Late Style, Pending a Birthday

“Others are bright and clear: I’m dark and murky. Others are confident and effective: I’m pensive and withdrawn, uneasy as boundless seas or perennial mountain winds.”

That’s from verse 20 of the Tao Te Ching, translated by David Hinton, and it’s how I feel reading the scholarly journal articles that I’ve been working through recently. Some are on Shakespeare and some are on bioethics. They are all filled, brimming, with references to other people’s ideas, not that they don’t have plenty of ideas of their own, because they do. It’s writing I genuinely admire, but I read it and ask, couldn’t it be said more simply, and might it be more effectively said, if simpler.

Here’s another dark, murky fellow, Du Fu, known until recently as Tu Fu. “Tomorrow I leave my fortieth year//my life has started to race//downhill, toward its evening” (trans. David Young). Du Fu died at 58. In a couple of weeks I turn 73. I don’t feel I’m racing downhill. Unlike Prospero, my every third thought is not my grave. But I do ask who is going to keep doing this work. Then I remember that’s not my problem.

Six or seven years ago, in anticipation of retirement, I set before me Edward Said’s book, On Late Style. It was getting time to find my own late style, and that remains a work in progress. I ask people what late style means; I compile a list, which begins here: “And what is the use of caution//the value of constraint?” Du Fu asks, not rhetorically. Late style studies all that cautions and restrains, while–and more important–trying to model how to work without such restraints.

Last night I read a published exchange of letters between two Shakespeare scholars, one complaining about the other’s review of his book, and the other complaining about the complaint. “Let be” as Hamlet says. Each knows so much, far more than I’ll ever know, but their letters display their lower selves, in a metaphor I find useful. After so much Shakespeare in their lives, how could they not learn that? I felt cheated of all that they could have used so much energy to tell me. But the worlds in which they move make them feel they had to engage in such an exchange, writing that way. It’s their habitus, to fall back on Bourdieu once again. Which explains nothing and everything.

At this point, Du Fu would recommend getting drunk, which I gather is both a stock metaphor and literal practice among his circle. Late style gets drunk on its own simplicity; its intoxication is from stripping away. Late style defines itself by what it leaves out. Tell the stories, let the stories carry the argument, trust the stories. One of the great Taoist metaphors is uncut wood, its perfection, and what’s lost once it’s made useful by cutting it. Late style seeks to cut as little as possible. All these journal articles are so confident and effective. I am withdrawn and uneasy. Exchanging appreciations with a few friends. Just where I want to be.