Said on “Lateness” in Music and Literature

Paul Griffiths reviews Edward Said’s On Late Style in Bookforum.

Said’s reflection starts out from the notion of timeliness in human doings, and so of how certain things become possible, or available, in later years. One of time’s gifts is widely held to be wisdom, but Said is attracted much more by lateness “as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” The wise elders—Shakespeare, Verdi, Rembrandt, Matisse, Bach, Wagner—are saluted, then dismissed. Kept for later and longer scrutiny are those who, like ancient trees, grew ever more gnarled.

It is at this point, on the fifth page, that Adorno enters the argument; he will be there to the end. For Said, Adorno is not only a great analyst of lateness but also an exemplar, whose writings took shape within a whole culture entering a late phase. Adorno is accordingly Said’s touchstone in discussing late Beethoven (in the first chapter) and Richard Strauss (in the second), and there is a strong Adornian presence in the chapter on Glenn Gould. Music, of course, is a concern Said shares with Adorno, and this book is full of it, other late masters invoked including Mozart and Britten.