Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Young people draw. They make up stories. They beat drums. Alive to the delights of clay and paper, children clap their hands and dance. That art starts as expressive play is widely understood by now; why some adults engage in lifelong play is less clear. Some call it “divine inspiration”; others are less flattering and urge artists to grow up. In The Critic as Artist, (1891) Oscar Wilde proclaimed, “It is through Art, and through Art only, that we can realize our perfection; through Art and Art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.” In the same year, and without the capital letter, he averred “All art is quite useless.”
The creative impulse may well be strongest early on, before sex and getting and spending stake their claims. The child pressing down on a crayon or blowing through a tin kazoo will soon enough elect instead to play baseball or to romp in bed. But there are those who cannot close the costume box or leave off telling stories or producing graven images and a joyful noise. These artists, if precocious, may flourish in their teenage years and make an original statement in their 20s; talent will be with them from the start.
And if there be a stereotype of the creative artist—particularly since the Romantic period—it tends to be someone wild-haired, wide-eyed, young. John Keats died at 26, Percy Bysshe Shelley at 30, and George Gordon, Lord Byron died at 36. In our present time the young performer—consider Kurt Cobain, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin—is most adored when most at risk; the recklessness that wrecked them had always been part of the act. The common denominator here is exuberance, an explosive energy that can become implosive; these youthful talents share a sense that there’s no point in planning for tomorrow.
But for people in their 60s—not to mention 70s, 80s, or 90s—the future is a finite thing and what’s extensive is tradition: the long reach of the past. It’s not an accident that aging artists turn with renewed attention to the work of predecessors or that they choose to revisit their own early work. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” no longer creeps in “petty pace from day to day” but with a slow-motion rush. And to the extent that they manage their time, the elderly must “pace” themselves in a different fashion than do the extravagant young. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “lastingness” can be defined as “the quality of being lasting; continuance; duration; permanence. Also: durability, constancy, perseverance.” The marathon and 100-yard dash are very different things.
The term lastingness pertains to both, since those who sprint may well establish records that endure. But the word’s secondary meaning—lastingness as durability and constancy and perseverance—is increasingly at issue, since more creative personalities are now at work in what would once have seemed like great old age. The nonagenarian is no longer extraordinary, the centenarian no freak. The artist-caricaturist Al Hirschfield died at 99, the poet Stanley Kunitz at 100; both worked nearly to the end. To have been born in America in the 20th century is to be part of a society longer-lived than any previous; retirement now consists of decades, not years. And for those who don’t choose to retire—who continue to wield pen or brush—a distant view is inescapable, no matter how closely watched the scene.
• • •
I’ll use the first-person pronoun here, if sparingly, since there’s no point pretending my interest in the subject of age is impersonal. Rather, it feels close to home. When I was 20 (30, 40, even 50) the downward arc of a career seemed a problem for others to solve. Now, predictably enough, what I have come to admire are the skills of constancy, consistency, and power-in-reserve. The men and women—both dead and alive—who interest me here all seem to grapple or have grappled with “the quality of being lasting.”
It isn’t a matter of mere endurance; many things repeat themselves that we wish might end. It isn’t a matter of shifting one’s ground or starting over for novelty’s sake. Rather, I find myself thinking of the painter Pierre Renoir—so crippled by arthritis that he could not grasp the brush but had it strapped it to his fingers—still poised above the canvas, squinting, jabbing at the image, adding color bit by bit. Or Arturo Toscanini, still ruthless in rehearsal, insisting that his orchestra play their sostenuto correctly and get intonation right. Or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lying on his deathbed and asking for “more light.”
My father, Kurt Delbanco, keeps Goethe’s Farbenlehre—a study of chromatics—by his bedside in old age. Born in Hamburg in 1909, he has called three countries home; he fled Hitler’s Germany for England, and in the late 1940s settled with his family in the United States. A businessman by perceived necessity—my mother’s expectations, and those of his three sons, were large—he loves the visual arts. Both a collector and private art dealer, he painted and made sculptures with a near-obsessive passion; routinely I saw him with sketch-pad and pencils, with tin-snips and hacksaw and easel and brush. My father was more than a Sunday painter (his portraits of consequential people were acquired by such institutions as the National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of the City of New York) and he had several one-man shows in Manhattan and elsewhere. But he never quite attained full professional status, never quite broke out or through. This troubled him; he had dreams of being “discovered”—a kind of Grandpa Moses—in his tenth decade. At 98 he continues to say, “A painting a day keeps the doctor away,” and bends to his coloring book.
My father-in-law, Bernard Greenhouse, now is 91. World famous as a cellist—as soloist, chamber musician, and teacher—he owns the Countess-of-Stanlein ex-Paganini Stradivarius violoncello of 1707. I wrote a book on that instrument, as well as one on the Beaux Arts Trio, the chamber-music ensemble of which he was a founding member. So I have spent my married life observing a performer thousands have applauded and still listen to. Nowadays his public appearances consist of master classes; he plays only seldom in concert, for the cello is a demanding taskmistress. Since his eyesight no longer permits him to read music, he relies on memory; his repertoire cannot enlarge. Greenhouse was a student of Pablo Casals and like his teacher must confront the harsh imperatives of age; strength and agility fade. Still, every morning in his bathrobe, he blows on his fingers, picks up bow and cello, and practices a Bach suite or a passage from Elgar or Brahms.
These paired examples are, in the root sense, familial: familiar, close to home. But they seem to me exemplary of a “related” set of challenges. My father said, some time ago, “I am not dying yet. But I am more ready for death than for life.” My father-in-law, some six years younger, still hungers for public applause. Those who admire such hunger call it “a force of nature”; those who think it less than seemly would counsel withdrawal instead. But in either case the act itself—of painting or playing the cello—became a source of vitality and not a drain thereof; both men shed years while engaged in their craft. And I find myself, while listening or watching (or sitting down each dawn to write), aware of the yield of old habit: how inspiriting it is to keep to a routine. If nothing else it offers the comforts of continuity: as Father William tells his son, I do it again and again.
Lady Luck has much to do with this. If only affecting the number of throws, she’s blown on the old artist’s dice. There’s the luck of robust health or available medical treatment; Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schubert would have lived longer today. There’s the luck of time and place; Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, killed in the First World War, might well have extended their reach. To take a random sampling of painters dead before the age of 40—Italian Renaissance artists Masaccio, Giorgione, and Raphael; 19th-century post-Impressionists Seurat, Lautrec, and Van Gogh—is to recognize how many of our masters died while young. This is a commonplace, nearly, of la vie bohème and brilliant youth; disease and poverty and war are part of the scenario, and for every name that’s known there are no doubt a hundred who died in anonymity because their luck was bad.
In the Greek Anthology, a collection of fragments from classical Greece, an epitaph encapsulates this elegiac yearning and dream of longer life:
In my nineteenth year the darkness drew me down.
And ah, the sweet sun!
(tr. Dudley Fitts)
• • •
Imagine for a moment that Edgar Allen Poe was committed to a clinic and there detoxified; imagine Stephen Crane, Franz Kafka, and Robert Louis Stevenson cured of consumption, or the list of those with syphilis restored by penicillin; imagine Jean-Michel Basquiat and Egon Schiele—dead before 30—or Theodore Gericault, dead at 32—somehow painting through their 70s, and you’ll see how much art history depends on sheer good fortune. Had Francois Villon not been condemned to the gallows or Christopher Marlowe murdered in a tavern or Hart Crane been suicidal, much of the canon might be different. It’s fine to think of Ludwig von Beethoven with a hearing aid or Virginia Woolf on antidepressants or thousands of soon-to-be-slaughtered 20-year-old soldiers redeemed by armistice; if fate had been a little kinder or the appointment in Samarra missed, we can imagine additional work—another triptych, symphony, or novel to revere. Had “brilliant youth” advanced to age, just think what could be added to our culture’s treasure trove.
But all such speculation is, of course, vain; we cannot know. What we have is what they left. What they did is what we have. And quite possibly a longer life would not entail artistic growth; Beethoven with his hearing fixed or Woolf in an affable Zoloft haze might not have managed to produce their great wrenching, pain-suffused work. What happens to artists who endure? The 20- and 30- and 40-year-olds deserve a separate hearing; whatever problems they encounter do not include those of old age.
• • •
Of those who must prepare themselves for the second half of existence, Carl Jung observes:
Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning—for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.
We cannot know what lasts or will outlast us; we nonetheless prepare our work for strangers—viewers, listeners, and readers we may never meet. If the work is good enough, some of those strangers inhabit the future and are now unborn. “Continuance; duration; permanence” in this regard have more to do with the responses of others than with the stimulus provided; it’s the reception of the piece and not its production that counts. But to the aging writer, painter, or musician the process can signify more than result; it no longer seems as important that the work be sold. So lastingness implies a double meaning in and for an artist’s legacy: it’s what gets left behind.
Although this is self-evident, it is nonetheless worth repeating: if an artist finds an early grave, “late” work is not at issue. Yeats’s “Bodily decrepitude” may or may not be wisdom, but it’s the necessary precondition of the figures in this study: without old age the challenges of lastingness are moot. Should the creative personality be extinguished at 20 or 30, questions as to “durability, constancy, perseverance” simply don’t get asked.
An older artist must confront each day—every morning in the mirror—the physical fact of decline. And since prose fiction is the discipline with which I’m most familiar, I’ll start with this specific instance of the more general trend. The novelist is not exempt from the vagaries of fashion, neither from the loss of talent nor the shifting ground of recognition. Here, too, the field is littered with once lucky men and women ripe for the plucking—writers who flourished early on and who (disabled by injuries, alcohol, drugs, insanity, inertia, an excess of intelligence, an access of stupidity, a wasting disease, too much renown, too little, self-doubt, self-confidence, you name it) failed to continue. There’s no obvious reason why this should hold true—why writers can’t enlarge with age—but it’s the rule rather than the exception that most of the important work takes place early on.
If your field is basketball or ballet you understand, I would imagine, how early success is crucial and the chances of improvement at, say, 30 or 50 are slim; if you’ve not made the major leagues of piano playing or tennis or, as some suggest, theoretical physics by the age of 40, you’re consigned to the bush leagues for life. Yet this needn’t be the case for writers of prose fiction—whose subject, after all, is the wide range of human endeavor and not merely childhood or youth. Why should it seem so difficult to substitute efficiency for energy, to temper ambition with artistry; what are—in Cyril Connolly’s fine phrase—the “enemies of promise” that keep us from achieving the best work at the end?
First, a distinction to draw. F. Scott Fitzgerald died believing himself a has-been, but the books he wrote near the close of his life—Tender is the Night and the unfinished The Last Tycoon—are arguably superior to and better remembered than his first two novels. Herman Melville’s Typee and Omoo established the career; his book about a whale was a commercial and critical disaster that now bestrides the narrow world of fiction like a colossus. The work of Henry James is much more widely purchased now than, to his great disappointment, had been the case while he lived. These are well-worn examples and familiar reversals. We’ve grown accustomed to “the cackle of the unborn about the grave,” and the way a final verdict rarely upholds a first. To talk about “the bubble, reputation” is not to say much new.
More germane to my discussion is that astonishing novella, Billy Budd, written when Melville was old and ill and forgotten: a nearly perfect work of art produced, as it were, at the end. Thomas Mann did much the same, finishing—at career’s close, and decades after he’d abandoned the project as unmanageable—The Confessions of Felix Krull. Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata and Lampedusa’s The Leopard belong to that great company, and in our own time there are candidates: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and recent books by Alice Munro and Philip Roth are at least as prepossessing as the early work. The novelists Penelope Fitzgerald and Harriet Doerr published no creative writing until late in life—Fitzgerald at 58, Doerr at 73; their prose fiction from the outset was mature.
In other art forms, such growth seems less surprising; we’ve come to understand that Monet at Giverny, painting water lilies for his private pleasure, broke new artistic ground. He sold few of them during his lifetime, but they’re his most coveted canvasses today. Think of the elderly Rembrandt’s solemn interiority, or the old, deaf Goya and his black, bleak paintings; they’re what we most value now. (By contrast with, say, Schubert and Mozart or Caravaggio and Van Gogh, these older artists each had known considerable success; in their final years they renounced it.) They presumably could have gone on producing portraits of dukes and ladies and self-satisfied burghers and been well-compensated for their pains; something compelled them to set out anew. Beethoven’s late quartets follow a similar pattern, and Stradivari was past 60 when he changed the template of the cello; he produced fine violins well into his 90s. It can be done.
• • •
Not often, however, and why not? That’s the real mystery of lastingness: all artists have been made a gift but the offer is provisional and can be retracted. All must be careful caretakers of their talent. Again, as Cyril Connolly puts it, “The best thing that can happen for a writer is to be taken up very late or very early, when either old enough to take its measure, or so young that when dropped by society he has all life before him.” Success breeds disillusionment as surely as does failure, and some temptations are not easy to avoid.
Let me list a few.
First, the deep paralysis of repetition. If you’ve been rewarded for and accomplished at a certain kind of writing, it’s hard to begin afresh; formula writers don’t try to—indeed, it would shock their readership if the terms of engagement were changed. But many more serious artists play less to their weaknesses than strengths, and sometimes this too can become formulaic: think of the late Hemingway or Faulkner and the risks of repetition should come clear. The rhythms of the prose are constant, the syntax and character constructs and thematic concerns stay the same. But it’s all habitual, a kind of shadow-boxing in slow motion; there’s no creative challenge while they practice their old moves.
Nor is it always easy to find a new true subject; the zebra cannot change his stripes or turn them into spots. If what you’re best at is, say, evoking the hallucinatory terrors of war, the likelihood you’ll write persuasively about high school romance is slim; if you’re fascinated by the interaction of members of a family, then your book about a hermit will likely fail to persuade. Any writer who’s successful while young, will be so in part because of personal history and even, it may be, obsession; if there’s an expectant audience established as a result of that obsession, the writer strays at risk.
A corollary here. Self-indulgence is hard to avoid, and particularly so when what you’ve done has been much praised; few friends or colleagues of the powerful will argue that a project had better be abandoned or a page be cut. This goes some distance, I think, toward explaining the recent effusions of writers such as John Barth, Don DeLillo, J. P. Donleavy, Gail Godwin, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon and others; they simply don’t have anyone who, confronting them, says no.
A second danger is the obverse of the first. For those writers who equate growth with change, the need to alter style and subject can itself be self-defeating. To write to your weakness and not to your strength is admirable, perhaps, but in its own way self-indulgent; it’s why a realist might try her hand at fantasy, a fabulist science-fiction, and so forth. Look at the aging Graham Greene’s Doctor Fisher of Geneva or Doris Lessing’s recent work and you’ll see the risks of willed experiment. At the end of their careers, John Cheever and Bernard Malamud shifted their ground with mixed results; they simply weren’t up to innovation, and Oh, What a Paradise it Seems or The People are mere gestures at a new mode—and ill-advised.
Let me stress that I admire each of these writers; they aren’t simple targets or easily dismissable. And perhaps it’s an instance of damned if you do, damned if you don’t; as the years and wealth accrete it’s harder to write persuasively about impoverished youth. So we get the unedifying spectacle of someone like James Baldwin living in pasha-like luxury in southern France and writing with decreased authority about Harlem’s lean, mean streets. Or Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow in their 80s writing as though on automatic pilot about the erotic high jinks and adventures of young men. Again I repeat that these artists are of great caliber and daring, great ambition and attainment; why they run down, run out of steam—leaving aside the claims of biological depletion—is, I think, a complex question best answered case by case.
I still tell myself (as those other authors no doubt did and do) that the project I’m working on is the one that counts. Each morning when I sit to write I delude myself, or try to, that the blank page will be blackened masterfully by morning’s end; this holds as true for the unpublished student as for Nobel laureates in their honored age. It’s that “willing suspension of disbelief,” which Coleridge stipulates as a necessary condition for a reader or member of an audience. Suspended disbelief is also what the writer needs. It’s the necessary precondition, really, for all members of the guild—whether they be apprentice, journeyman laborer, or master craftsman, turn by turn.
All writers recognize the difference, or should, between aspiration and achievement—between their dream of deathless prose and the piece of more or less iridescent mediocrity they have just produced. All writers need to believe their best work lies ahead. It’s the kind of disease we call health to think that what we’re about to create is splendid and not second rate; else how and why continue?
To know, I mean truly know—as might a baseball player or ballerina—that the best is behind you is to turn to drink or dithering or to an oven or a gun. A few modest and decorous authors—Eudora Welty or E.M. Forster—withdraw into silence and declare at a certain point in their career, enough’s enough. But most of us go on and on, unable or unwilling to break a lifetime’s habit of wrangling with language, and happy to be allowed—even encouraged—to do so. Most of us, when asked which book has been our favorite, will answer (hopefully, wishfully, truthfully), “The next.”
• • •
In a celebrity-centered culture, what matters is name recognition, and it might seem, therefore, that lastingness—simply being heard of by people over time—proves crucial in the arc of a career. Yet a specific aspect of the art scene favors youth. It is cost-efficient to promote a new discovery and requires less investment than the tried-and-true. Well-funded museums and dealers can acquire a Van Dyck or a Holbein, but if you plan to sponsor an artist it’s smarter to do so while the “talent” is just starting out. In sheer financial terms it’s hard to mount a gallery show or offer new work by “old masters”; So it’s scarcely an accident that literary agents flock to creative-writing programs or gallery owners visit studios in search of a beginner; the available Botticellis and Vermeers just aren’t numerous enough—and most of their known paintings hang on institutional walls. When the “lost” Caravaggio was found some fifteen years ago it made an enormous art-world splash, and no dealer of the present day could hope to have ten Gainsboroughs for sale.
(This is less clearly the case for composers; the concert-going public tends to prefer recognizable programs from the near or distant past. But they’re buying, of course, a performance and not the work of art itself; the investment here consists only of a ticket and an evening’s time. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are sure-fire attractions, whereas three unknowns whose last name starts with B might play an empty room. “Classical music” announces itself by the yoked adjective and noun; the two form a linked pair. It’s the bane of present-day composers that the world of concert halls and orchestras remains so retrospective, and the tastes of its audience tradition-steeped; it is hard to get modern compositions aired.)
In the contemporary music scene, however, the present erases the past. Last year’s Matchbox 20 is this year’s OK Go; next year’s sensation may still be in school. The names of bands and d
ébut groups are dizzying in their prolixity and rapid shifts; Arcade Fire, Flaming Lips, and Gnarls Barkley remain, in 2007, hot; Lifehouse, Smashing Pumpkins and ’N Sync are lukewarm at best. How long Beyoncé and Fergie will flourish is, as of this writing, anyone’s guess; but Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls and Dido are “so over.” The economy of management here resembles that of the collector and art dealer; newer is cheaper and the chance of profit therefore greater. It’s the next and not the last new sound that makes public noise. These are issues of commerce, not talent, but the former and the latter intertwine.
One major implication of all this for the less-than-superstar artist is how difficult it becomes just to stay in play. The “midlist” writer is an endangered species; so are the painters and sculptors who fail to sell in galleries, the composers who don’t get to hear their work performed. The early splash becomes a ripple in a soon-to-be-stilled pond. Few fates are as melancholy as that of an overweight crooner belting out the song that made his or her career some thirty years before; to be caught in the time warp of early success, still singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Bye-bye Miss American Pie” is to be strapped to Fortune’s turning wheel. Innovation is at odds with repetition, and each artist must manage both. For a year or three or five the “overnight sensation” rides high on a wave, and then the crest flattens to trough.
• • •
Edward Said, in a collection of essays posthumously titled On Late Style argues that a certain kind of artist flourishes in contrariety—that the “rage against the dying of the light” (in Dylan Thomas’s phrase) is a central attribute of the work of Richard Strauss and Luchino Visconti, or William Shakespeare in his final plays. It’s worth remembering here, perhaps, that Thomas died at 39, and the villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” was written to and for his father. Said’s list includes Cavafy, Genet, and Glenn Gould, and in every instance what he admires is oppositional intransigence. Not the ripeness or the readiness, but the resistance is all.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, what engaged the dying critic’s attention is these artists’ refusal to accommodate our somewhat easy formulation that with old age comes wisdom, the grace of resignation, the comforts of perspective, and so on. Said doesn’t quote (but might have) Yeats’s fierce quatrain, “The Spur,” which represents this stance:
You think it horrible that lust and
Should dance attention upon my old
They were not such a plague when I
What else have I to spur me into
David Galenson, in a recent and very interesting book called Old Masters and Young Geniuses, argues a different point. He draws a distinction between “experimental” artists—witness Leonardo or Cézanne, always dissatisfied with and constantly revising work—and “conceptual” ones—witness Raphael or Picasso, who made cartoons or studies for the compositions they then left unaltered. For the “experimental” artist there’s a lifelong groping towards an unattainable ideal; for the “conceptual” group the important work will likely be conceived and achieved whole cloth when young. Galenson is an economist and much of his book is devoted to graphs of what sells best and when, in the course of a career, it was produced. But he’s on to something, I suspect, and for the ceaseless experimental strivers (often miserable, always doubt-hounded) the motto is Cézanne’s: “I seek in painting.”
Whereas Picasso declared, “I don’t seek; I find.”
• • •
For the elderly practitioner, perseverance is—as much as for the apprentice—a necessary component of the production of art. Continued health, sufficient comfort so that work is not an agony, continued expectation that what you create might be read or heard or seen. And something else is required that is harder to define, that may be best described as the willingness to stay interested, to pay the kind of alert attention to the world that the wide-eyed young pay routinely.
I can remember when each morning seemed a burnished, shining thing, when every afternoon and night brought with it the possibility of something or someone not known before. Today there’s very little new beneath the fictive sun. When I was starting out as a writer everything was mill grist, every conversation worth transcribing or embroidering, each encounter consequential, and all emotion fresh. It happens, still, but rarely—that inner imperative: the voice that urges one to pay attention, to learn. More often there’s exhaustion, a weary inability to persuade oneself that words matter or that an experience merits recording; with so much verbiage everywhere, and so much of it fouled or wasted, why add your own daily extrusion to the language dump?
The novel is, by and large, a hopeful genre full of brass and energy, with happy resolutions—virtue triumphant, vice defeated. Or if the mode is tragic and the ending sad, the novelist and his or her characters have waged a valiant struggle and lost a good fight. Inertia fails to power plots; even the novels of Samuel Beckett or books about mortality such as The Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabríel Gárcia Marquez, or The Death of Artemio Cruz, by Carlos Fuentes, are filled with retrospective action and remembered scenes. It’s more often than not an exuberant form, a “baggy monster” high-stepping its way into flight.
But all of this gets harder and harder to manage with conviction. I was born in England, where “fiction” or “fable” conjured by adjacency their suspect cognate, “fib.” “Don’t tell a story,” warned my childhood nanny, because even then I had the inclination to improve upon flat fact. (Why walk through a field without monsters or a dungeon without dragons; why vanquish fifty enemies when five hundred might have appeared?) This impulse to embroider truth, to “tell a story” or lie for a living seems, year by year, more difficult to manage and childish to sustain. Even that enchanting preamble, “Once upon a time” grows dull, and the postscript, “They lived happily ever after” is—not to put too fine a point on it—absurd. And yet a writer must believe that a tale’s invented incidents are ratified by telling, that made-up characters are worth describing, worth the damning or the saving. So the failure of illusion is perhaps the most insidious of those enemies of promise we’re considering here: disbelief gets harder to suspend.
They say that 60 is the new 40, 70 the new 50, in physical terms; perhaps it’s not too much to hope that energy too might be retained for the difficult work of invention. In older age such dreaming can become a kind of nightmare, while habit fades to mere repetition, repetition to what Henry James called—in his euphemism for death—the “distinguished thing.” There is a kind of death-in-life where imagination’s engine slips its gears and stalls—or, to shift the metaphor, where the big-bellied sail of invention luffs until becalmed. Or where we tack to change our course but gain no actual ground.
In ancient Greece the paired perils facing the traveler—monstrous rocks and whirlpools—were known as Scylla and Charybdis. It’s thought that these twin killers lay off the coast of Sicily, where Odysseus was able, with the help of the goddess Athena, to squeeze through. It took both skill and luck to navigate them—to avoid being swallowed by the sea or dashed against the cliffs. The name of the shipwrecked is legion, their number beyond counting, yet every once in a great while a storied hero manages to sail between the dangers safely, and the song gets sung.
Nicholas Delbanco is Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan. He has served as Chair of the Fiction Panel for the National Book Awards, and received both a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellowships. He is the author of The Martlet's Tale, The Vagabonds, as well as Sherbrookes: Possession / Sherbrookes / Stillness.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.