Being young, and creative, and prone to putting undue pressure on myself, I am perennially fascinated by those artists who became famous while still very young--who took cities by storm at the age of nineteen or twenty, who created art with a wisdom that belied their tender years! And if the young people in question didn't only make transcendent art, but also happened to lead wildly exciting and passionate lives, have famous paramours, etc., my envy only increases. (Secretly I yearn to have the kind of life that a biographer would find fascinating 100 years from now.) I come up with increasingly unlikely plans both to improve the quantity/quality of my writing, and to bring myself to the attention of cultural gatekeepers.
And lately, I feel like I've seen/read a spate of works that set me off thinking this way. Both operas I saw this fall--Die Tote Stadt and Idomeneo--were composed by men in their early 20s. Idomeneo wasn't even Mozart's first opera (though it was his first great success, and the earliest of his operas to be performed with any frequency nowadays)--he wrote it at the age of 24, after already having written about seven other operas! No wonder it is such a self-assured piece of work. Though hampered by a mediocre libretto, Mozart still did his best with what he had.
If anything, Die Tote Stadt, by 23-year-old Erich Wolfgang Korngold, is even more incredible. Korngold was writing for a much larger and more richly colored orchestra than Mozart used; his 20th-century harmonic language is obviously much more complex; and he wasn't writing a Classical score of recitative followed by da capo aria followed by ensemble number, but a dreamlike opera where every sequence flows into the next. Furthermore, Korngold treats his subject with great depth and maturity--how could a 23-year-old have such insight into the psychology of a middle-aged man driven crazy by the death of his wife?
While waiting for the bus after Die Tote Stadt, I talked to a lady who told me that Erich Korngold had a very controlling father who wouldn't allow his son to get married till he was 27. "But, seeing that opera," said the woman, "I feel sure that he must have sneaked out of his house at night."
Then, around Halloween, I decided that I should read a classic scary novel: Frankenstein. Since this book was published, people have been amazed that a 19-year-old girl could write such a haunting horror story. Indeed Mary Shelley had already led quite an eventful life before writing Frankenstein: a famous father, an elopement with Percy Shelley, the birth and death of a child, a lot of touring Europe in the company of other Romantic writers. "How is it possible that she did all this before turning 20?" I asked myself, old and dried-up at the age of 21.
After finishing Frankenstein I wasn't sure what to read next, and browsed the sale table at Green Apple Books. I rejected many books out of hand...but ah, okay, here was something I really ought to read, especially since I was a French major and should be more familiar with this author... and he certainly was a fascinating personality...
Only when I walked out of the store did the full truth hit me.
I'd bought The Complete Poems of Arthur Rimbaud. AKA The Complete Poems of a Visionary Boy-Genius Who Stopped Writing at Age 21.
"Damn it, Marissa," I said to myself, "you've done it again."
Fortunately I found some solace in a recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, explicating why some artists peak early and others peak late. No use envying the precocious geniuses if your mind is simply formed another way--preferring trial-and-error to flashes of infallible insight. Not that it's easy for artists who are late bloomers--they can experience self-doubt, despair, lack of motivation in a way that early-bloomers don't. (And they don't seem to have the wildly exciting lives, either.) But at least that's preferable to the thought that an artist must be precocious in order to be worthwhile at all.
Title of this post comes from my favorite obscure Cole Porter song, "What a Joy To Be Young."