Unhappy Endings

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Music and Literature Against the Grain.

By Edward  W. Said.
Pantheon. 208 pp. $25

It’s common to think of the late works of creative geniuses as mature, luminous, settled, like Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Rembrandt’s last canvases. Edward Said (1935–2003), the literary critic and Middle East polemicist, had a different and darker vision. For some great artists, he believed, old age brings works of art that feel not serene but belated, “untimely,” at odds with the world around them and full of “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradictions.” He quotes the German critic Theodor Adorno: “In the history of art late works are the catastrophes.”

The idea makes intuitive sense—why shouldn’t artists, like other mortals, have their certainties thrown into confusion by the approach of death? Even the greatest creative spirits may feel rebellious, or simply detached from a changing world, as they age. Said sees these emotions in Euripides’s The Bacchae, in the late works of Ludwig van Beethoven and Richard Strauss, in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard (1958), and in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912).

The meaning of lateness seems to shift from chapter to chapter of this book—with some excuse, since Said died before finishing it, and his wife, along with friend and colleague Michael Wood, assembled the book from lectures, articles, and seminar notes. And the readings can be idiosyncratic. Beethoven’s late Missa Solemnis and Hammer­klavier Sonata, for instance, express for Said the quality of lateness because of their technical difficulty and their “disjointed, even distracted sense of internal continuity.” With Strauss, it’s just the opposite: The works are ambrosial, and highly popular, but “late” because they flee the world around them to hide in the anachronistic harmonies of the 18th century.

Sometimes the shifting meanings make the idea richer. Said contends that Mann’s Death in Venice contains qualities of lateness—the loss of previous certainties, the clash of opposites without resolution—even though it was written early in Mann’s career. Those qualities emerge more plainly, he writes, in Benjamin Britten’s late opera version of the story (1974). He even argues that all of literary modernism has some of this “late” quality, turning to primitive beginnings and strange forms as a way for artists to flee a sense of having lived past the logical end of the history of art. At times, the concept seems stretched to the breaking point. But the attractiveness of the central insight inclines the reader to forgive inconsistencies. The same was true of Said’s reputation-making Orientalism (1978).

Armchair analysts will have no trouble linking the themes of this book to Said’s own life. Though he made his name as a literary critic and was tenured at Columbia University, Said was best known for his fierce Palestinian nationalism and for views that, in his later years, seemed overtaken by and frequently at odds with the politics of the actual Palestinian Authority (which at one point banned his books). In 1999, Commentary magazine, a longtime critic of Said, published a blistering compilation of evidence that he had misrepresented major facts about his childhood—accusations Said never convincingly refuted and seemed tacitly to confirm in his own memoir Out of Place, published later that year. But if those last years made him seek reflections of his own troubled emotions in literature, art, and music, his critic’s eye remained original and compelling. Not all lives end in philosophical harmony, and the approach of death undoes the sense that there is still time for everything to turn out right.

—Amy E. Schwartz

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