Late Style

I regret the lapse of this blog during the spring, when I was traveling to lecture and had no words left over. That period morphed into summer holidays. Calgary is having an unusually cool and wet August, with an autumnal feel. It’s time to write again.

For several years I’ve had a copy of Edward Said’s posthumously published book On Late Style sitting on my shelf, provoking me. Actually, I’ve been writing my own version of the book in notes that I intend for other pieces but end up editing out. For whatever reason–timeliness is such a big issue in Shakespeare–it was time to read what Said actually said, what late style means for him. But I want to emphasize that the issue is personal for me. The question anyone my age faces is eminently practical: Which issues do I have something to say about, and which are better left to younger colleagues? That’s a real question every time I write. Matters of policy and practice seem, generally, better addressed by those who are directly immersed in the institutional flux of things, with its rapidly changing demands and media. My own practical issue of late style is what matters can be best addressed by those outside that flux. Late style means not knowing an increasing amount about what’s actually going on–the conditions of practical action–but it also means a liberation from the immediacy and constraints such knowledge imposes.

None of that is what Said had in mind. His version of late style begins with timeliness–what is appropriate at different ages of life? Then he upsets me, in the best sense for which I’m grateful: “What if age and ill health [he had lived with leukemia for years as he wrote] don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?” Without trying to address his usage of that difficult-to-gloss phrase from Shakespeare, what stops me here is that the bias of my work has always been toward some form of serenity as a telos, a proper destination, and a possibility, however much stands in its way. Said confronts me with my serenity bias.

He continues, laying out an alternative late style “that involves the nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberate unproductive productiveness going against….” The final ellipses are in the text, although whether they are Said’s own or his editor’s, I don’t know. My guess is that against is to be left open, without specified predicate. It’s the against of Lear in the storm. Said’s “deliberately unproductive productiveness” is also difficult to gloss, but it makes intuitive sense to me. Universities and other institutions not unreasonable expect productivity. I see those demands becoming so incessant that they stifle creativity, but that’s another issue. Late style seeks an unproductive productiveness, perhaps in the sense of giving up concern with what anyone is going to do with what’s produced; certainly not telling people what they’re supposed to do with it.

Mozart is one of those whose late style Said considers in detail. He offers the marvellous description of the characters in Cosi fan tutte as “terrifyingly embroiled in feelings and discoveries that they are unprepared for and largely incapable of dealing with,” which I find an apt description of most of us at any age. My father, living the far reaches of being nearly 100, is unprepared for what that brings, as I am unprepared at my age still to be someone’s child. The fundamental condition of serious illness is being unprepared, as are most of those who care for the ill.

Said continues, describing the characters “as figures driven by forces outside themselves that they don’t comprehend and make no serious effort to understand.” That’s one of those moments when I discover the most useful Shakespeare criticism in writing that’s about something else. Said makes me think immediately of Shakespeare’s jealous husbands: Othello, Leontes in Winter’s Tale, and Posthumus in Cymberline. I find them too painful to watch; when I first tried to read Winter’s Tale I had to stop. Only later, in a stage production, could I tolerate Leontes unravelling with such destructive effects. He repents and finds a measure of forgiveness, but does he make what Said calls a serious effort to understand? Can he understand, in what sense of understanding? Can any of us? Jealousy that makes no sense if we imagine it as an internal state makes good sense as an external force. It’s just more terrifying to think of life that way.

This line of thinking is late style, in one sense anyway, because it’s the sort of talk that used to drive my students up the wall when I presented it in a sociological idiom. Young people want, need, to think in terms of agency; my students liked talk about agency. They don’t like to think about forces outside themselves, which made sociology a curious choice of study, but that also is another topic.

I’ll write more about Said and late style, but now I’ll push this argument one step further. Embedded in the discussion of Cosi, Said writes about Beethoven’s Fidelio: “All is not really well [at the end], and not everything has been fixed: the brief righting of wrongs is but a temporary respite from the darkness.” That again describes Shakespeare so well, especially the endings of the comedies. How temporary the respite is becomes most explicit in the last so-called comedy, Measure for Measure, in which the Duke’s proposal of marriage is left unresponded to.

Late style, for me, is a willingness to recognize–a capacity to tolerate–that one useful task of writing is to offer temporary respite. But late style realizes how temporary that respite is–as if that were going to be a durable solution. The beauty of late style lies in the fragility of its self-consciousness that respite will be temporary. Said’s On Late Style seems to me to have greater political relevance today than when it was published in 2006. Rightings of wrongs that we imagined were secure have proven temporary. We need Said’s clear vision of the darkness.

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