One of the Lord Rothschilds in the 19th century is reputed to have had a clock that declared “One hour nearer death” as it struck each hour. Such a clock has been an everpresent fixture in my mental drawing room, perhaps due to my father’s early death, perhaps because that’s just me. I am finding that as each season passes the clock gets louder.
My post last week about the centenarian Herman Wouk and his latest book Sailor and Fiddler prodded me to examine the connection between age and artistic creation. I began by surveying the ages of a few contemporary writers who reside north of eight decades:
• Herman Wouk, age 100 (vows he has written his last book)
• Doris Lessing, 97
• John Barth, 90
• Elmore Leonard, 90
• Edward Albee, 89
• Stephen Sondheim, 87
• Tom Wolfe, 86
• Alice Munro, 85
• Edna O’Brien, 85
• Penelope Lively, 84
• Philip Roth, 84 (stopped writing novels at 79)
Dean Simonton, a psychologist at University of California-Davis, has done extensive research on the relationship between age and creativity. In his book Origins of Genius and elsewhere he asserts that poets, mathematicians and physicists tend to do their best work in their late twenties, while geologists, biologists and novelists often peak in middle age or later. He argues that disciplines with an “intricate, highly articulated body of domain knowledge,” such as physics, chess and poetry, favor the young. On the other hand, those in fields where the basic concepts are ambiguous and unclear, such as history, philosophy, geology, biology and literary criticism, tend to peak when they’re older. These latter fields reward time spent exploring their complexities; lots of mistakes must be made on the road to mastery. According to Simonton, novelists fall in this second category. Scriptwriters, being kin to novelists, I would put there also. Whereas poets are likely to peak early and fade fast, fiction writers can improve with age and their decline is gradual.
David Galenson, an economics professor at University of Chicago, posits two types of creativity – conceptual innovation and experimental innovation. Conceptual innovators do breakthrough work that is not underpinned by decades of trial and error. They are likely to be young. Their poster child is Albert Einstein, whose early breakthroughs have been attributed to the “originality and genius of a mind which can perceive in a single glance, through the complex maze of difficult questions, the new and simple idea . . . suddenly to bring clarity and light where darkness had reigned.”
Experimental innovation is the type typically seen in older scientists and artists. Their accomplishments come from the accretion of experience rather than a burst of novel insight. Galenson cites Paul Cezanne and Charles Darwin as classic experimental innovators whose greatest contributions came late in their lives. After decades of research, Darwin published The Origin of Species, one of the seminal texts in all of science, at the of 50. When he was 62, Darwin wrote to his youngest son: “I have been speculating . . . what makes a man a discoverer of unexpected things, and a most perplexing problem it is. Many men who are very clever – much cleverer than discoverers – never originate anything. As far as I can conjecture, the art consists in habitually searching for causes or meaning. . . This implies sharp observation and requires as much knowledge as possible of the subject investigated.”
In 1904, at age 65, Cezanne wrote to a friend: “I believe that I [realize my art] more every day, although a bit laboriously. Because if the strong feeling for nature – and certainly I have that vividly – is the necessary basis for all artistic conception . . . the knowledge of the means of expressing our emotion is no less essential, and is only to be acquired through very long experience.”
Certainly it is a comfort to read that creativity, at least of the experimental innovator type, is not the exclusive province of the young. However there is still the question of quality. The years when fiction writers are being productive may not all coincide with their work being top drawer. Yes Saul Bellow published a novel, Ravelstein, when he was 85, but his finest novels were written decades earlier. On the other hand, Edward Albee wrote his play The Goat in his seventies, and it garnered the Tony Award for best play in 2002.
As I was pondering these matters, I made an excursion to the U.S. Social Security website where a nifty Life Expectancy Calculator informed me that I will die in 18.5 years. This means I am statistically predicted to die a month or two after I turn 84. Were I female the statistics say I could squeeze an additional 2.3 years out of this existence. When I read that the U.S. ranks forty-second for life expectancy among all nations, I briefly fantasized moving to Denmark in order to game the actuarial tables.
No amount of reassurance about older creativity can muffle Lord Rothschild’s clock. At 66 I have reached the age when time has become the enemy. I do rise early every morning, eager to get to my desk. Even when I’m stuck on something, I want to get to the front lines, armed with coffee, and join the battle. But for how much longer? Rothschild’s clock does not lie: every hour is one hour nearer death. Until what age will I want to write? Will I be able to write? When will my work cease to improve and shift into reverse gear? I now pull the thesaurus down from its shelf more than I used to. How long will my health hold up? These are not academic questions for any artist on the grey side of life’s middle. And the questions are perhaps more trenchant for someone who didn’t write seriously until his forties (I completed my first play when I was 49).
Do not ask for whom the clock strikes, it strikes for thee and me.
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