clash were right thus, to wonder, to be provoked into an outburst of song, by the question of whether they should ‘stay or go.‘ We do not express our indecision quite as powerfully and vividly as they do, but we feel the torment it engenders in our own particular way.

That Elusive Mark By Which To Distinguish Good People From Bad

In Journey to the End of the NightCéline‘s central character, Ferdinand Bardamu is confronted with uncontrovertible evidence of moral goodness in Sergeant Alcide–who is nobly working away in a remote colonial outpost to financially support a niece who is little more than a perfect stranger to him. That night, as Bardamu gazes at the sleeping Alcide, now once again, in inactivity, utterly unremarkable and undistinguishable from others who serve like him, he thinks to himself:

There ought to be some mark by which to distinguish good people from bad.

There isn’t, of course. But that hasn’t stopped mankind from continuing to hold on to this forlorn hope in the face of the stubborn difficulty of making moral judgements and evaluations about our fellow humans. Sometimes we seek to evaluate fellow humans on the basis of simple tests of conformance to a pre-established, clearly specified, moral code or decision procedure; sometimes we drop all pretence of sophisticated ethical analysis and take refuge in literal external marks.

These external marks and identifiers have varied through and across space and time and cultures. Sometimes shadings of skin pigmentations have been established as the distinguishing marker of goodness; sometimes it is the shape of the skull that has been taken to be the desired marker; sometimes national or ethnic origin; sometimes religious affiliation. (If that religious affiliation is visible by means of an external marker–like a turban for instance–then so much the better. West Pakistani troops conducting genocide in East Pakistan in 1971 were fond of asking Bengali civilians to drop their pants and expose their genitals;¹ the uncircumcised ones were led off to be shot; their bodies had revealed them to be of the wrong religion, and that was all that mattered as the West Pakistani Army sought to cleanse East Pakistan of those subversive elements that threatened the Pakistani polity.)

Confronted with this history of failure to find the distinguishing external mark of goodness, perhaps emblazoned on our foreheads by the cosmic branding authority, hope has turned elsewhere, inwards. Perhaps the distinguishing mark is not placed outside on our bodies but will be found inside us–in some innard or other. Perhaps there is ‘bad blood’ in some among us, or even worse, some might have ‘bad brains.’ Unsurprisingly, we have turned to neuroscience to help us with moral decisions: here is a brain state found in mass murderers and criminals; innocents do not seem to have it; our penal and moral decisions have received invaluable assistance. But as a growing litany of problems with neuroscientific inference suggest, these identifications of brain states and their correlations with particular behavior and the explanations that result rest on shaky foundations.

In the face of this determination to seek simple markers for moral judgement my ‘There isn’t, of course’ seems rather glib; it fails to acknowledge the endless frustration and difficulty of decision-making in the moral domain–and the temptation to seek refuge in the clearly visible.

Note: R. J Rummel, Death by Government, page 323