modernity and lateness

9780198704621Joe Paul Kroll at the TLS:

Although Adorno was writing against the misunderstanding that lateness was a sufficient explanation of greatness, his own critical amplification of the concept has not escaped popularization. Gordon McMullan and Sam Smiles, in their introduction to the collection Late Style and its Discontents, identify the culprit in Edward Said, whose posthumous book On Late Style, which applies Adorno’s thesis to a number of painters, writers and composers, is charged with spreading “the idea that the work of the last few years of truly ‘great’ creative artists is marked by a profound change of style, tone, and content which tends both to look back to the artist’s earlier years and forward, beyond his death, to future developments in the field”. As such, it offered little more than an “ideological construct, the product of a certain kind of critical” – or rather uncritical – “wish fulfil­ment” of little heuristic value to scholars. What is more, the very first application of the concept of late style, which appears to have emerged in nineteenth-century Shakespeare criticism, points to an obvious inconsistency, as Ben Hutchinson notes in the same volume: used indiscriminately, “late style” is conflated with the style of old age, Spätstil with Altersstil. This limitation is clear when reference is made to the late works of Mozart, composed in his thirties, or those of Shakespeare, written before he turned fifty. In defence of Said, however, one could point to his particular interest in “the decay of the body, the onset of ill health” – Beethoven’s deafness or Turner’s failing eyesight come to mind – as a fairly specific criterion, albeit one susceptible to the charge of setting too much store by biography.

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