A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Aristotle, 335 BCE
When Edward Said died in 2003 he was known and admired, not only as a literary theorist, but as a public intellectual. A gifted musician, he had founded with Daniel Barenboim the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together young musicians from Israel, Palestine and nearby lands. He died young by today’s standards. At 67, he was not far advanced into the third age. Nevertheless he had begun to turn his mind, in a series of essays and lectures, to the experience of art in old age, which he called ‘Late Style’.
His thought on this subject is rich and complex, and will be alluded to again. But one of its roots is the recognition, expressed long ago by Aristotle in his Art of Poetry, that a story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. And human lives, whatever else they may be, are stories.
They are stories our parents tell us about our origins and the time before memory. They are stories we tell ourselves as we acquire language and develop self-awareness. They are stories others tell about us, while we are still alive and afterwards. Each one of these complex, overlapping, fluid and unstable stories is an attempt to make sense of our own lives—even when they are about someone else’s.
Edward Said saw human beings as engaged in a ‘self-making process’ that was defined by ‘three great human episodes common to all human cultures and traditions’. The first of these is experienced in childhood and youth. It focuses on origin, the starting point in time and space that defines both the possibilities and the limits that will shape a life. The middle concerns the unfolding of that potential, how adult actions fulfil or fail to fulfil the promise of youth, how a character is shaped by its history. The third, final episode is the story’s end, the descent of the dramatic arc in which resolution is achieved or denied, meaning found, lost or perhaps both. Sense is made, in the end. Sometimes, it is also true.
It is this stage of an artist’s life, shadowed often by illness and always by mortality, that leads to the work Said calls Late Style. But the physical effects of age and nearness to the end are only part of the story, and perhaps not the most important or interesting. What comes last, in the continuing search for sense, is necessarily, inescapably, in dialogue with all that has come before—with origins, hopes and potential, with actions taken and avoided, with people known, loved and lost, with success, triumph, failure, sadness and everything that makes up a life. It is not surprising that memory is so important when it is, in Paul McCartney’s image, ‘almost full’. Where youth’s vacancy was a promise that middle age hoped to fulfil, old age has the challenge of making sense of what has been, in the knowledge of what must come. It is the end of the story and bears the responsibility for bringing the whole, if possible, to a satisfactory conclusion.
Thus can the story of Shakespeare’s serenity or Beethoven’s struggle be told in how their last works are interpreted: Late Style.
Children and young people want to be thought older than they are because with adulthood comes agency—the ability to act autonomously in the world, to make our own decisions, to pursue our desires, to write our own story. And it is the loss of agency, above all through mental incapacity, that is most feared as old age advances.
Art is a remarkable source of agency. Through its practice, human beings bring meanings into the world, impose interpretations on it and find common spirits. Through its practice, they persuade, seduce or frighten others into sharing their imaginations. Through its practice they act and induce others to act.
Shakespeare and Beethoven are rare. But a capacity to create, to acquire and to use artistic skill, is in all human beings, including those who do nothing to develop it after primary school. Art is a capacity for agency that, as the conversations described in the central part of this book show, can continue throughout life, can flourish, indeed, in old age and can help preserve individuality and autonomy to the very end.
Winter Fires is not concerned with whether old people who engage in art practice live longer or healthier lives, whether they make new friends or even whether they are happier. There is evidence to suggest that all of these are true, but my interest here is in a simpler, more basic question: whether having an identity and a practice as an artist helps people retain a sense of agency in old age.
Does the ability to make art, of whatever kind, scale or ambition, change the experience of ageing? Does it help that process of self-making described by Edward Said, through which we become ourselves?
These are the opening pages of ‘Winter Fires: Art and agency in old age’, which will be published by the Baring Foundation on 27 November 2012.
The book will be available free through the Foundation or as a download here.