Youth, Creativity, and Ageing

September 24, 2015, Chennai

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“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety: other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies.”


jpg" alt="the play Antony and Cleopatra" width="175" height="232" />The quote above is from the play Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare. Antony’s friend Enobarbus declares that Antony will not leave Cleopatra even if he were to marry Octavius’s sister Octavia (for the sake of political expediency) because Cleopatra is such a unique beauty with a spirit that won’t wane or be impeded by the ageing body. Her free will cannot be stifled by custom or tradition. Can that be said of everybody? It is natural law that both living and non-living forms of matter exhibit the signs of ageing and in due course succumb to ageing through disintegration (of non-living) and death (of living). Roads wear out, buildings disintegrate, trees die, and people get sick and die.         Cleopatra VII Philopator

Even Cleopatra met with her untimely death choosing it of her own volition before attaining age forty. To this day she remains a glamorous figure in the world. Ageing, in fact, is something to which people don’t look forward.  George Bernard Shaw remarked, “Youth is a blunder, middle age a struggle, old age a regret”. This statement might be generally true. However, youth has its glamour and old age has its own merits. Youth is evanescent but while it lasts it has its glory. Let us look at some of the illustrious aspects of youth and the redeeming features of ageing.

It is obvious that in fields such as literature, poetry, music, and fine arts it is again youth which makes its mark in producing great works. The great British romantic poets such as Keats, Shelley, and Byron produced their best works in their early twenties. Keats published all his works over a four-year period and he died when he was 25. Shelley lived for just 30 years and he published his celebrated works over a ten-year period. Shelley was an idealist and his works influenced several intellectual giants such as Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Bernard Shaw, Thoreau, and Gandhi.   Byron’s lifespan too was short (36 years) and he is recognized as one of the greatest romantic poets, along with Keats and Shelley.

Many of the western classical music composers too produced their best works when they were young. The great Austrian composers Schubert and Mozart each wrote over 600 musical compositions in their twenties.  Schubert died at age 31 and Mozart died at 35.  It is recognized that the point of maximum productivity of music composers occurs around age 25-30 following a bell-shaped curve. Certainly creativity appears to be a characteristic of the young. Young minds are open to all ideas. Most of the celebrated works of Shakespeare were completed before he turned 40.  What happens to creativity as one gets older? The mind is already set on a definite track. Ageing is not just wear and tear of the body. There is a constant renewal going on all the time. However, it is believed the slowdown in achievement that accompanies age is due to a programmed reduction in maintenance of creativity, the program being coded in the gene.

Mahakavi Subramanya Bharathi produced his best works at a very young age. Although he was hampered by political troubles with the British he still continued to be a prolific writer of poetry and prose. Just like the romantic English poets he also died young at age 38. The mathematical genius SrInivAsa Ramanujan who provided a renaissance to global mathematics in the field of number theory produced his best works in his twenties. He died at age 32.

In scientific fields it is generally recognized that the most creative work is done by the scientists in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s. Mathematicians generally produce their best work in their twenties, and physicists and chemists in their 30s. While creativity peaks before the age 40 there is an additional factor called maturity (a consequence of ageing) which contributes to productivity beyond the age of 40 among scientists enabling them to produce laudable work.

Famous artists’ works in their later years can, however, suffer in elegance. Rembrandt’s aged self-portraits, it is said, offer “somber meditations on mortality” and Poussin’s majestic late landscapes “evince a dark, senescent tremble”. Degas’s last ballerinas “seem to lumber, encumbered by age”. Perhaps it is a sign of old age toning down exuberance.

There is also some evidence that some poets have emerged as stars in their later years. In fact, those who shine the brightest in their youth tend to burn out soon. Does it explain the earlier deaths of those young geniuses? Is creativity a perishable by-product of youth? If, on the other hand, genius does not manifest early on, it can emerge from a lifetime of experience and experimentation as noticed in late bloomers. In addition, maturity and wisdom add luster to remnants of creativity left in older artists. However, they need reputation from earlier work to stand on. It is well known that Carnatic music composers such as Thyagaraja, Muttuswami Dikshitar, Syama Sastry, Annamacarya, and Purandaradasa produced masterpieces even during the last days of their long lives. In such instances it is obvious that age does not wither the genius that was inherent in them. Maturity and wisdom enhanced creativity in such cases.