HOW TO MAKE A CLASSIC


Someone once said that what makes a Classic is the quality of its genericness or applicability to other ages, other cultures, in short its Universality. Others feel the very antiquity of a Classic is at its core of value, a view I oppose strongly in our era of the infinite Collectibles, and our searching for roots and sources in those presumably less troubled days of yore.

I believe we actually make a Classic ourselves, by imbibing its words and phrases and spirit, fondling them over and over and polishing them in our memory over the course of many years, over the period of a life time. This is not merely a situation driven by reinforced memory patterns, there is something subtler in the almost moire shadings which develop like a transcendental mist around the core object, the ritualized poem, the repeated prayer. Bibles are generated in this way, they have slowly changed from informative documents written down in letters by prophets or acolytes, and have become a special kind of enriched writing, alchemized by lifetimes of use and backed up by centuries of use before that. A Buddhist mantra may be just four words, but it attains a towering profundity by use and continual reuse. A Greek drama which was performed for a specific audience at a specific interlude in a war, becomes a universal symbol of belief in Man's destiny, not by its content but by the context of the last two millennia of reiteration and reinterpretation.

I have a test example which may prove part of my point. As a student and young teacher I relished the infinite detailing and polish of Horace's Odes, and after a decade of teaching these poems to my students, I found them better and richer than I had perceived before. But I remember my Teacher Joshua Whatmough mentioned once that he had some classical poetry put away in a corner of his mind as something to work with after retiring from his Linguistics chair, and this idea of a literary cache of sorts appealed to me even then.

So I kept a few poems of Horace unread. I glanced at the first line which I remembered well enough, but left the rest unread on purpose, thinking of that notion of coming back to them later in a fresh mood, unencumbered by my experiences.

When I did come back and peruse those cached poem many years later, I was in for a great surprise. They really didn't look very good, they were clearly Horatian, they had the marks of the fine poet's touch all over them, wording and metrics and theme. But they seemed flat and in a way ordinary. I compared on of these recently dug up "finds" with " Integer vitae scelerisque purus...." and they stood a world apart. What was the difference, were these inferior poems?

No, it was the lack of handling, repetition in the back corner of the mind, rereading in different moods, different decades, different stages and conditions of life. And I found I could never repair the new poems to become as rich and harmonious to my mind as those which I had lived with. Maybe this is a little like the wearing-in qualities which accompany a long marriage, a long friendship, or bringing up children from babes to middle-aged friends and associates.

I have a special feeling for many poems of Catullus which have accompanied me on my way through life, not least that sad "Miser Catulle desinas ineptire...". And St. Paul's'1 Cor. 13 with its temple gongs and survey of the religions of the East, the final mirroring of your real-self, with LOVE crowning those final Three Things....... this was a passionate hymns from the organized Paul at first, but now a cantata of echoing voices from the remote past vibrating in my ears today. Or the great Vedic hymn to the morning sun, sung my more generations of people in India than any other liturgical text perhaps, enriched by the patina of time into a micro-world of devotion.

So my final observation is this: It is not the writer who makes a Classic at all. He throws together with art and sensitivity ordered wording with the craft he has at hand, but when he is done he has made an object, a word-construct of some sort. But it is the reader who makes it into a Classic, it becomes a special possession by being encoded and recorded and reiterated in his mind over days and years and decades. When we say a work has become a universal Classics, it only means that myriad readers have also gone through this touch and stroke and polish process, and have enriched the original poem or prayer not only for the individual but for the society.

But when a Classic thus generated loses its flavor, like the salt of the earth, then it is only an embalmed Classic, preserved in an academic niche reserved for Collectibles, to be handled gingerly with gloves and smelling strangely of formaldehyde.




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