Young and Old and Montaigne

Mind you, not this.

Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout just published a post about how he balances his affection for the past with a thirst for the new, and it reminded me of this passage in Montaigne in Barn Boots (out in paperback just yesterday) (Teachout graciously consented to be quoted elsewhere in the book):

In his autobiography Life, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards tells of the time in the 1960s he witnessed a hip jazz crowd booing when Muddy Waters plugged in and went electric:

[The audience] wanted a frozen frame, not knowing that whatever they were listening to was only part of the process; something had gone before and it was going to move on.

As I type these words, I am fifty-one years old. Middle-aged, late middle-aged, whatever. Not young, not ready to flop and stop. Raised to respect my elders, I have now watched many of them grow brittle of thought and bitter of mind. It seems that somewhere around my current life stage, people make one of two moves: Some stiffen, dig in their heels, and attempt to block the future; others reinvigorate life by blending it with the spirit of youth. I hope I will—and I am working to—bend toward the second. I am not talking here about the embarrassment of an oldster trying to vibe with the kids. Nor am I talking about abdicating principles. I am talking about offering a hand, opening new doors, and sometimes—when new blood is best—stepping aside and standing down. “Youth is making its way forward in the world and seeking a name: we are on our way back,” said Montaigne, who felt that too much was made of mere seniority and often punctured the idea that age automatically conferred wisdom or compelled deference. Rather, it “imprints more wrinkles in the mind than it does on the face; and souls are never, or very rarely seen, that, in growing old, do not smell sour and musty.” Recently I told someone I was learning a lot from Chance the Rapper. The person responded with a chuckle, but I was dead serious. I wasn’t looking to co-opt the art of this twenty-three-year-old man, or dress like him, or try to fake up some hip appreciation of his oeuvre; rather, I was observing how he carried himself as a citizen, as a partner, as a father, and as a self-employed artist. I am working on this idea, striving for this balance, by which in growing old I might benefit from some youthful osmosis.

The Chance reference didn’t happen by…er…chance. During the time I was working on drafts of the Montaigne book I had the opportunity to work on an arts and music festival involving the rapper (we spent brief moments in the same space but he wouldn’t know me from a push broom, nor should he) and the festival itself was invigorating in just the way Teachout and I are getting at: Immersed in an environment of (mostly) young artists often working in styles and genres outside my ken, I am far less concerned with “getting” what they’re up to than absorbing their energy and using it to infuse, maintain, and question the vigor and rigor of my own work.

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