Angry old men: ON LATE STYLE: Music and Literature Against the Grain by Edward Said

Jackie Wullschlager – The Financial Times

May 26 2006 15:06
Copyright The Financial Times
Edward Said used to joke that he was ìthe last Jewish intellectualî. For a Christian Palestinian New Yorker who made his name with Orientalism, a fierce polemic against western cultural imperialism, this was some claim. Yet four decades of book titles – The Politics of Dispossession; Out of Place: A Memoir; Reflections on Exile – indicate that his leitmotif was precisely the one that haunted the diaspora intelligentsia before the establishment of Israel.
Uniquely, Said brought themes of marginality and powerlessness in art, along with the Jewish tradition of cultural yearning, to bear on late 20th- century Palestinian experience. He believed that ìthe quintessential intellectual hates all systems, whether on our side or theirs, with equal distaste.î But the question of exile still courses through the posthumous, apparently apolitical On Late Style, thus confirming the story of his lifeís work – that although art cannot be enlisted for political ends, nor can it be separated from political currents.
On Late Style is brilliant cultural criticism from a writer whose perfect-pitch perception across all arts and national boundaries – Euripides, Glenn Gould, Genet, Visconti are among the subjects – was always conditioned by his outsider status. Dying, of course, makes outsiders of us all. And it is the awareness of death waiting, altering the quality of time like a change in the light, which shapes both tone and subject here. In September 2003, days after telling his wife that the book was nearly complete, Said died; it has been elegantly edited by his friend Michael Wood. That On Late Style remained unfinished, however, seems somehow essential to its lovely, urgent art-meets-life truthfulness, for Saidís originality here is to explore ìartistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradictionî.
We tend to think of late style as ìthe reaching of a new level of expressionî, as Hermann Broch put it. He cited the penetrating light dissolving human flesh and soul in late Titian; the painted metaphysics of Rembrandt and Goya; The Art of Fugue ìwhich Bach in his old age dictated without having a concrete instrument in mind, because what he had to express was either beneath or beyond the audible surface of musicî.
Broch, in exile in the US and longing for European culture, was writing in the 1940s. Said, revisiting the subject in a 21st century that courts aesthetic disharmony, focuses instead on late styles rooted in ìnon-serene tensionî. The last plays of angry old man Ibsen ìtamper irrevocably with the possibility of closure and leave the audience more perplexed and unsettled than beforeî. Schoenberg prolongs ìthe irreconcilabilities, negations and immobilities of the late Beethovenî, who exudes ìa new sense of private striving and instabilityî after the confident, gregarious Eroica.
Saidís interpretative genius always rested on a flair for combining critical theory with passionately enthusiastic close reading. What interests him especially about the modernists is how anarchic, out-of-time artists play off late style against ìthe great totalising code of 20th-century western culture and cultural diffusion: the music business, publishing, film, journalismî. This subversive individuality and lingering on the old order unites figures in diverse media, from Richard Strauss (Four Last Songs represent the ìtheatricalisation of an old man waiting for deathî) to Giuseppe di Lampedusa in The Leopard and Luchino Visconti in the screen version of that book and films redolent of historical opera such as Death in Venice. In old age in postwar Europe, each created anachronistic, widely popular modernist classics which turn on the death of tradition as well as personal mortality. Composed when Strauss was an official of the Third Reich, Capriccio is about ìsustaining a traditional line and yet also allowing us to hear the interruptions of the outside worldî. Without a shred of self-pity, Lampedusa and Visconti, both aristocrat-artists exiled from their own class, record degenerate old Europe disappearing within a new, crass middle-class world.
Dazzlingly, Said shows how such works depend on an emotional profligacy and glorious extravagance achieved through two privileges of maturity: an absolute refusal to be embarrassed; and a supreme, distilled mastery of form, thanks to a lifetime of technical effort. Risk, resistance and a refusal to sit easily with either mass consumer or avant-garde tastes characterise these works. For each artist it was as if ìhaving achieved age, they want none of its serenity [or] amiability or official ingratiation. Yet in none of them is mortality denied or evaded, but keeps coming back as the theme of death which undermines, and elevates their uses of language and aesthetic.î There is no better description of this gracefully unquiet, probing and wise book: Saidís own elegiac masterpiece of late style.


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