The comfortable myth of “The Classics” persists in literature because it comforts those of us in the trenches. It offers us the promise that great work will one day be appreciated and understood, that its brilliance will shine on in spite of the dingy, banal, everyday meanness of taste and public appetite. Key to the myth is the idea that The Classics represent some sort of unearthly ideal, that they would always arise and would always be treasured, that they would inevitably be considered The Classics.
That’s nonsense, and dangerous nonsense to boot.
Saket Suryesh’s recent article “Why Writers Should Read the Classics” proceeds (like nearly all such discussions) from the premise that The Classics are made up of intrinsically great works. An alternative view is that identifying The Classics is, like all human endeavors, socially constructed and, as such, the product of contingency and context. Failing to recognize that fact conflates their status (as a classic of Western literature) with their worth, resulting in a less vibrant, less diverse literary landscape. While I endorse Suryesh’s call for more and deeper reading, the canon should be approached not as an idol to worship but as a specimen to vivisect.
Suryesh first identifies evocative, beautiful language as the hallmark of The Classics, which, while necessary, is certainly not sufficient to explain what makes something a Classic or not. That is not to say that there is no difference between good and bad writing; it is simply that good writing can’t be reduced to floweriness or extravagance or richness of language. Surely a terse, tense line of Raymond Carver can be as powerful as the plumpest bit of W. Somerset Maugham? Suryesh’s desire to see words used carefully is one that we can all get behind, but good writing is good writing, and while it may be rare, surely we have to admit that there is equally good writing out there that isn’t listed as a “Classic.”
Suryesh’s second point is the more important: He makes the claim that the value of The Classics is in their “timelessness.” In this, he is in good company. Italo Calvino’s essay “Why Read the Classics?” makes a similar point: that The Classics never finish saying what they have to say, that they are fresh with each reading. This is a noble nonsense.
Suryesh states that “It hardly matters whether [The Classics] were written in the Jazz Age of The Great Gatsby or the Victorian era of Jane Eyre, these works transcend their contexts, and it is this very timelessness which defines them.” I disagree. Would the story of a nouveau riche playboy desperately seeking the approval of the inherently corrupt Old Money Crowd in New England resonate with us if it were set in the 1790s or in reconstruction-era Alabama or in the Belgian Congo? Of course not — not without being a different book written by a different person. Additionally, if the Jazz Age had not proven to be all gilded brass, decaying into poverty and chaos in the 1930s and ‘40s, I doubt that The Great Gatsby would be much remembered. The book’s context, firmly rooted in 1922, is inherent to its message, and the endurance of that message is a result of the subsequent evolution of its readings as the tide of history swept (and sweeps) on. Books have no inherent value; their worth is made by readers embedded in history and interpreting each text anew. “The Classics” are a fluid and dynamic category, changing with times and tastes and history, and not something transmitted to us across the aesthetic ether.
A book exists in a time and place, as does our reading of it. The Jazz Age is inseparable from its economic and political descendants: the Great Depression and World War II. Similarly, the Victorian Age is inseparable from Empire, from the Industrial Revolution and the retrospective shadows of a balkanized Europe and World War I. Authors writing during those times explored native themes, and subsequent readings of their texts situate them in a historically shaded context that makes them subsequently Classic. Separating the text or the writer from their history is as meaningless as separating the reader from his or her own personal context.
And then there’s Moby Dick.
To make an unsupportable and ultimately meaningless claim, Moby Dick is the greatest book ever written. It is as near to infinite complexity as a finite text can be. Rich, tangled, profound — no adjective can be overwrought enough to fully describe it. And yet, as a text so clearly Classical and therefore “timeless,” what do we do with the historical fact that it was not appreciated, either popularly or critically, during Herman Melville’s own life? Surely “timelessness” should mean just that?
Melville was famous in his own day, a well-known and respected author making a living on his writing. Why then did contemporaneous readers consider Typee to be his great magnum opus, relegating Moby Dick, for a time, to obscurity? Were people simply too stupid to “get” Moby Dick at the time? Alternatively, maybe timelessness is a modern invention that glosses the less profound but more honest concept of taste? Or perhaps there are historical reasons for a small subset of taste-makers, specifically professional literati and tenured English professors, suddenly deciding that one book has greater merit than other books?
Moby Dick, with its spiraling uncertainty, convoluted structure and apocalyptic symbolism, became The Classic that it was only after the horrors of World War I and the upheaval of what had been assumed to be a narrow, progressive society. It took D. H. Lawrence, as keen an observer of current events as he was of literature, to recognize the importance of Melville’s big book in the context of the Great War. Without it, Melville would be a footnote in the history of travel writing; with it, he is one of The Greats.
This illustrates the bone of contention between Suryesh’s discussion and mine: Are The Classics inherently classical or are they are socially constructed? Do they have inherent value or is their worth made in the marketplace of history, English departments and literary reviews? I think it’s the latter, that texts deemed important have been chosen by people and that those people have been motivated in their choices by the political, cultural and social factors of their times. As such, the list of The Classics is biased.
To be clear, I’m not saying that we should toss them out because of that. I am saying that, because social constructs are powerful things that influence our lives, ignoring the fact that The Classics are constructed means we relinquish a great deal of interpretive and explanatory power when reading. When we treat The Classics as preordained with intrinsic value, we obscure the fact that what is Classic and what is not has been determined by individuals with discrete and understandable histories. Most often, those individuals were white men in European or American universities, and their choices reflect characteristic politics and values dependant on the context of their time.
We can and should read The Classics, but we should read them fully aware of what they are and where they come from. Reading Heart of Darkness without understanding or discussing the text in terms of Joseph Conrad’s racism is foolish, dangerous and ultimately wrong-headed. Similarly, George Eliot’s Middlemarch can only be understood in the context of the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the English countryside, on British ideals of the bucolic and the role of women in England.
More importantly, how they were subsequently identified as The Classics becomes a part of their history. Understanding the context of books allows us to see gaps in the canon — the missing women, the missing people of color, the missing non-eurocentric texts that were expunged or ignored by people advocating, often explicitly, a worldview of Western supremacy. When we treat classical literature as if it is a contextless list of self-evidently great work, we miss out on the real value of reading The Classics, which is to wrestle with real words, written by real people, about real things. Understanding how the list of The Classics was made is the most important part of the list!
Above, in the beginning of this screed, I said that The Classics should be viewed as specimens for vivisection. Texts should be viewed as living documents, changing with each reading, a part of an ongoing discourse about their meaning and the meaning(s) that previous people have ascribed to them and to literature as a whole. I want to engage with the text, the author, their histories together and apart from one another, and the lives and histories of successive critics and teachers and pedants and polemicists. I want to vivisect books because that is how we can come to understand them and their place.
The danger of the numinous label of “The Classics” is that it kills texts. It becomes holy writ, studied for its intrinsic rightness, ahistorical and timeless. Nothing is more dangerous. Books are discrete historical objects, written by specific individuals at specific times, and their subsequent histories reflect how people envisioned literature, artistic merit and important ideas in the larger context of their times and culture. By all means, read them for their beautiful language and interesting imagery, and interpret them based on your own private and individual history and perspectives. But at the same time, read them as historical documents, fully aware of the baggage that comes with them and fully cognizant that someone somewhere decided that the book in your hands had more value than other books. Echoing Suryesh, read the classics voraciously — but, I would add, always thoughtfully, critically and historically.
Eric Williams is a recovering earth scientist, living in the sunny, paradisical tangle of traffic and breakfast tacos that is Austin, Texas. His electronic presence can be experienced on Twitter: @geoliminal. He really thinks you ought to read Moby Dick.
Editor's Note: This post was submitted in response to "Why Writers Should Read the Classics" by Saket Suryesh, which The Airship published on August 14, 2014. If you would like to submit a response to anything on The Airship, please email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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