In my last post I asked what my subject, Steve Dansky, had to teach me–to teach all of us–about aging and creativity. Some of the answers to that question may be obvious. For example, and not surprisingly, there’s a continuity between his past work and his present. The photography may be new, the fictional prose may be different, but the same passion for social justice animates it. Nevertheless, something else has changed, or is changing. Something more profound. I’m reminded of this verse from T.S. Eliot (“East Coker”)
Old men should be explorers
Here and there does not matter.
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity.
(I know Steve won’t forgive me if I don’t first apologize for Eliot’s use of the word,“men.” The poem was written well before the ’60s and ’70s when “men” became “men and women,” “humanity,” “people”….)
The verse came back to me when I studied Steve’s photographs. “Another intensity.” When I first found Eliot’s verse, I was so struck by the phrase, so in love with the idea of it, that I almost gave this blog that name.
There are various descriptions of what may make old age especially creative, and why. Consider this quotation from best-selling author Julian Barnes (not as old as me, but getting there), who recently spent a whole book worrying about death, especially his own. (Nothing To Be Frightened Of) After considering a late piece of music by Rossini, Barnes wrote, “The artist is saying: display and bravura are tricks for the young, and yes, showing off is part of ambition; but now that we are old, let us have the confidence to speak simply. . . . This is not just humility in the face of eternity; it is also that it takes a lifetime to see, and say, simple things.”
Again, Steve’s photographs. They say something so simple. They exemplify humility in the face of eternity.
But not everyone sees the subject of creative aging that way. Consider Edward Said’s last book, On Late Style, published after his death in 2003. “Each of us can readily supply evidence of how it is that late works crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor. Rembrandt and Matisse, Bach and Wagner. But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction?” How far a cry is that from Eliot’s “another intensity.”
Said’s thought on the subject seems to me (and some reviewers), complicated and abstruse. I’m still reading, still trying to figure out what he means. I’ll try to report on it later. But I’m afraid it may be more like me than Eliot’s fine phrase. I’m not particularly “still” in my old age. Certainly not as still as I think Steve may be. My stillness is an unquiet one. I seem to stew about small things much as I always did, and I can’t say I’m simpler or that my confidence in myself has been bolstered by growing older.
And so, you other aging people out there, help me out with this post. As you age are you filled with “another intensity?” Are you simpler? Or are you experiencing “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction?” What words best describe the fruit of your later years?