Every artist's late work fascinates us, I think, because almost every artist yearns for immortality. For Whitman, the afterlife existed for him because of the future reader, because we/I/all read his poetry today. Late work also fascinates us because we remember the artist at the height of his powers, and it's interesting to see that artist in decline, wrestle with the troubling possibility that he is not what he once was and that he won't have the opportunity to be what he was again, that he has nothing but a few short years to look forward to. And his subject is the grim fact that he won't be around for much longer. That subject may be the most universal of human problems. Some people don't have sex. Some people don't have issues with food. Some people don't know anything about war or violence. Some people never had a problem with religion, one way or another. Everyone has to die.
A short list: Akira Kurosawa's Madadayo, about an aging professor, Mark Twain's acidic The Mysterious Stranger, Gregory Peck's cameo appearance in Scorsese's Cape Fear and John Gielgud's cameo appearance in Kenneth Branagh's version of Hamlet, Matisse's cut-outs. We sometimes call these final works "spare," "stripped-down," as if wisdom has taught these artists to slough off the unneccessary, to say as much as possible as they can as quickly as they can, before they have to leave.
I'm not a huge fan Philip Roth's final novels, the "death" novels, which considered the life-long illnesses and sexual failures of an insignificant man (Everyman), the death of a young virgin, the pride of a working-class family (Indignation), the decline of a great artist (The Humbling), and a plague (Nemesis). They are spare books, I guess. The sentences are shorter. The Humbling is the most interesting because it is so terrible. In that novel, he has become, as the cliche goes, a parody of himself. But what does it really mean to become a parody of oneself? Does it mean that you have lost the ability to use the materials you own to good use? That you are an old man with dementia, telling old stories of your youth, in rougher, more confusing, less interesting ways to your visiting grandchildren? Is that old man useless? Must we usher him out the door as quickly as possible before he becomes too much of an embarrassment to himself and to his family?
This video from Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson, performing a duet of a song written by Lynn's nephew, is part of the late-work music-video genre, which also includes Johnny Cash's "Hurt" and David Bowie's "Lazarus." Nelson and Lynn are long-time friends, and giants of one of the great American music genres, one that has also embodied America's worst racial politics, and which is itself in decline. The differences in their personas are evident in the video. Nelson was the hippie pot-smoker, the gentle soul, and the outlaw. Lynn is the elegant, conservative performer, who tells the stories of heartbreak within America's nuclear families. Nelson's religiosity has always been open. Her religion has always been fundamentalist and her politics have been vile. (During the 1988 presidential campaign she wondered how anyone could vote for Michael Dukakis as his name was so un-pronouncable. In a recent interview, she maintained her opposition to gay marriage, even though she has long been a gay icon.) But those differences don't matter all that much anymore.
They perform in what I think is the Grand Ole Opry, surrounded by nothing but memories of who they both were when they meant the most to American culture. Lynn's aged body is encased in the costume of a Southern belle. The camera studies her wrinkled hands on her guitar, emblazoned with her name and Nelson's shaky hands as they run along the chords. The video is hardly an embarrassment. It's a beautiful song, some of their best work. (I stand by that.) These aren't artists in decline. They are artists who face the greatest obscenity of all obscenities, the fact that they have to die even though they clearly have so much left to do. And they are willing to smile, supported by an erie Christian mysticism.