Those of us in thrall to the literatures of past ages often claim that the works we love are “timeless” – that while society may change, human nature, underneath it all, remains the same. It is one of those soundbites we tend to trot out unthinkingly whenever our literary preferences are challenged. But it doesn’t really mean anything though, does it? It is demonstrable that people who have grown up in very different cultures tend to hold very different values, and think very different thoughts: we are all inevitably products of the societies in which we grow up. This is one of the major themes of Huckleberry Finn: here, we are shown people who are otherwise kind and generous, but who, having lived all their lives in a slave-owning society, accept as a matter of course even the most horrendous brutalities of slavery; their values are clearly very different from our own. Similarly, I think, with the various characters in my beloved War and Peace: is it reasonable to expect Russian aristocrats living in a serf-owning society (Russian serfdom was every bit as brutal as slavery in the American plantations or in the sugar plantations of the West Indies) to be fundamentally like ourselves? Is it reasonable to think that, “underneath it all”, citizens of ancient Athens or of Shakespearean London were not too different from us in the twenty-first century?
The same questions arise, I think, with literatures not from other ages but from different countries. Even cultures superficially similar can exhibit startling differences: for instance, culturally, the differences between Western Europe and US may seem slight; but those in US are far more wedded to the concept of libertarianism than are those of us on this side of the Pond, and, as a consequence, our political cultures, and, indeed, social cultures, are very different in all sorts of ways. Thus, Europeans are frequently puzzled by the adherence of so many Americans to the right to carry firearms, or by their objection to a national health service paid for by taxes; meanwhile, Americans wonder in equal disbelief how it can be possible for Europeans to surrender so much of their individual freedoms to the state. I say this not to debate on the rights and wrongs of different political cultures – let’s not go there: that way madness lies – but, rather, to point out that there do exist essential cultural differences. If cultures so similar as Britain and US can differ so radically in such basic values, would it really be surprising if people from cultures even more radically different from our own were to hold values even more alien to ours? One may respond to all this by saying that these things are all superficial, and that, fundamentally, beneath it all, we are the same. But beneath what all? If we are to speak of “fundamental” human nature, how do we distinguish between what is fundamental and what is superficial? Are not deeply held values all “fundamental”?
And yet, we can and do respond, often very deeply, to works written in past times, when the values of society were very, very different from those we currently adhere to; we do respond to contemporary books written in countries with very different cultures. So how can this be possible? We tend to claim that these books still “relevant”, and they are “relevant” because, underneath it all, human nature remains the same; but unless we can specify clearly what we mean by “underneath it all”, I don’t know this is a very meaningful thing to say.
Let us, first of all, acknowledge that there have been a great number of differences in human nature across the centuries – differences in how we view and interpret the world, how we process information, and so on – differences that cannot be described, I think, as merely superficial. And in acknowledging this, we run, I think, into a paradox: works produced by cultures that are so very different from my own can nonetheless hold me powerfully in their grip. I cannot deny the evidence of my own experience, after all: I am reminded of that Groucho Marx line from Duck Soup – “Who are you going to believe? Me, or your lying eyes?” So what should I believe? My reason, which tells me that those works from the past that I value so much depict a human nature fundamentally different from my own? Or my own lying experiences – experiences which, it is no exaggeration to say, have been and continue to be some of the most important and rewarding in my life? I am afraid I have no option but to go with the latter.
There is, of course, an unstated assumption behind this paradox, and this assumption is that, in literature, one responds most powerfully to that which is most closely related to one’s own self. And it is this assumption I think we should question: if we take it to its most extreme form, it follows that we would wish to read only about those characters who most resemble us, and social environments that most resemble our own: and this clearly isn’t true. And, since it isn’t true in its most extreme form, it is reasonable to wonder the extent to which it can be true in more moderate versions. It seems to me that as readers, we are capable of making the most extraordinary leaps of the imagination, and in doing so, leap over the most yawning chasms of differences – even, quite often, of fundamental differences. In short, the depth or intensity of our response to a work of literature is not a function of the closeness of our own lives and values to those depicted.
But do we – can we – all respond to the same thing? The answer is clearly “no”: there is no unanimity in response to any given work. But there is a consensus, a very major consensus that, surprisingly, does not change too significantly over time. To demonstrate this, let me propose a thought experiment: imagine a list created by an erudite and cultured person of a hundred years ago of the major writers of the Western world (let us restrict this to the Western world for now); and imagine, similarly, an equally erudite and cultured person of today creating a similar list; then, excluding obviously those writers who flourished in the last hundred years, the lists would, I think, be extraordinarily similar. Both lists would include, say, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Thucydides, Plato, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Villon, Rostand, Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Molière, Racine, Pushkin, Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Gogol, Balzac, Stendhal, Austen, Dickens, etc. etc. There would be some major writers who would probably not have been included then but would be now – Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance – but that’s only because their works weren’t so widely known then as it is now, and not because of their perceived demerits. And there would similarly be a few writers who are not considered as major now as they once had been (Scott is an obvious example). But there will be far more writers in common than otherwise between the two lists. Now, let us repeat this thought experiment replacing hundred years by two hundred years, or three hundred years, or five hundred years. It’s the stability of the lists that is remarkable.
And, given this stability, it seems to me reasonable to speak of a “canon”. Now, I realise that is a dirty word, especially when it comes to the arts: as enlightened modern relativists, we are all, I think, expected to sneer at the very idea of a “canon”. However, it seems to me that all fields of human activity have canons, whether or not we use that word. Ask cricket fans to list the greatest fast bowlers; ask wine connoisseurs to list the greatest vintages; ask enthusiasts of hill-walking in Scotland to list the greatest climbs in the Scottish Highlands. They’ll all have lists, and the lists members of each group come up with will have a remarkable degree of overlap. This is because there is no field of human activity in which excellence is not a consideration; and within each field, excellence is recognised by much the same criteria, even if those criteria cannot be precisely pinned down. And the consensus that emerges is, whether we like it or not, a canon.
So let us, at this stage, attempt a definition:
A “canon” is a list of items that exemplify what people with knowledge and understanding of a certain field of activity collectively understand to be excellence within that field of activity.
(How great a level of knowledge and of understanding? A valid question – but let us leave that one for later! Let us, for the moment, say, the greater someone’s knowledge and understanding, the greater the weight that may be placed on that person’ value judgement. For of course, there is as little point giving weight to the literary judgement of someone with little understanding of literature as there is in taking seriously any opinion I may happen to have on the techniques of neurosurgery.)
So, against all odds – despite differences that are more than merely superficial, despite the vast chasms in cultural values and conceptions that separate us from the societies that had produced Homer or Shakespeare – we appear to have a consensus on what constitutes literary excellence; and, what is more, we appear to have a remarkable degree of stability in that consensus. This has, obviously, proved deeply embarrassing to relativists, and they try all sorts of ways to account for it. The commonest is to claim that this canon is somehow kept stable artificially by people with vested interests. This seems to me utter nonsense, for the very obvious reason that the canon can remain stable only if there are readers who continue to respond to the works therein; and no-one, whatever alleged vested interests they may have, can compel readers to respond to works against their better judgement. Even this is sometimes challenged, with allegations of subtle forms of brainwashing, or even vast conspiracies, and what-not, to force our judgements for mysterious reasons to conform to some mysterious standards, but I don’t know that such gibberish need detain us here. That a consensus on what constitutes literary excellence does exist may be miraculous, but nonetheless, it is true, and we do not need to indulge in fantastic hypotheses to account for it.
So the question that should be our starting point is not so much “Can we respond to works created in times and cultures very different from our own?”, but, rather, “Given that changes over time, and differences across cultures, are by no means superficial, how can we account for the fact that we do respond, often very deeply, to works from other times and from other cultures?”
It is not the case, I think, that readers have to be able to imagine something within the context of their own times to be able to respond to it. Take, for instance, Sophocles’ play Oedipus Tyrannos: anyone who has seen a good production, or has read a good translation, or has seen that superb film adaptation by Pasolini (which is very close to the play), will testify to its extraordinary power. I know of no drama written by anyone in any age or any culture that is as gripping as this. And yet, the play is set in a world in which the gods send humans prophetic dreams, in which the Oracle at Delphi reveals to us great truths about ourselves. In short, it takes place in a world that can by no stretch of the imagination be related to our own. And yet, the fascination it continues to on hold us, even now, is a fact. How can we account for this?
Perhaps we don’t need to account for this at all. The hypothesis that we respond most keenly to those works that reflect our own society and our own cultural values is not, as I said earlier, a very sound one: if it were to be true, we would prefer reading fiction that reflects as closely as possible our own circumstances, and that is clearly not so. (Indeed, if it were so, there is no possible way we could explain the immense popularity of fantasy literature in our own times.) So, hypothesis rejected, as statisticians would say. And those cultural commentators who think we should be teaching scripts of television soap operas or whatever in schools, on the grounds that children will be able to relate to them more closely than to some boring old classic, are talking out of their collective back sides.
Once we rid ourselves of this highly dubious hypothesis, an alternative possibility becomes apparent: that we, the readers, have the ability to make an imaginative leap into other fictional worlds. In other words, we do not need to drag Sophocles’ Oedipus into our own world to respond to it: rather, we have the ability to take ourselves into the world of Oedipus.
And on top of this, something else happens that seems to me quite extraordinary: we, as readers, are capable of abstracting from what we read. Let me try to explain what I mean by that.
We should, of course, be careful about using terms such as “abstraction” in the context of literature, since literature – and especially narrative literature, i.e. novels, plays, narrative poems, etc. – is the least abstract of all art forms. Music is completely abstract: we respond to arrangements of sounds, and a C major chord, whatever associations it may have for the listener, cannot be or denote anything other than itself. Similarly with art: paintings are arrangements of shapes and colours: these shapes and colours may evoke a reality beyond that of the painting itself, but they needn’t. In a representational painting, the artist could use green to depict grass, but whatever merit that painting has comes not from the fact that it depicts grass, but from the way the artist, in the process, has used the green. In an abstract painting, a patch of green may evoke in some viewers the idea of grass, but it needn’t: what is being responded to is an abstraction of shapes and colours. (The difference between representational and abstract art, and our responses to them, is a complex theme, and I am aware that certain generalisations I have made in the brief sketch above can be contested.)
But in literature, this sort of abstraction is not possible, since words by nature are representational. Each word is, in a sense, a metaphor, denoting something other than itself. A writer may use the word “chair”, say, in such a way as to exploit its sound, its connotations, its rhythm in the context of the surrounding words, and so on. But, where an artist can use the colour green without necessarily representing grass, the writer cannot use the word “chair” without representing that piece of furniture we sit on. Literature cannot be purely abstract.
But for all that, when we read, I think we abstract certain things from our reading. It is a well-known fact, for instance, that even rational people who do not believe in ghosts can enjoy a ghost story. And I think this is because reader, while not accepting the reality of ghosts, does accept the reality of fear; and that the reader can, as a consequence, abstract from a ghost story the sense of fear that it evokes, while accepting the concept of the supernatural merely as an artifice designed to convey this sense. This abstraction is not a conscious procedure on the reader’s part; but it does, I think, happen. I can think of no other reason why I should find so terrifying that part of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in which Jonathan Harker is trapped in Dracula’s Castle, even though I don’t for a minute believe in vampires. The human mind is very adept at decontextualising. (And I think that is the first time I have ever used that word.)
If this is so, this can explain a great many things. Why am I so moved, say, by the final scene of King Lear? I know the whole thing is fiction; I know that these are actors on stage – indeed, I have seen them in other films and plays; I know that the actress playing Cordelia isn’t really dead – look! There she is taking a bow just minutes after apparently expiring! And yet, I feel shattered. I feel I have been hit by an emotional whirlwind. I find myself unable to focus my thoughts. Could this not be explained by my having abstracted from the story of King Lear (which I know to be a fiction) all those very real feelings and thoughts and emotions and sensations that make me feel like this? That, while I know that the story of King Lear isn’t real, the abstract qualities that reside in this story, and for which the story is but a vehicle, are very real indeed?
If I am on the right track with this, it may help provide something of an explanation for “timelessness”. To put it crudely, the story is but the vehicle; it is what may be abstracted from that vehicle that confers it value. And those works we – perhaps too loosely – refer to as being “timeless” are those works from which, by some miracle (for there is a miracle in all great works of art), we all may, because we all belong to the human species, abstract those qualities that are and remain valuable to us. So no, I am not really grieving for Lear and Cordelia: I am grieving because the I have abstracted from the story of Lear and Cordelia the qualities of love, pain, grief, loss, desolation, redemption, bewilderment, and all those other things that continue to be so important to us, all those things that we may, with reason, consider to be “timeless”.