Athletes and corporate chairmen retire; a song was written to proclaim the honorable prerogative of old soldiers to fade away. Stiff joints permitting, painters and musicians go cheerfully on until they drop.
Only for writers--beauties, too, of course--is age demeaning as well as sad. By age, I do not refer so much to the calendar, though that comes into it, as to the writing span.
When chimney sweeps, like golden lads and girls, come to dust, they clean what they have to clean and pack up. Writers rarely are able to say what they have to say and pack up. Like the painters and musicians, they have engaged their most vital identity in their art; unlike them, they are far from inexhaustible.
They can't comfortably retire; American society has set up no Academy, as the French have, where the past tense is embroidered in present gold. No golden handshakes either, nor pensions. And, to make things worse, we have our national expectation of continuous productivity, continuous progress.
"And what are you working on now, Senor Cervantes?" The author of Don Quixote would be asked over and over again, should he find himself doing college lectures to settle his back taxes.
In a forthcoming essay collection, Joyce Carol Oates speaks of the writer's "necessary delusion" that "We are steadily improving; whatever we are working on at the present time is the best thing we have ever done, and the next book will be even better." In this sense, she adds, "All writers are quintessentially American."
Her reference was to the difficulty for writers of evaluating their own work. But it also suggests what is likely to happen when the string runs out.
Objectively, and perhaps coldly, a writer is someone who has written. But we think of writers, and they think of themselves, as someone who writes. There is a difference.
The second definition more or less totally identifies the life with the work. If you are a writer, in other words, you are someone who writes. Therefore, if you are alive and in health, you will write.
But what if a writer is like an explorer? An explorer is not someone who explores, but someone who has explored. You have discovered Antarctica, or the Northwest Passage or the source of the Nile. But that does not imply that you will go on discovering them, or even that you will discover other things.
It would be fine, or at least not awful, if a writer kept on writing as long as he or she had something to say. Even if--Oates notwithstanding--the things to be written later were not of the magnitude or energy or vision of what was written before.
But decline takes on a tragic and unbearable aspect; particularly when it is not a matter of having smaller or more limited things to write, but of writing because you are a writer--by the second definition--and because if you don't write, you are no longer in health or even alive, but an invalid or an unburied corpse.
I don't know just where the pain lodges, nor even quite why it does. But that it is there is undeniable. When a distinguished writer begins to produce work which, even without being bad, is inferior to the earlier work, there is a sense that an intangible honor has been lost; there is a suggestion of disgrace.
Biographies of writers--of those who do not conveniently die in their prime, as they tended to do in the less sanitary 19th Century--tend to take on a tragic note in the last chapters. The tragedy may have solid biographical elements--drink, depression, delusions--but it also refers to the declining work.
Indeed, with Hemingway or, less dramatically, John Cheever--to take two examples--there is a tendency to overpraise the best of the late work--"The Old Man and the Sea," "Falconer"--as if the praise could counter the disgrace we and the writer assign to the decline. And there is an uneasy kind of alarm if Saul Bellow's last novel, or John Updike's last two, show any weakening. If the sun is not high in the sky, it must be midnight.
But what, after all, is wrong with silence? It gives strength to speech. I know of no place in this country where what you might call ordinary people speak with such pith and clear enjoyment as they do on the less-touristed parts of the Maine sea coast.
Words seem to have an evident value there. They are bestowed as you bestow something of value; as something searched for, put together and delivered in a fashion that is individual to each speaker, with the craftsman's signature chisel-mark upon it. They are also withheld as you may withhold something of value. There is no good speech that does not spring from a bed of taciturnity.
An English friend--acquaintance, I should say--remarked not long after we had met: "I do think it is remarkable how much Americans find to talk about." Her smile was saw-toothed, and so was her meaning. It is only possible to talk so much, so easily, when you give little real importance to the act of speaking; and less than that to the act of listening.
Is it possible, as it would be merciful, for a writer to be allowed--to allow himself or herself--to fall silent, without losing identity and life; to be no less a writer, because mute? Yes, at least in the first definition I mentioned before.
In another of the essays in her new book. Oates recalls Virginia Woolf's account of her visit to the aged Thomas Hardy. He was a cheerful old countryman, without a trace of "Jude" or "Tess" on him. "The whole thing"--I quote Oates quoting Woolf--"literature, novels etc.--all seemed to him an amusement, far away, too, scarcely to be taken seriously. Yet he had sympathy and pity for those still engaged in it. But what his secret interest in activities are--to what occupation he trotted off when we left him--I do not know."
A writer's decline? Or a writer's silence?