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.

‘Write As If Your Parents Were Dead’

Phillip Roth is said to have tendered the following advice–on the art of writing–to Ian McEwan : ‘Write as if your parents were dead.’ By this, I take it that Roth meant for McEwan to write with a distinctive  fearlessness, one not courting parental approval, not apprehensive of parental disapproval of writerly indulgence, of liberties taken with characters appropriated from one’s lived life, of events drawn on and embellished, narcissistically, sometimes painfully. The writer then, who writes as if his ‘parents were dead’ is unencumbered by the parental superego, whether maternal or paternal, and is free to let loose his darkest self in the words he puts down on paper. Here, the live parent is a stalker, a deadweight on creativity. In writing as if ‘the parents were dead’ the writer writes without a net. He is no longer worried about whether the characters he creates may be viewed as wishful incarnations of himself, whether their words and deeds may be imputed back to him. The parents disappear six feet under, the writer rises above the ground, suddenly, miraculously, weightless. Three fingers still hold the pen, the body still aches, but it does so free of the backward glance, over the shoulder, at the looming intervention.

That’s certainly one way to think about writing as if ‘your parents were dead.’ There is another way to interpret that piece of advice.

In his feature article on George Saunders in this week’s New York Times Magazine (‘George Saunders Wrote the Best Book You’ll Read This Year‘, January 3rd 2013) , Joel Lovell writes,

A friend I loved very much died recently, and I was trying to describe the state I sometimes still found myself in — not quite of this world, but each day a little less removed — and how I knew it was a good thing, the re-entry, but I regretted it too, because it meant the dimming of a kind of awareness that doesn’t get lit up very much.

 In response to which Lovell notes,

“It would be so interesting if we could stay like that,” Saunders said, meaning: if we could conduct our lives with the kind of openness that sometimes comes with proximity to death.

So, ‘write as if your parents were dead’ can now be understood as: Write as if you are not quite of this world, write as if you are possessed  and lit up by a rare kind of awareness and openness that may be yours with proximity to death. Write as if the special vision given to those who find their deepest, most fundamental link to this world sundered is yours for the keeping. Make that into your muse. Write as if we, your readers, were to find in your writings dispatches from another world, one where by being confronted by death, we grow closer to life. Write as if you have suffered the deepest loss of all, so that you may in your struggles to give it written form, find many other things worth bringing forth. Write as if your parents were dead.