A Valediction of Late Life
Nearing the end of life, for artists, intellectuals and politicians their last hurrah carries a very specific style.
Edward Said, the late Palestinian intellectual, was not a natural bedfellow for Arsene Wenger, the French football manager in the English Premier League. However, the very first match of the 2017-18 season — between Wenger’s team, Arsenal, and recent champions Leicester City — excited the football columnists to break out of their jadedness and attempt literary airs. Barney Ronay, writing in The Guardian, proposed that new recruit Alexander Lacazette, despite scoring the opening goal, must have been bemused and confused by the “uncut hit of pure, unfiltered Arsenal-dom, the very essence of late Wengerism.”
Wenger had fielded a strong attacking top of the field, Lacazette included, but left his defensive lines a shambles of players improvising wildly out of position, nothing making sense, inviting disaster. Yet while Leicester pushed hard to exploit palpable ineptitude, Arsenal somehow contrived, in two brilliant moments, to win, despite being “a team half glimpsed, flickering just behind the fuzziness of later-Wenger Arsenal.”
Wenger, shortly to turn 68, came to Arsenal in 1996, and has thus served longer than most football managers in England or, indeed, anywhere else in Europe. He revolutionized training and diet. He brought science. He believed in developing, rather than just buying players. He wanted youth to come through the ranks and become beautiful technicians of a beautiful game in danger of becoming brutish and ruled only by money and the purchase of success. And he was at first wildly successful. Even in his later years, after a barren period, he has begun winning trophies again.
But the manner of winning, full of erratic wonder, of fuzzy decisions and baroque strategies, increasingly bewildered and then irritated the followers of Arsenal. And, although he won much, they had the clear sense that he and the team could have won more, if only there was more sense in the choice, deployment and field plans of the players. It seemed that Wenger was making football into a philosophic dialogue with himself that no one else could enter, and which no one else could understand. The logic was fuzzy. The language of play was a highly refined and erudite glossolalia. When Wenger spoke, he seemed impeccable — but he made no sense.
The “late style” of which Edward Said spoke seems at first sight somewhat different. But his last book, On Late Style, was in some ways an explanation of himself to himself — Said refracted through his heroes, from Jean Genet to Glenn Gould — and an explanation to his students as he, in front especially of their eyes, slowly died. His 12-year-old leukemia finally took his life in 2003 and the book, unfinished at his death, like Mahler’s last symphony completed by students, colleagues and followers in his name, appeared in 2006.
More than his autobiography of 1999, Out of Place, it is a valedictory book — a valediction of late life, and an understanding of himself as sharing the psychology and impulses of his heroes as they also contemplated lateness, themselves drifting or hurtling towards it in its final sense. It is a late style of glowering hubris wondering whether nemesis is just, even if inevitable — of allowing anger and impatience to seep forth — but of galvanizing together, in one’s arms as it were, a lifetime of knowledge and practice with which to confront the world one last time.
Late style is thus meant to be a mature style, but a vexed one. Maturing will come to an end. Late style is, therefore, irritable with its condensation of time and possibility. Said wrote about the late styles of Jean Genet, Giuseppe Lampedusa, Cavafy, Samuel Beckett, Visconti and Glenn Gould. All were very different, from each other, and from everyone else. They worked in different media. And Said riffed off them to include many others. Benjamin Britten closes the book with Said musing on Britten’s opera of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
And here Said finally comes clean about what he has been trying to say. He has been writing about the purposeful but not fully controlled steps to finality. “Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective is the light in which — alone — it glows into life. He (the artist) does not bring about their harmonious synthesis. As the power of dissociation, he tears them apart in time, in order, perhaps, to preserve them for the eternal. In the history of art late works are the catastrophes.” But the catastrophes are masterpieces. Who on earth fully understands Thomas Mann, Cavafy, Beckett anyway? It would involve a massive reductionism to claim that. The masterpieces are finally, if not opaque, fuzzy.
In that sense, the conjuncture of Wenger and Said is not fully frivolous. But it strikes me that there is not only a sense of late style in intellectuals, artists, musicians and football coaches, but in political leaders too. People like Robert Mugabe being driven by inner impulses to fulfil the sense of themselves as having created a great nationalism that could never be realized in terms of its original vision and now, aged 94, he cannot bear to let go of the catastrophe of his country. Obvious figures like Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin aside, even Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who would not flee across the border to Algeria that would have granted him asylum, but who stayed and fought for his vision, repressive but transformative, egotistical but plausible — if enigmatic — in its workings, of a Libya that has now disappeared into ruins. Late style inhabits those we call mad men as well as geniuses.
It was perhaps what Isaac Deutscher noted in Trotsky, capturing him in from a view of late grandeur that infuriated the likes of Isaiah Berlin. What was caught in the great film by Robert Guédiguian of François Mitterand.
Mad Men and Women
But it is not just creative geniuses or greatly failed politicians who enter the sometimes long process toward lateness. I am mindful of the “crabby” and “angry old men” of a certain cantankerous age. Is it just a condition of growing older? Or is it a condition of seeking, at least harboring the idea of a search, for one last hurrah that would be defining of all that went on before lateness and which lateness was meant to witness as the mature and refined expression of a life and its vision — not just an artistic or political vision, but a vision of oneself as an entity, an identity, in the world, the projection of personality, ego and desire. But it all comes out in the end as haphazard, fuzzy and only rustily brilliant.
It happens to women too, of course, but Said wrote largely about men, and most politicians are still men. But I wonder what Indira Gandhi thought in 1984 as she wandered through her garden before being assassinated by 31 bullets by two of her own guards. By this time, at the end of a long tenure as prime minister, she trusted only her own family; her favorite son, Sanjay, had died in a plane crash. Introspective, and almost prophesying her death the day before, perhaps she knew that nothing could get better in a tenure on power that was leading to many mistakes and deaths.
And Margaret Thatcher, in 1990, being driven away sobbing as she was deposed by her own lieutenants. Did she also know that the long knives were being unsheathed and were, perhaps, overdue? Late-Thatcher brought few of the glories and firefights that marked her early years in power. Was there brooding on the part of both women as they saw their foreclosures looming? And all efforts to forestall the end and recall the brilliance of the past were only fitful and fuzzy?
Perhaps Arsene Wenger will lead his Arsenal team to some glories yet. Despite the large number of cups won, he has not won the English Premier League since 2004. He has never won the European Champions League. Of late, the Arsenal supporters in the beautiful, ecologically-friendly Emirates Stadium, the envied home of the team, have barracked Wenger and accused him of being old-fashioned. Being old. Being late.
But perhaps becoming late is, to put it lazily, a late fate. But there is more to it than the fuzzy harboring of dreams slowly fermenting in anger. There is a regret. On his deathbed, Edward Said confessed to his son that he regretted not doing more for the Palestinians. The son was astonished. Who could have done more? But perhaps that is the final condition of lateness. The battle through frustration and the ebbing of life to do more. Very much more.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.