- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

Before you mentally depart for New Year’s jubilee, with visions of change and a happier, healthier future dancing in your head, let me depress you.

Spike your eggnog with this — a contemplation of aging, infirmity and ultimate death.

For those attuned to so-called last things, 2006 was, in its grim way, an encouragement.

Defying the conventional slowdown that accompanies old age, 73-year-old novelist Philip Roth continued his startlingly prolific run with the slender, deathly “Everyman.” Director Woody Allen, 71, followed up last year’s surprise Dostoevskian comeback “Match Point” with an equally vital, if more lighthearted, companion, “Scoop.” And with “Modern Times,” singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, 65, continued his potent exploration of American blues and pre-rock vernacular music.

In academia, the magisterial British historian Simon Schama earlier this month completed the 55th annual A.W. Mellon lecture series at the National Gallery of Art. He chose as his subject “Really Old Masters” — painters such as Claude Monet, Francisco Goya and Pablo Picasso who saw senescence as a summons to reinvention.

French painter-sculptor Henri Matisse not only lived long; cancer eventually confined him to a wheelchair. And yet he continued to produce grand paper collages until his death at 84.

Hollywood this year lost a kindred spirit in Robert Altman, who, at 81, had been experiencing an unlikely renaissance. His 2001 movie “Gosford Park” garnered the kind of critical praise — not to mention Oscar nominations — that had largely eluded him since his 1970s prime.

Mr. Altman had slogged through cancer for his final 18 months and managed to make “A Prairie Home Companion,” whose theme and setting — the final broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s radio show, in Mr. Altman’s native Midwest — took on an almost numinous valedictory significance.

Most careers don’t end so tidily, not to mention as productively.

This year also saw the posthumous publication of literary theorist Edward Said’s “On Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain.” While suffering from leukemia, to which he succumbed in 2003, Mr. Said wrote poignantly of a “relationship between bodily condition and aesthetic style.”

Foreshadowing Mr. Schama, Mr. Said suggested that the onset of age and what British poet Philip Larkin called “the slowing-down body” need not necessarily furnish an excuse for grand summings-up. Rather, artistic late style can be a discordant break with the past.

In a contrarian spirit that would, perhaps, please certain boomer-era rock stars who refuse to “grow up” — per the demands of boomer critics who have been forced by the reality of paunch and hairline recession to do just that — Mr. Said chafed at “the accepted notion of age and wisdom in some last works that reflect a special maturity, a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity.”

Unlike the “crowning achievements” of late Rembrandt and Bach, Mr. Said wrote, “artistic lateness” can manifest itself not as “harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” Late style for giants such as Beethoven was a defiant search for new idioms.

New Republic literary critic James Wood mentions via e-mail the vivid example of writer Thomas Hardy: “He stopped writing fiction in 1895, after years of success, and turned to poetry, which he wrote very prolifically until his death in 1928. Much of it was elegiac in tone, and about his own death or his first wife’s.”

One is hard-pressed here not to bring up filmmaker Clint Eastwood, 76. What defines late Eastwood is a moral, more than an aesthetic, sense.

Mr. Eastwood’s pair of World War II epics, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” are the culmination of a 15-year-long apology tour. Where once cowboys and cops wielded violence as an instrument of justice, in late Eastwood it’s an expression of nihilism no matter who wields it.

Late Eastwood is a trembling of the soul — a regretful recompense for past indulgences.

Better now than on the deathbed, one assumes.

In stark contrast to the transcendent work they leave behind, great artists obviously feel the same unsettling tug of mortality that the rest of us do, only more acutely.

The late poems of William Butler Yeats, says Mr. Wood, were suffused with sorrow over the loss of friends — the great curse of long life.

I told you this would be depressing.

Happy New Year.

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