Apr 26th 2014

Aging Gracelessly

by David W. Galenson

Dr. David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009). David W. Galenson, picture aboce. Derek Walcott, picture in the text.
In the New York Times Book Review, Adam Kirsch laments a lost love -- the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Kirsch recalls his early infatuation: "It was not until I read 'The Waste Land' as a teenager that I began to think I might want to be a poet myself." Eliot's poetry was a challenge to the young writer, and consequently a spur to his early intellectual development. But as Kirsch matured, he realized that Eliot's vision was not only different from his, but unattractive: "Eliot's world came to strike me as too hermetic, too self-invented, and too limiting in its rejections." Today, Kirsch sees Eliot's poetry as the product of a young poet, appropriate above all for an audience of young readers: "I loved Eliot so much as an adolescent because he is, in some ways, an essentially adolescent writer;" Kirsch now considers "Prufrock" to be "the most perfect expression of adolescent anguish ever written," and the "Waste Land" "a kind of young person's performance." Kirsch still honors the greatness of Eliot, but he has now outgrown it: "There may be different kinds of greatness, suited to different phases of our growth."

2014-04-24-TSEliot1920NPGUK.jpg
T.S. Eliot in 1920. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

A battalion of academic psychologists have declared that lyric poets peak young, and they are wrong. Some poets peak young; others peak late. The difference is not happenstance, but systematic: conceptual poets peak early, experimental poets peak late. Their creative peaks are different because their artistic goals are different, and the methods by which they seek them are different.

Conceptual innovations are often sudden and dramatic leaps into novelty, made by brash and daring young practitioners who are not constrained by long years of adherence to disciplinary conventions, nor burdened by deeply entrenched habits of thought. These leaps may appear elegant and brilliant in their simplicity to the like-minded, but to others they may appear superficial and simplistic. The poet Louise Glück once described her own early infatuation with Eliot: "I read this poetry for the first time as an adolescent. And understood it immediately, by which I mean I felt a connection to it. I heard the tone." But as an older poet, she could see that what had appealed to her as an adolescent was the adolescent quality of Eliot's work: "If there is a criticism to make, it may come out of that: not that the work is 'academic,' whatever that means, but that in the intensity and unchangingness of its emotion it is adolescent." An artist who is born middle-aged may in fact be a poet who never matures. Joyce Carol Oates made just this point about another great conceptual innovator: "[Sylvia] Plath's meticulously documented example suggests how precocity is not maturity, and may in fact impede maturity."

2014-04-24-PlathSylvia1959NPGUK.jpg
Sylvia Plath in 1959. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Nor is this criticism unique to poets; it has equally been made of important conceptual practitioners of other arts. So for example when the novelist Henry James reviewed an exhibition of paintings by the precocious John Singer Sargent when the latter was just 37 years old, James observed that Sargent's recent work did not demonstrate development: "As he saw and rendered ten years ago, so he sees and renders today; and I may add that there is no present symptom of his passing into another manner." James was disturbed by Sargent's precocity, for "it offers the slightly uncanny spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn." James feared that Sargent would never achieve "the highest result...I mean the quality in the light of which the artist sees deep into his subject, undergoes it, absorbs it, discovers in it new things that were not on the surface, becomes patient with it, and almost reverent, and, in short, enlarges and humanizes the technical problem." In yet another art, and more bluntly, in an obituary of Ernest Hemingway, the novelist Alberto Moravia declared that throughout his life Hemingway had remained in an "infantile and precocious state of arrested development." Noting that Hemingway's important work was done when Hemingway was in his twenties, Moravia concluded that "he was incapable of developing or adding anything of value to his early, naïve nihilism." In more moderate terms the scholar Philip Young agreed, reflecting that nowhere in Hemingway "can you find the mature, brooding intelligence, the sense of the past, the grown-up relationships of adult people, and many of the other things we normally ask of a first-rate novelist."

2014-04-24-Ernest_Hemingway_in_Milan_1918_retouched_3_Wikimedia.jpg
Ernest Hemingway in 1918. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

T.S. Eliot himself recognized that there may be an inverse relationship between early brilliance and ultimate achievement, in a speech he delivered in his own sixth decade:

We can also observe, upon a little conversance, that the plays of Christopher Marlowe exhibit a greater maturity of mind and of style, than the plays which Shakespeare wrote at the same age: it is interesting to speculate whether, if Marlowe had lived as long as Shakespeare, his development would have continued at the same pace. I doubt it: for we observe that those which mature very early do not always develop very far.
Eliot also recognized that the maturity of Shakespeare could best be appreciated by the mature reader: "No reader of Shakespeare...can fail to recognize, increasingly as he himself grows up, the gradual ripening of Shakespeare's mind."

Even the conceptual Eliot could recognize the maturation of the experimental Shakespeare, but Eliot nonetheless remained baffled by the ability of Shakespeare, or Yeats, to develop artistically as they grew older: "That a poet should develop at all, that he should find something new to say, and say it equally well, in middle age, has always something miraculous about it." Eliot's failure of comprehension is not surprising, for maturity is an experimental value, not readily understood by a conceptual artist. True artistic maturity does not arrive suddenly or conspicuously, but gradually and unobtrusively. So for example the critic Stephen Greenblatt observed that

Hamlet makes clear that Shakespeare had been quietly, steadily developing a special technical skill...The achievement was, in any case, gradual: not a sudden, definitive discovery or a grandiose invention, but the subtle refinement of a particular set of representational techniques.
2014-04-24-Robert_Frost_NYWTS_4_wikimedia_1959.jpg
Robert Frost. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
For insight into the value of maturity in poetry, we can turn to the reflections of a great experimental poet, Robert Frost, in his own seventh decade:
Young people have insight. They have a flash here and a flash there. It is like the stars coming out in the early evening. They have flashes of light. It is later in the dark of life that you see forms, constellations. And it is the constellations that are philosophy.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.
Jul 22nd 2019
It’s worth remembering, then, that we are not designed to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to survive and reproduce. These are difficult tasks, so we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety, fight off threats and avoid pain. The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting pleasure and pain fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the happiness industry is trying to sell us. In fact, pretending that any degree of pain is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Postulating that there is no such thing as happiness may appear to be a purely negative message, but the silver lining, the consolation, is the knowledge that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure. If you are unhappy at times, this is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as the happiness gurus would have it. Far from it. This fluctuation is, in fact, what makes you human.
Jul 10th 2019

 

The eight-mile ‘river of flowers’ that grows alongside a motorway nea
Jul 5th 2019
"........since World War II, 97% of unimproved grassland habitats have vanished from the UK. This has contributed to the loss of pollinating insects – and the distribution of one third of species has shrunk since 1980."
Jun 25th 2019
"For many of us, eating a meal containing meat is a normal part of daily life. But if we dig deeper, some sobering issues emerge. Every year, 66 billion terrestrial animals are slaughtered for food. Predictions are that meat consumption will rise, with increasing demand for meat from China and other Asian countries as their standards of living increase. The impact of grazing animals on the environment is devastating. They produce 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and livestock farming is a major contributor to species extinctions."
Jun 22nd 2019
"Throughout history, people who have gained positions of power tend to be precisely the kind of people who should not be entrusted with it. A desire for power often correlates with negative personality traits: selfishness, greed and a lack of empathy. And the people who have the strongest desire for power tend to be the most ruthless and lacking in compassion."
Jun 21st 2019
"In this era of Trump, it should perhaps come as no surprise to find supposed experts lacking in historical perspective. Yet it is still disappointing to find this deficit in the New York Times, which prides itself on clinging to a pursuit of the truth. So it is a bit sad to read the plaintive cry of Allison Schrager’s op-ed of May 17, lamenting that the domination of art markets by the super-rich will somehow force smaller galleries to go out of business, and imperil the careers of young artists."
Jun 17th 2019
Extract: "ust as an earlier generation resisted the limiting post-War era "white middle class" definition of being American by giving birth to an awakening of cultural pluralism and ethnic pride, it falls to our generation to fight for an expanded view of the idea of being American that rejects the narrow view projected by Trump and white nationalists. The idea of America isn't theirs. It's bigger than they are and unless our national cohesion is to unravel, this challenge must be met by projecting an inclusive vision of America that celebrates our inclusive national identity in an increasingly globalized world."
May 28th 2019
Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Apr 29th 2019
A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.   Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries. 
Apr 23rd 2019

 

“Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books. I am so rich… and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (Moby Dick, chapter cviii). 

Apr 20th 2019
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Apr 16th 2019
Although it is not likely that many visitors who pass by the Giacometti sculptures on their way to Las Meninas will ponder it, the contrast between these works underscores the single greatest transformation in the history of western art, from a regime in which artists tailored their works to the aims of individual patrons, to one in which artists choose their techniques and motifs according to their own concerns, and only then present the products to an anonymous competitive market
Apr 4th 2019
On March eleventh, the world lost someone who was very special, who made a mark and touched people with his voice, as a singer, a humorist and writer..........I had the great good fortune to know him and spend time with him, playing music, talking with him – he was a man of immense culture, fluent in Hebrew, German, English, and Romanian. He loved New York City and Vienna and we would often swap apartments so that he could stay in New York while I lived at his place in Vienna.
Apr 1st 2019
The ongoing controversy over admissions to American universities has overlooked the one of the most telling aspects of the scandal—that it took place with the connivance and active participation of administrative bureaucracies able to act with impunity in the pursuit of their interests. Neither the professoriate, often the target of opprobrium from the left and the right, nor the student body, also the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, bore any of the responsibility.  Current debates over “what ails” U.S. colleges and universities consistently ignore the single most important dynamic of all institutions—their structure of power. I suggest that the way in which power is allocated within American universities is strikingly similar to that of Soviet-type regimes. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and their bureaucratic apparatuses preside over vast real-estate and financial holdings, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, have inordinate influence over personnel, and are structured hierarchically, thereby forming an enormously powerful “new class” like that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s. 
Mar 22nd 2019
When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them. Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.
Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.
Mar 12th 2019
The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 
Feb 25th 2019
Looking at the world today, it's clear that the consequences of this imperial legacy are still with us. If anything has changed it is that we are now beyond just viewing the former "natives" as far-away oddities. They are now living within our borders, having come to find the opportunities they were denied at home. So when I hear the reactions in the West to the influx of South Asians going to the UK, or North Africans going to France, or Central Americans migrating to the US, I can only say "Guys, these are the fruits of your conquest – your chickens coming home to roost."
Feb 25th 2019
Extracts: "The new novel Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, is a saga of depression and death told with such irony and wit that readers seem to love it despite the unsettling themes. Maybe it’s just me but I found myself laughing out loud.......True to form, the French don’t agree on Houellebecq – or anything else, for that matter. The impact of his new novel has divided the readers into opposite love-hate camps with hardly any middle ground. Houellebecq cannot leave you indifferent, notes a literary friend of mine"........Picture: Michel Houellebecq, by the reviewer Michael Johnson.