Lastingness, by Nicholas Delbanco, may be a book whose title is better than the book itself. The full title, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, has a double meaning, presumes two questions: What kind of art is made in the artist’s old age? What is the art of growing old? I am interested in both questions.
Delbanco writes an interesting but very subjective book. He is most concerned with how the author himself will fare in his own old age, which he is just entering. Delbanco describes bright young lights that fizzled, artists who bloomed late, and others who improved steadily throughout their lives. There are very few of the latter; it goes without saying that most of us have our ups and downs regardless of age. There are also those who have what Thoreau calls “two growths like pear trees” – one earlier and one later. Old age does not have a singular effect.
The area of the book that most interested me was how lastingness, in some cases, involved a change of form or expectation by the elderly artist. Novelists sometimes switch to shorter forms like poetry (think Thomas Hardy), or artists limit their subject matter (think Monet); musicians change their repertoire, and some artists retire to solitary seclusion. Many artists repeat themselves trying to rekindle past glory (almost always a mistake), and some go on to do what perhaps they should have done long ago – work only to please themselves. This last, of course, is one of the greatest gifts of old age. According to Delbanco, though, “lastingness” can only be determined by “assess[ing] the effect of works on others.” Maybe. And it is doubtful that artists can always trust “others.” Again, one of the pleasures of old age is self-evaluation, cultivating inward assessment, and discarding dependence on “the effect on others.”
John Updike’s wonderful article “Late Works: Writers and Artists Confronting the End” was published in 2006, just a few years before his own death, and posits that perhaps lasting is not so much to be valued as a new “senile sublime” that can only be seen in old age. He defines “senile sublime” in the words of Eve Sedgwick:
…various more or less intelligible performances by old brilliant people, whether artists, scientist, or intellectuals, where the bare outlines of a creative idiom seem finally to emerge from what had been the obscuring puppy fat of personableness, timeliness, or sometimes even of coherent sense.
Oh, that we live long enough to shed our “puppy fat”! Updike also points out that writers at the end of their lives often realize (and help their readers realize) that there is much about life that is “irreconcilable” with other parts of life. Miranda, young and about to step into her “brave new world,” and the retiring Prospero have occupied the same stage. Billy Budd with his youth and integrity falls prey to the machinations of the evil Claggart and the dilemma of Captain Vere – and yet serves as a symbol of hope. Old age seems to accept this opposition.
One novelist who writes about the old and lastingness and irreconcilability is Elizabeth Strout. I recently read her Oh William!, which focuses on Lucy Barton (again) and her seventy-year-old ex-husband, who is about to become an “ex” again. One thing that old age brings (particularly in this age of divorce and migration) is a trail of undefinable human connections, which seem to last in the mind if not always in actuality. The relationship between William and Lucy Barton surely endures in both ways. Lucy is recently widowed by her second husband and feeling her age; William has been “left” by his latest and is refusing to acknowledge his own senescence. Strout’s books are more about life than about plot, and particularly about the lastingness of relationships.
At the end of the book, Lucy realizes just how corralled William is by his past, and this makes her realize that she too is still moved by history she might not even remember:
And then I thought, Oh William!
But when I think Oh William!, don’t I mean Oh Lucy! Too?
Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves?
Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.
We are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.
This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.
Those last lines ring true for me. Old age is about acknowledging the mysteries. We know everything when we are eighteen; when we are seventy, we finally acknowledge that maybe there is almost nothing that we know. Yet, I think if we are lucky – and if we last long enough, we come to love the mystery.
For a tale about the parts of ourselves that last into old age (if we can only respect the mystery), you might try my story “Needs of the Living Organism.”
One thought on “Lastingness – In Fact and Fiction”
I am reminded of the question asked (and I paraphrase) by Jim Finley…How is it that two people who have lived together for a very long time can sit in silence without the need to speak to one another? How is it that you can come to know someone so well that you are unable to put into words who that one person is? That is the mystery of love.
May you continue to be well and dwell in the mystery.