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On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain
In this fascinating book, Edward Said looks at the creative contradictions that often mark the late works of literary and musical artists. Said shows how the approaching death of an artist can make its way into his work, examining essays, poems, novels, films, and operas by such artists as Beethoven, Genet, Mozart, Lampedusa, Euripides, Cavafy, and Mann, among others. He uncovers the conflicts and complexity that often distinguish artistic lateness, resulting in works that stood in direct contrast to what was popular at the time and were forerunners of what was to come in each artist's discipline–works of true genius. Eloquent and impassioned, brilliantly reasoned and revelatory, On Late Style is Edward Said's own great last work.
Edward Said, perhaps best known for "Orientalism," one of the most-recognized and important contributions to post-colonial studies, wrote the essays in "On Late Style" shortly before his death. The sense of "lateness" - of mortality, of obsolescence - permeates them, and they cover everything from the music of Strauss, Mozart, and Beethoven, to the political activism of Jean Genet, to "Il Gattopardo" (as envisioned by both Lampedusa and Visconti). In many ways, this is Said's last conversation with Theodor Adorno, whose presence deeply informs his criticism in many of these essays.The book begins by reading around lateness as an aspect of chronological development - as synonymous with maturity - and opens the concept up as something that can realize "intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction," instead of the facile harmony and resolution that seeks the end of all tension. Said claims that late style refuses to reconcile what is impossible to reconcile, and that this reconciliation is oftentimes just a refusal to accept difference. It "grasps the difficulty of what cannot be grasped and then goes forth to try anyway." Musicologist Rose Subotnik says of the late work of Beethoven, no doubt with his Missa Solemnis or the Ninth Symphony in mind, "no synthesis is conceivable [but is in effect] the remains of a synthesis, the vestige of an individual human subject sorely aware of its wholeness, and consequently the survival, that has eluded it forever." It is this idea of lateness - which is quite distinct from, but not completely unrelated to, mortality and death - which Said puts to critical use in these wonderful essays.While I think that everything in the book is worth reading, a few essays especially jumped out as being worthy of attention. In "Return to the Eighteenth Century," Said sets out to carve a middle path between two radically different opinions on the late operas of Richard Strauss. Adorno's rejection and derision of them is total, saying that he "intended to master music without submitting to its discipline" and that "his ego ideal is now fully identified with the Freudian genital-character who is uninhibitedly out for his own pleasure." Compare this with Glenn Gould's hagiographic characterization of Strauss as "more than the greatest man of music of our times." In one of the most convincing arguments made in the book, Said argues against Adorno's accusation of Strauss being a Beidermeier relic, and that he went a long way in countering Wagner's theatrical idiom of "history as a grand system to which everyone and every small narrative is subject," becoming the "keeper of the art of our fathers."The most compelling and readable essay in the collection is "On Jean Genet," an autobiographical account of Said's two encounters with Genet during the early 1970s. The second of these, which took place in Beirut, allowed Said to learn about Genet's role in Palestinian activism, which was passionate and total. Through a reading of "Les Paravents," Said argues that because of Genet's lifelong marginality as a thief, prisoner, and homosexual, that he was able to sympathize with Palestinians without the Western rose-colored glasses of Orientalism.I recommend this for anyone, especially those seriously interested in classical music. For Said admirers who have only known him as a literary critic, these essays open up whole new vistas by displaying the full panoply of his concerns and academic interests. While I have the suspicion that many musicologists would disagree with his characterizations of, for example, Mozart and late Beethoven and perhaps Strauss, these are nevertheless well-wrought essays constructed with lapidary reasoning. These essays are all the more poignant because Said knew that he was in the last stages of his fight with leukemia as they were being written. Readers who admire Said for his clear presentation of sometimes very opaque ideas will not be disappointed with this collection.read more
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It’s good that Edward Said got far enough with the writing of this book to allow it to be published posthumously. It’s sad, though, that he was not able to finish it himself. The editors spliced together notes, lectures and essays into a book, without having to add any bridging paragraphs or explanations — all the words are Said’s.But the trouble is that it reads like a bunch of essays and lecture notes spliced together. There’s nothing really tying it all together, apart from the overall theme of ‘lateness’. For Said, this means artists who towards the end of their careers do not bask in their achievements but remain dissatisfied: ‘artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction.’ He is interested in artists who find themselves apart from their contemporaries, yet refuse to age gracefully. ‘It is as if having achieved age, they want none of its supposed serenity or maturity, or any of its amiability or official ingratiation. Yet in none of them is mortality denied or evaded, but keeps coming back as the theme of death which undermines, and strangely elevates their uses of language and the asthetic.’Unfortunately, such passages are few and far between in ‘On Late Style.’ The book is mostly just an essay on Beethoven followed by an essay on Glenn Gould, followed by one on Benjamin Britten. All are interesting in their way, although I suffered from not being familiar with many of the examples he draws on. With a few months more work, they could have been shaped into a book, with a strong theme developed and the relevance of each essay made clear. Sadly that is just what was lacking, and so we are left with a half-formed book, promising much but leaving this reader wanting more.read more
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This is the book culture critic Said was completing when he died in 2003. The critical survey had its genesis in a popular course Said taught at Columbia University, "Late Works/Late Style," examining "artists... whose work expresses lateness through the peculiarities of its style." Writing with insight and meticulous phrasing, Said studies the output of creative talents during their final years. The passing parade of artists, writers and composers includes Beethoven, Mozart, Jean Genet, Glenn Gould, Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss. In one piece, Said details dramatic contrasts between Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard and Luchino Visconti's film adaptation of that novel; in another, he compares Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1911) with Benjamin Britten's 1973 opera of Mann's novella, composed near the end of Britten's career. While "late works crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor," Said concludes there also is "artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction." As Said examined the effect of impending death on artists, leukemia led him to his own final pages, resulting in this erudite collection. (Apr. 11) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved