Seventy years Later
The first section of The Rock (is ‘canto’ appropriate here?) starts off so bleakly that the temptation is to skirt its title. Stevens was seventy or so when he wrote The Rock. It is obvious that he is writing about his life, and the first line—‘It is an illusion that we were ever alive,’—does rather grab you away from that title. So puzzling. But use ‘seventy years later’ in a sentence. ‘Wallace set out to be a lawyer at a very young age. Seventy years later he was one of the most renowned legal minds in the world.’ ‘Wallace was molested by a pedophile as a child. Seventy years later…’ If we are contemplating anything here, we are contemplating a complex grammatical situation. The phrase ‘seventy years later’ does a lot of work. It establishes a point in time seventy years ago which has relevance to this day. It then travels those seventy years to look back on this past time, assess its significance. Of course, what he is looking back on may not be a thing (‘Rosebud’) it may be a process or the passage of time itself, or the significance of that process, that passage of time. And all this, it seems to say, can only be understood ‘seventy years later’. Not bad for three words.
Refine that: The understanding that ‘seventy years later’ brings is a different understanding than what was possible ‘seventy years ago’. Three score and ten is the traditional, biblical life span. You get your seventy years to understand what you can in this world, Plato be damned. Understanding is a process and it’s bound to time. Understanding is bound to you, your ‘self’. Coming to understand ‘time’ and ‘self’ are some of the things you understand with the self and time you have. What you understand of time and the events and processes of your life, you understand afresh and anew with each drop of your life—as you live in time. (But how long is that ‘drop’? A drop may just be on the short side of time, not quite after the tick, not quite before the tock. A nanosecond is too long.) You stop understanding when you die. Significance, meaning, knowledge, poetry are all bound up in that seventy years.
Stevens drank. It is not difficult to see him sitting at the end of the bar, grumbling the opening of The Rock to some unassuming soul. ‘It is an illusion that we were ever alive. Regard the freedom of seventy years ago. It is no longer air. Even our shadows no longer remain…Absurd. The words spoken were not and are not. They never were.’ Bah, humbug.
Just before he died, Edward Said became interested in an idea Theodor Adorno used to describe the music Beethoven had written just before he died. Adorno called it ‘late style’.
Beethoven’s art had overgrown itself…isolated too from sense by loss of his hearing; lonely prince of a realm of spirits, from whom now only a chilling breath issued to terrify his most willing contemporaries, standing as they did aghast at these communications of which only at moments, only by excerption, they could understand anything at all.
What Adorno actually meant by late style can be a little difficult to pin down. Said’s attempt to do so is called ‘Timeliness and Lateness’ and is reprinted in a book Michael Wood put together after Said died, On Late Style: The late Edward Said on the late Theodor Adorno on the late Ludwig Beethoven’s late style. Where is the Mad Hatter when we need him?
Of course some artists get to transcendence in their old age. They achieve wholeness and harmony. They synthesize their knowledge, their experience, and their wisdom at the end of their life. Think Rembrandt, Matisse, Bach, Wagner, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Verdi’s Falstaff. This is some of the greatest art man has made. (Steven Jay Gould, when asked to suggest something to put in a space capsule chose Bach’s Mass in B minor. ‘Tell them it’s the best we’ve done.’) For these artists all the contradictions have been worked out. A harp is playing in their respective heads. Life is worth living; I can die content; and so can you.
Nice work if you can get it.
The other side of the coin is the late style that Adorno thought he found in the deaf Beethoven. Here the contradictions most definitely have not been resolved. Music is produced that is characterized by dissonance and discord; music that’s petulant, bitter, acerbic; music that’s sublime and blunt by turn. Middle class certainties are mocked and lampooned; death has no redeeming qualities.
His late work still remains process, but not as development; rather as catching fire between two extremes, which no longer allow for any secure middle ground or harmony of spontaneity.
Late style can be seen in other artists as well. Said gave a course at Columbia on late style that included such notables as Richard Strauss, Mozart, Glenn Gould, and Thomas Mann. If you’ve read any Adorno, your credulity will not be tested when I tell you that most demanding of late stylists was Theodor Adorno.
Extreme Late Style
Okay, this is interesting. Late style has the artist mimicking his own discontent with, on the one hand, the pettiness of middle class life, and, on the other, with the utter force majeure of death itself. But we know life is unfair; we know we are going to die—we do know these things, right?
Adorno commands our attention further because he perhaps was a late stylist all his life. His prose was always ‘as catching fire between two extremes’. Said thinks:
Adorno uses the model of late Beethoven to endure ending in the form of lateness but for itself, its own sake, not as preparation for or obliteration of something else. Lateness is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present.
What Adorno does is theoretical—that is his construction isn’t supposed to be a replica of the real thing… The location of Adorno’s writing is theory, a space where he can construct his demystifying negative dialectics.
Synthesis is at issue. The late stylist can’t quite get there. And, yes, we can talk of synthesis in terms of Hegel. The artist can construct his thesis, he can construct his antithesis—but …he can’t quite find a way of melding the two.
That fragmentariness will result seems obvious. But one also finds one’s self, how shall I say, up in the air, in a space of one’s own, a space…well, is it theoretical space? One way to think of synthesis in the thesis/ antithesis/ synthesis process is to see it as a return to earth. The synthesis is where reality comes in. Said seems to think, for example—and he was a far closer student of Adorno’s work than I shall ever be—that Adorno wasn’t so much interested in describing what Beethoven’s music was actually like, but rather he was constructing a model. Models are useful in that they help us look at the world; they do not—strictly speaking—describe the world. Adorno was constructing in his own elaborate way—Said uses the word ‘mandarin’—the same thing Wallace Stevens was constructing—in his own mandarin way. Stevens called this thing the Poem.
From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own, and much more not ourselves.
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.
A little tip about writing poetry
Poetry doesn’t describe anything. Have a little ‘poetic’ experience on the bus? Fine. Just don’t try to describe it in a poem. Gary Snyder gets it right: Lay down these words/ Before your mind like rocks. (Like rocks, not like The Rock.) Poems are constructs of words. Their relationship to the world is not one of description.
I am the necessary angel of earth,
since in my sight you see the earth again.
Write the poem first. And then see if you see the earth in its light—or in its shadows.