Keeping the creative window open

. May 24, 2012.

Nicholas Delbanco’s latest book, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, is a study of, and a series of meditations on, the work produced in their late years by some of history’s greatest geniuses in literature, music and the visual arts. “For obvious reasons, this has become a personal matter,” writes Delbanco, Director of the Hopwood Awards Program at the U of M. The author published his first novel in 1966 and twenty-three other books of fiction and nonfiction since then, and the subject has an “incremental interest” for him, as he acknowledged at a recent public reading in the Ann Arbor Borders Bookstore.

Why do some artists show great potential in youth, but never fully, or for long, make good on that early promise? Why do some produce great work for years, but start to repeat themselves and show a steady decline as they age? And how is it that some manage to create art that has “lastingness” well into their seventies, eighties and even nineties? These are just some of the questions that Delbanco asks, discusses, and attempts to answer here. He obviously has read widely and studied deeply for many years. Every sentence in this book reflects that learning, and does so in prose that sparkles with inventiveness and insight. Describing the risks of repetition for aging artists, for example, he writes, “A kind of shadowboxing enacted in slow motion: there’s no creative challenge while they practice their old moves.”

Delbanco pens case histories, both thumbnail sketches and longer profiles, of artists famous and less familiar to illustrate his inquiry; Bach, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Pablo Casals, Monet, Georgia O’Keeffe, Franz Liszt, Tolstoy, Clara Schumann, George Sand, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and more. And while acknowledging these unique and highly individual personalities, and their paths to the crafting of late works having lasting greatness, Delbanco shows that when you examine “creative achievement in old age, a pattern does emerge.” Here is one critical part of that puzzle. “A common denominator of the final years would seem to be just such a constancy of purpose, a temperamental (often ill-tempered) stick-to-itiveness that denies decline.”

After examining numerous lives and many paths to “lastingness” Delbanco sums up with, “What I’ve been trying to suggest is how these strategies wrest gain from loss, spin gold from straw, make something enduring of what feels fleet. And this is the reward accorded those who spend their life in art: For a brief period, and possibly far longer, they are not the fools of time.”

This is a subject that is, or certainly ought to be, of great interest to all of us, young or older. The lessons Delbanco uncovers here, and the other meaning of his subtitle, The Art of Old Age, can be of great use to us all—artists or not. Delbanco, as is evident from this work, is clearly not ready or content to rest, or retire, on his laurels. May he long continue to create more work of such lasting value.

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