SOME THOUGHTS ON LITERATURE


Literature is not a historical library of the great books, it is a phenomenon produced by writers in their own age, and as such it usually requires interpretation. What that interpretation will be is a function of the time in which it is undertaken and our distance from the original work. Two hundred years ago people looked to the Classics for examples of absolute excellence since it was felt that the ancient societies of Greece and Rome had produced masterpieces which could never be duplicated. Interpretation stood in awe of the great, if somewhat remote Classics, which history had handed down.

Since the Renaissance imitation was considered permissible since Neo-Classical reworking of ancient themes and styles seemed to show a proper reverence for the work of the masters, while making more or less relevant models for later times. As a form of comment and interpretation Neo-Classicism was valid, but as a way of generating new works of art it was in large part a failure, since it choked off the breath of the new life which living societies possesss. By the end of the l9th century Neo-Classicism was expiring as an artistic force, although it lingered on as instruction in the academies of painting, sculpture and architecture for a while, finally ensconcing itself in the cocoon of academic criticism.

The early part of the 20 th. century saw the appearance of the social sciences along with a pervasive sense of social awareness. Soon literature was being analyzed as a part of society, and the cultural connections established between a work of literature and its time-frame were stressed as the dominant meaning literature. Much modern literature was produced in this spirit, fostering a new and perfectly valid kind of writing; but when the critics tried to apply cultural-historical standards to the literature of antiquity, everything changed. Homer was no longer a poet with a vision, but a Janus-like witness on the one hand pointing Mycenean times and on the other hand toward the ensuing centuries which were to build on an ancient heritage. Literature was plowed up for motifs to illustrate relevance to philosophy, religion, and history, since these, rather than the art of words, were the things which really counted. Students of Classics at the middle of this century heard from their teachers a great deal about history and society, and almost nothing about the art writing. Art and esthetics found little place in this diet of harder fare!

About this time, a major Society (which curiously had never been identified before) was identified and became the focus of a new spurt of academic enthusiasm, connecting the men and women of today to the ancients by means of the thread of cultural-history. I am speaking of Western Civilization, a resounding name which automatically confers honor and respectable ancestry on those who employ it, while conveniently shouldering out the Oriental peoples, the world of Islam, the various cultures of Africa and the Americas and all others who fall under the broad classification of "primitive". If literary critics want to consider themselves primarily students of Man's behavior and history, Western Civilization can be made to fill in the chapters nicely, but at the cost of blurring the differences among the divergent European traditions, while incurring ipso facto the charge of ethnocentrism. And of course consideration of the art of literature as "art" goes out the window.

If we are speaking about literature as the art of written words, the putting together of ideas in matrices of sounds scored for rhythms in prose or verse, we will not be satisfied with this kind of socio-historical procedure. If we view literature primarily as art rather than an archive odf documents, we will have to find other approaches. Two ways come to mind immediately : First there is the way which works with the complex esthetics of language, and second, there is another way which concerns itself with the artist as a thinking individual working in his art from the base of a private personality. The first way is important, it was certainly the way most ancient critics viewed Greek literature, and we get a good introduction to this kind of thinking in the criticism of Dionysus of Halicarnassus. This is difficult since it involves much analytical technique and a thorough understanding of phonetics, and cannot be treated compactly in a paper of this sort. But the second way, which is concerned with the inner-mind of the artist, is equally important, and possibly a easier to deal with in this paper on the art of Vergil..

When we read an ancient poet's work, if we can break through the wall of the centuries and the mask of erudite criticism, we will quickly realize that we are dealing with words, phrases and ideas which were put together in that exact form by an individual, who was both an creative artist and a living person. A book on our desk is the artistic output of some part of a personal life. He ate breakfast in the morning and went to bed at night, but in between he focused himself on his poem or his history or his play. It is the precise way he did that marks his work as different from everyone else's writing.

Some writing transcends the individual identity of the author and enters the canon of the "great" works, which we describe as being somehow "better", although often we cannot grasp exactly what it is that makes them good. The public has a good nose for great books, yet there is much critical unevenness through the centuries. In the l8th century Homer was considered raw, Chaucer unreadable and Shakespeare verbose, if not dramatically unpresentable without cutting.

At the present time we are in command of vastly increased knowledge about Man and the world around him. Our new understanding of humanity has come about through work in sociology, anthropology, psychology and many of the physical sciences, so that a reasonably educated person nowadays has a greatly increased intellectual library of pertinent materials in his hands. When he reads a novel or a poem he automatically thinks in terms of the disciplines which have developed in this century, he can simultaneously overlap a historical approach with a psychological query, while savoring the phonetics and semantics of words on the printed page. Every thoughtful reader has a panoply of tools at his disposal, he can go farther than anyone in the past could even imagine, and the only danger he faces is that he may lose his intellectual balance in eager bewilderment.

Seeing the ancient writer as a person, but at the same time a special kind of person who invested work and joy in what he was doing, the modern reader will want to ask many questions. Why did this line come out just so? Is there something of personal meaning which we might be missing here? What kind of a man is it who says this kind of thing? Sitting in his study, a modern reader is able to deal on a one-to-one basis with the author, as a reader he is real and alive, with a volume of poetry open before him. But the author is also real and artistically alive although in a different sense of the word, although he died many centuries ago. This relationship of reader to book is very private and personal, but one which calls for some lateral awarenesses. A great deal of learning and acuity is demanded, but the footnotes and historical details will finally melt into the background as the reader grasps the poem with a kind of spiritual lunge. Considering the complexities of the human brain and the wide scope of human knowledge, recognition of this sort may be much more complex than we think, but if reader can "grasp the meaning" in a flash, that will be sufficient for the moment. We don't have to monitor in detail each intellectual process which we perform, it is quite enough to read the signals and forget some of the machinery.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris