Not long ago, I translated “Aging as a Problem for Artists” by the German expressionist poet and essayist Gottfried Benn, written a couple of years before he died, in 1956, at age seventy. There is not much literature on the subject, Benn says, apologizing for his magpie methods, before, with impressive assiduity and imagination, he stuffs paragraphs with examples of artistic longevity and finds individual instances in which age and artistry stand in interesting relation to one another. He talks about the idea of late style, or late work: in Immanuel Kant, in Lorenzo Lotto, in Edward Burne-Jones, in Hokusai, in Hugo von Hofmanns-thal and Beethoven and Leonardo. “In Hokusai (1760–1849),” he writes,
I found the following: “From the age of six, I was mad keen on drawing. By the time I was fifty, I had published a great many drawings, but everything I did before my seventy-third year is worthless. Approaching the age of seventy-three, I began to understand something of the true nature of animals, plants, fishes, and insects. By the time I am eighty, I shall have progressed further, with ninety I shall be able to see through to the secret nature of things, and when I am a hundred and ten, everything of mine, be it no more than a line or a dot, will be full of life.”
In the end, though, perhaps Benn’s best example is himself:
Probably I’m too old to get to the bottom of all this, tiredness and melancholy fog my brain. I have heard Pablo de Sarasate on the violin and Caruso in the Met. The Astors were sitting in the diamond horseshoe. I have seen Bergmann operate, and paraded in front of the last Kaiser. I learned to read by the light of an oil lamp, and studied Haeckel’s forbidden Riddles of the World. I have driven and flown, but I have also seen clipper ships and skies without vapor trails—past—gone.
Bergmann was the surgeon Ernst von Bergmann, a pioneer of asepsis and an early wearer of white; the Kaiser was Wilhelm II; Benn served as a doctor in the German army in both world wars.
Benn’s secret, and perhaps the secret of one kind of old-age writing, lies in the nouns, including the names. Nouns—if you are able to select the right nouns—age well. Good nouns are good bones. What is a life, when it comes down to it? What will it have been? Sentence by sentence, as his text emerges here, it is music—or more broadly, artistic experience. It is social distinction and setting. It is work. It is education and enlightenment. It is technology and travel. These few sentences of Benn’s prose, chosen almost at random, are exquisitely balanced. Horseshoe and diamond (the wealth-encrusted diadem, I guess, of the first row of boxes). The names,…
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