On Late Style

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1876

In his introduction to On Late Style, Michael Wood, a friend and colleague of Edward Said, explains its circumstances. Said died in 2003. Three of the chapters of this book had been lectures given in London in 1993. At that time Said knew that he had leukemia; from 1998 on, he completed no fewer than six other books but left On Late Style unfinished. Wood suggests that there may have been a psychological block about completing a book about lateness and death. Four of the seven essays represent Wood’s positioningand sometimes combiningof Said’s other writings on the subject, but Wood claims that he added no bridges.

To say that On Late Style, on which Said was working when he died, examines the late works of several authors and musicians, is a statement that must be almost immediately qualified. One of the important works studied by Said is Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925), written when Thomas Mann was decades away from his own death. It does, however, deal with a dying man named Gustave Aschenbach. Furthermore, in discussing Benjamin Britten’s opera based on Mann’s book, Said notes that Venice, “by virtue of its history of glory and degradation . . . is a preeminently late setting”as if the concept of late style might refer not just to the “lateness” of author or hero but even setting. Late style for Said can be an elusive concept.

It is more profitable, although not a great deal easier, to approach late style thematically. No writer is more important for Said than the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, who, like Said, wrote extensively on music. He finds in Adorno’s extensive study of the career of Ludwig van Beethoven indications of an abandonment of any attempt at reconciliation, at “transcendence” or “unity.” These characteristics are not to be understood as a breakdown in a man who was growing old, deaf, and somehow unable to compose in his previous manner but rather an aesthetic challenge to prevalent modes, a kind of deliberate self-exile from the generally accepted manner of the composer’s day. Beethoven was an artist who, in works such as his Missa Solemnis (1823) and Ninth Symphony (1824), was abandoning the kind of communication that his audience was expecting. Beethoven instead was telling the listener that his art had aged and must face a kind of death.

Adorno’s evaluation of the twentieth century composer Richard Strauss led the author to further thoughts about late style. Adorno considered Strauss’s penchant for frequent retreats to the eighteenth century for his subject matter artistic backwardness. Indeed, Strauss’s late work seems smoother, more “at ease” with the musical world of his day. Said finds Strauss’s late works “defiant,” unregimented, and unreconciled with the musical standards of his time. In short, he represents late style in a manner unrecognized even by Adorno.

Said is particularly fascinated by opera. The first opera he saw as a boy who came to the United States in the 1950’s was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. First performed in 1790, only a year before Mozart’s death, it is clearly a late work, albeit the composition of a thirty-three-year-old man. Mozart once confessed that he never lay down at night without reflecting that he might never see another day. As he insisted in a 1787 letter, “death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness.” The feeling of lateness in life can come at any age. For a creative person, it is not a gloomy thought but one which drives the artist to an intentional defiance of the aesthetic status quo.

What in the aesthetic status quo causes this defiant late style? It appears to be that the modern world, recognized by those like Beethoven and Mozart in the late eighteenth century, is a growing negation and disorder in which a bourgeois, consumer-oriented society is swept along but against which the late style stands resolute. Among modern artists who have done so, Said rates pianist Glenn Gould, who died at age fifty, very highly. His success at performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s keyboard music reflected what Said calls “a capacity for inventing, creating a new aesthetic structure” from works composed nearly three hundred years earlier. Gould’s performances were ventures beyond the irrational, negative forces of modern life.

Said considers three novelists. One whose late works are strewn with images of death is Jean Genet, for whom death was “a weightless and largely unchallenging thing.” Said concentrates on Genet’s last work, Le Captifs amoureux (1986), on Mann’s Death in Venice, and on Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il gattopardo (1958; The Leopard, 1960). In the last two, Said focused his attention on translations of these works into other media. Britten’s opera, while not the composer’s last work, came decidedly late in his life. Both Mann and Britten recognized Venice as “a place where one finds a quite special finality.” It is a place where the old and ailing Aschenbach discovers a young boy for whom he develops a powerful but unfulfilled sexual longing. Mann, different in many ways from his character, is well able to sense Aschenbach’s emotion. Aschenbach’s inability either to terminate or satisfy the longing for young Tadzio acknowledges that, in late style, no reconciliation of desire and object is possible.

Tomasi di Lampedusa’s work, composed near the time of his death and (like On Late Style itself) posthumously published, is for Said an essentially late novel. Its hero, Don Fabrizio Corbera, prince of Salina in Sicily, must face the diminution of his status and his estate as a consequence of the unification of the various Italian states into a united Italy beginning in 1860. He is a man conscious of Sicily’s long history of subjection by different people but is convinced that the Sicilian way of life is superior to that envisioned by even its latest invaders, Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Risorgimento. Don Fabrizio, and presumably those who respect his authority, find the republican vision of progress nothing more than another invasion by another outsider. He faces the conflict between his own conservative, aristocratic tastes and the aspirations of his nephew, Tancredi, who retains the aristocratic manner and presence but will cast in his lot with that of the emerging Italy.

Don Fabrizio loves his nephew and knows that the latter, at least, respects him as a man who will not willingly precipitate any tragic fall into ruin for his uncle’s family. Don Fabrizio recognizes that, with his own large family to provide for, he cannot expect that his daughter Concetta, who loves Tancredi, can marry him. Tancredi must have the power and fortune which will arise from marriage to Angelica, the daughter of the rising local mayor, Don Calogero Sedàra, a crude bourgeois figure. Don Fabrizio, though still honored, must decrease, while Tancredi, his bride, and Sedàra must increase. Said finds the plot of Lampedusa’s novel “almost primitive,” readable, conventionalalmost, one might think, the kind of consumer item (and indeed it found a large audience) that Said is inclined to vilify. Don Fabrizio, however, is a worthy man, devoid of self-pity, who will not collapse but will live out his life, a diminished representative of a society that is dying.

More often than not, recreating a literary work in another medium is a debilitating process. One thinks of a novel being inevitably reduced to fit screen or stage, but despite the difficulties faced by Britten in composing his opera Death in Venice (1973) and by Luchino Visconti in filming The Leopard (1963), Said endorses both of these translations enthusiastically. Both Mann and Britten could deal creatively with the subject of homosexuality. Both found an effective way of presenting the action, Mann “interiorizing,” Britten “exteriorizing” it.

Both versions create feelings of solitude and sadness. Both artists convey a foreigner’s pleasure in discovering the culture that meant so much to artists such as George Gordon, Lord Byron; John Ruskin; Henry James; Herman Melville; and Marcel Proust. Both men keep Don Fabrizio as “center of consciousness.” Both men eschew the sort of reconciliation that one associates with such familiar late works as Sophocles’s Oidipous epi Kolni (401 b.c.e.; Oedipus at Colonus, 1729) William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611) or Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893).

Visconti goes outside the novel, even adding scenes that take his work well away from Don Fabrizio’s perspective. Both Tomasi di Lampedusa and Visconti were aristocrats representing works marking the decline of the aristocratic order. Visconti had envisioned Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando as his lead actor but finally chose Burt Lancaster, whose performance Said calls noble, though bringing with it the tradition of the Hollywood epiccinematic spectacles like Quo Vadis (1951), Ben Hur (1959), and The Ten Commandments (1956). Said praises Visconti, however, for avoiding the sort of “Hollywood” production that the presence of an actor like Lancaster might seem to have encouraged.

Another creator of the late style is the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, who wrote about exile in poems celebrating Odysseus and Marc Antony. The point of his “Ithaka” is not the fulfillment of Odysseus’s return home but its function as an instigator of his journey: “She has nothing left to give you now.” Cavafy’s Antony finds an ironic pleasure in the loss of his career and of the city of Alexandria, for what he has lost objectively he has gained subjectively. Said finds Cavafy’s calmness in presenting the themes of lateness and exile one of his most outstanding achievements.

Said includes one ancient writer, Euripides, in his discussion. In his last two plays, Iphigeneia en Aulidi (405 b.c.e; Iphigenia in Aulis, 1782) and Bakchai (405 b.c.e.; The Bacchae, 1781), Euripides evinces “modern psychology.” Unlike his earlier work, the conclusions avoid any sense of reconciliation. They are “artificial” in that they are not natural processes but humanly constructed assertions against negation and senselessness. They also appeal to Said’s strong musical interest. French director Ariane Mnouchkine employed a chorus of eighteen or twenty dancers with even Iphigenia herself dancing her way into her sacrifice. In Ingmar Bergman’s libretto based on The Bacchae, Backanterna (1991), Said finds the heroic element undercut. In both productions, the directors sought instead an “alienating effect.” Tragedy, as Aristotle understood it, barely survives in the late works of this playwright.

On Late Style was written but not composed by Said. Wood apparently assembled all that Said had written on the subject, and this material tends to be consistent. The chapter “Timeliness and Lateness,” which acknowledges Said’s debt to, and, to some extent, his disagreement with Theodor Adorno, is appropriately placed first. The subsequent chapters show Said characterizing late style as an uncompromising, even intransigent form of creativity. It deals unsentimentally and ironically with exile and mortality. Said found it expressed mainly from the late eighteenth century on, although Euripides produced late work attractive to modern film directors such as Mnouchkine and Bergman.

What qualities besides a capacity for lateness demarcate the cluster of writers and composers discussed by Said? Are they an eccentric group, or can Said’s concept of lateness be found among other artists? Will this book be provocative enough to inspire answers to such questions? Time will tell.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 37

Booklist 102, no. 15 (April 1, 2006): 13.

Library Journal 131, no. 4 (March 1, 2006): 90.

New Statesman 135 (May 29, 2006): 52-53.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (July 16, 2006): 19.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 5 (January 30, 2006): 50.

The Spectator 301 (May 27, 2006): 62.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 29, 2006, p. 30.

The Wilson Quarterly 30, no. 2 (Spring, 2006): 113-114.

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