Staying Power

Staying Power

by Nicholas Delbanco

What can the great artists teach us about aging?

America grows older yet stays focused on its young. Whatever hill we try to climb we’re over it by 50—and should that hill involve entertainment or athletics we’re finished long before. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but supermodels and newscasters, ingénues and football players all yield to the harsh tyranny of time. Still, we join the workforce older; we get married and have children older; we live, the actuaries tell us, longer than ever before. And if younger is better it doesn’t appear that youngest is best; we want our teachers, doctors, generals, and presidents to have reached a certain age. Our oldest elected chief executive, Ronald Reagan, famously quipped he wouldn’t hold his opponent’s youth against him. In context after context and contest after contest, we’re more than a little conflicted about elders of the tribe; when is it right to honor them, and when say, “Step aside”?

We keep our teeth longer, our backs are less bent. Central heat, indoor plumbing, and air conditioning have changed the expectations attaching to hygiene and therefore health. X-rays and antibiotics have materially improved our physical condition; Viagra and Cialis and an arsenal of face creams promise perpetual youth. And, as TV ads for pharmaceuticals constantly remind us, “You’re only as old as you feel.”

Yet if you study photographs of soldiers in the Civil War or look at those who stand on breadlines in the Great Depression, you’ll see a different national profile than that of our nation today. Our waistlines have enlarged. We drive and fly great distances but rarely walk more than five miles. Jackie Gleason’s sitcom character in the 1950s—the heavyset, big-bellied Ralph Kramden—would seem a svelte performer on television now. The epidemic of obesity that threatens to make our generation the first to live less long than its parents is a new phenomenon, engendered by “junk” food and insufficient exercise. “Assisted Living” compounds and “Home Health-Care Givers” are new phenomena also, and will almost surely increase.

Issues of physical health and life expectancy enter in; what does it mean to be old in the 21st century as opposed to the 16th? During the Roman Empire and in the “Pax Romana,” the average life span of the citizen is thought to have been 28; today, in the “Pax Americana,” the average citizen expects 50 additional years. As recently as 1900, the average life expectancy was a mere 45. And, as those who deal with Medicare and Medicaid and the Social Security Administration more and more urgently remind us, the fastest-growing segment of the American population is the elderly. Our aging populace constitutes a major shift of emphasis within the “body politic,” and the effects are just beginning to come clear.

Here is where and why the field of public health grows central and seems crucial. These questions have been newly raised and need to be newly addressed. Is thirty thirty, forty forty? The meaning of such numbers may itself have changed. Anthropologists and archaeologists and paleontologists and forensic experts have accumulated evidence of bone and body mass in the young or elderly in previous times; we have some understanding of what it entailed to enter into combat in Thermopylae or Carthage or in the Ninth Crusade. We know about lead poisoning and calcification in hips. But it’s impossible to truly know—to inhabit, as it were, the bodies of the ancient dead and feel what they were feeling when they made their morning oblation or drank their cup of wine. It’s natural enough for us to imagine that Achilles and a contemporary actor or Helen of Troy and a modern movie star are similar of stature—that the hair and legs and breasts and waistlines of our famous ancestors look more or less equivalent in those who portray them today. But a visit to the Catacombs or a Hall of Armor dispels that illusion in terms of size; we’re larger as a species and will no doubt continue to grow. If our breadth and bones have altered, if matters of shelter and nutrition transform the way we sleep and defecate, why would it not be also true that our ways of feeling young and old have changed?

Eubie Blake, the ragtime pianist, was 100 years old when he died. Blake stayed quick-witted, nimble tongued—and nimble fingered in his music-making till the very end. At his centenary celebration, the pioneer of boogie-woogie said, “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

Grandma Moses did take care, dying at 101. Photographs and video clips of the spry, white-haired old lady suggest she loved the role she played: America’s bespectacled witness, painstakingly outlining hayfields and snowfields and horses and barns and fruit trees and, from household chimneys, smoke. Self-taught and wholly familiar with the world she memorialized, “Grandma” appeared to take late fame in stride; journalists would seek her out, not the other way around.

Many great artists lived long. We know that Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) died in the city of Venice on August 27, 1576, having been for 60 years the undisputed master of the Venetian School. Although a large proportion of his thousand canvases were worked on by assistants, he remains among the most prolific and accomplished painters of all time. His color sense was sumptuous, his compositions unerring, and his fleshly nudes and “Titian-haired” beauties still appear to breathe. The portrait of Pietro Aretino hanging in the Frick Collection is a masterpiece of psychological acuteness; shave the man and change his clothes and he could be paying a visit to that museum today. Titian claimed to have been born in 1477, which would make him 99; birth records of the period are inexact, however and he may have been a stripling who died in his eighties instead.

Nonagenarians are frequent in the history of art. An incomplete sampling would include the Italian painter Giorgio di Chirico, and the Greek dramatist Sophocles, who wrote Oedipus at Colonus near the end of his very long life. According to a probably inexact tradition, Sophocles demonstrated competence—disproving his son’s accusation that he had grown feeble-minded—by reciting entire speeches from the Colonus while a rapt audience wept.

So what interests me is lastingness: how it may be attained. How might the sheer fact of continuity result in a promise delivered? For obvious reasons, this has become a personal matter; I published my first novel in 1966 and very much hope to continue. Too, such hope feels representative: a “generational” problem in both senses of the word. An ever-growing number of Americans are middle-aged or elderly; no natural catastrophe has thinned our swelling ranks. And the habit of creation does not die, so there are more who paint the sunset or take piano lessons or hunt the perfect end-rhyme at day’s end. Our generation, like all others, yearns to produce some something that continues—and the generative impulse, when artistic, lingers on.

Among those men and women I profile in my book Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, there’s the model of Pablo Casals—who shifted from performance but continued making music till his death at 96. There’s the example of Giuseppe di Lampedusa (the author of The Leopard) who commenced his masterpiece (and only novel) when old. There’s Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, locked into his deafness and apocalyptic vision, who in his eighties fashioned art we now see as prophetic of the present age. There are career trajectories like those of Georgia O’Keeffe and Franz Liszt, who at a certain point withdrew from public view, yet continued to paint and compose. There are innovative masters like William Shakespeare and Ludwig von Beethoven, dead in their fifties, or Johann Sebastian Bach and Rembrandt van Rijn, dead at 65 and 66, who did not reach what we would now call senior status but in their time were old. There’s the example of Henri Matisse, who enlarged upon what went before; of Claude Monet, embarking on the project of the Nymphéas; and that of William Butler Yeats, whose poetry grew great.

It can of course be argued that greatness defies expectation—that by its very nature it violates the norm. But these men and women personify a kind of staying power we see in non-artists as well; there are many vital “elders” who don’t write, compose, or paint. The creative impulse is a common denominator in those who cook or cultivate their gardens, and satisfaction can be found in work never intended for show. It’s not, I mean, a sine qua non of productive old age that there be art produced.

When the work as well as the worker can claim lastingness, however, there’s a confluence of maker and thing made. There are 20 names to name for every one I’ve mentioned, and the survey has barely begun. Indeed, To Be Continued is my inquiry’s clarion call. “Life force”—that inexact but suggestive phrase—is in this sense renewable, a component part of character that somehow does survive. Chill, it still generates heat. <

Nicholas Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Michigan, where he also directs the Hopwood Awards Program. His most recent work of nonfiction is Lastingness: The Art of Old Age; his next, The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts, is to be published this fall.