“Life, as we find it, is too hard for us,” writes Freud in “Civilization and Its Discontents.” “Palliative measures” are required. One such measure is a receptivity to art. (Another is intoxication; the third is religion.) The authors of two books under discussion here – Nicholas Delbanco and Arnold Weinstein – along with the editors of the third, David Shields and Bradford Morrow, would agree. They find in art a consolation for the pain engendered by the awareness of our approaching death.
Of the three, Delbanco has done the impossible: He has made old age not only bearable but fascinating. “Lastingness: The Art of Old Age” is about “tribal elders in the world of art.” In a series of beautifully told stories, he illuminates the last stages of the long lives of Pablo Casals, Monet, John Updike, Verdi, Goya and more, artists who continued to paint, write, compose until the very end.
Their art in old age was different from the art of their youth: Lizst turned away from performing and to composing, from matinee idol to religious ascetic; Monet, “rheumatic and more than half blind,” painted only his garden; Updike opines that “Aesthetic flourishes fade and wrinkle. … A blunt sincerity outlasts finely honed irony.” Delbanco sees a change in these artists as a diminution of ego, in its stead a worldview.
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