On timelessness

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”.

27 responses to this post.

  1. “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”. Perhaps not as elegantly expressed as the rest of this fine essay, but – yes, yes, yes!
    I teach 16 classes each week, Prep to Year 6 to children of disadvantaged background and often very limited English – and beginning when they are very small with Aesop and fairy tales from around the world, moving on to Hans Christian Andersen and Aboriginal myths and legends (which the rest of the literature world really should explore because they belong in any children’s canon), we finish up with Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Greek myths. I cannot tell you how much these kids love these powerful stories except to share one child’s definition of great literature: it’s the stories you remember all your life.
    The sad thing about this is that I am the last teacher-librarian in our local network and when I retire there is no one to take my place. With limited budgets, schools have to choose who and what to deploy in specialist roles and all the other schools have specialist IT teachers. This has been going on for years and years, and our younger teachers do not have a grounding in literature themselves and so they often don’t know what they don’t know.
    But it’s amazing how often in the cyberLit world one comes across a younger reader who is searching for a community to share the experience of discovering a canon they vaguely know about. (You’ll be in trouble for yours, only one woman author *tsk tsk*). But for every reader that later takes the initiative to read a canon there are thousands more who are denied it. Of all the failings of modern education I think this one is the worst. Because sharing great literature is a gift so easily given, so cheap, so easy to do, it’s almost wicked not to do it.


    • Hello Lisa,

      If you think my comment about “talking through … collective backsides” was less than ideally elegant, you should have seen what I had written in my first draft! 🙂

      I am afraid of getting into the subject of teaching literature in schools too deeply, as this is a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine, and I could rant about it interminably. We have two teenage children, and, as far as I can see, they have had no contact at all outside home with classical literature – neither from public libraries (which has sold off most of their good books and replaced them with celebrity memoirs and other ephemera – see here); nor from schools: our daughter recently passed her English literature GCSE, and she has not been required to read Shakespeare, or, indeed, to study any poetry at all; in all this time, she has only been required to read two books – yes, two books: Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck (a good book, certainly, but one she could easily have read some five years earlier); and About a Boy by Nick Hornby. Austen? George Eliot? The Brontes? Dickens? Done? Keats? Wordsworth? All those writers we think of as forming the backbone of English literature? Forget it! Neither she nor any of her classmates have been taught literature: no-one seems to think it is very important. These children really have been betrayed, and I am very angry about it. Anyway – I’ll restrain myself and not go off on a rant now.

      My wife teaches to children with learning difficulties (many of whom are also from disadvantaged backgrounds), and what she says chimes strongly with your experience: if they are introduced to stories from mythologies and from folklore (I must admit to being ignorant of Australian Aborigine myths and legends, I fear: I have long been intending to read the various folk tales from around the world) then children do indeed respond to them.

      Finally, sorry about the lack of female writers in my list: I decided to stop my list when I got to Austen & Dickens, and, for historic reasons, there weren’t too many women writers of stature before then. I suppose I could have included Sappho (Lady Murasaki was out as I was focusing only on Western literatures). Beyond that, I suppose we are getting to Madame de Sévigné, or Aphra Behn, or Frances Burney … and it rather reeks of tokenism to make a point in including them. Sorry about the sexism! 🙂

      Cheers, Himadri


      • We are of like mind, Himadri, it must be heart-breaking to see your kids miss out like that, and it’s not as simple as you providing encouragement to read them at home, I know. I don’t know what the answer is, except to keep on making a fuss!
        PS I was only stirring you (as we say in Oz) about the ‘sexism’. It’s just how it is, and as long as we are conscious of it, rather than simply assuming that it’s the natural order of things, then that’s sometimes as much as we can do when it comes to the early period.

  2. Thought provoking commentary Himadri.

    I am relating it to something that I am currently reading, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. In it, the author argues that people in the modern world are able to put themselves into the cultural shoes of others as opposed to people who lived in older societies who could not do so as easily.

    In other words we can understand the point of view of a Chinese writer who lived in 1600 much more so then a citizen of England circa 1600 could do so. Conversely a Chinese citizen who lived in 1600 would have a great deal of difficulty understanding Shakespeare’s worldview compared to a modern citizen of China who would find understanding the bard’s viewpoints much easier. Some of this seems obvious but it relates to what you are talking about here.

    I also believe, at least to some extent in the concept of Cannons and like your definition of them.

    Take care!


  3. In it, the author argues that people in the modern world are able to put themselves into the cultural shoes of others as opposed to people who lived in older societies who could not do so as easily.

    I like Pinker’s books very much, and I need to read that one, but I’m not sure I agree with this idea. Ancient Rome and Elizabethan England were very different places, but the English still admired Horace, Virgil and other Roman writers. I think people have always been able of putting themselves in other peoples’ shoes, an example of that is Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, which is a mordant look at European culture from the perspective of a Persian tourist. Written by a French!


    • Hello Brian, and St Orberose,

      I haven’t read Pinker’s work, but the idea he presents is an interesting one. Yes, it is certainly true that Reaissance scholars from Western Europe admired classical culture; it is also true that when European scholars first came into contact with Sanskritik culture in India, they were overwhelmed. So, as St Orberose says, the ability to put oneself into the others’ shoes was present even then. But could it not be the case that, given our increased awareness of other cultures, and given also that a great many of us now live and work alongside people of different cultures, we have become more able in this respect than we have previously been? I don’t know – I should perhaps read Pinker’s book. But before I do, I should, perhaps, read Montesquieu’s: it sounds fascinating!


  4. Interesting thoughts. People will always try to connect the dots. Take for example the Cargo Cults observed in the Pacific Islands during WW2. The islanders observed the planes coming in to military camps with food and supplies and so built their own ‘airport’ and waited for the gods to come with supplies for them. They had an understanding of what was going on but it was not anything like the understanding of the soldiers at the base. However the impulse to make sense of the observed world is shared by both.
    My four year old son is currently fascinated that we share 50% of our DNA with bananas. He says we are cannibals to eat them. Our brain is wired to differentiate between things, I think. We then tend to think that we are very different. However, were we to be observed by an alien intelligence they would probably see only similarities. Their view would probably be focussed on the fundamentals.
    As for the idea of canons. There will always be canons but there will always be people who are erudite, cultured, intelligent and engaged who largely steer clear of canonical works and sometimes those people will readjust what we think of as the canon. Having worked with judging newly coined works I am aware of how differently we can respond to something once we know that even one other person considers the work to have merit. Thus we read canonical works differently from others.
    However, coming up with our personal canons is inevitable, just as it is inevitable that we will be influenced by what others think, or thought. We always have to remember, though, that we might all be wrong. We’ve been wrong many times before. How we read is as important as what we read.


    • Hello Seamus, and welcome to this blog.

      It is curious how similar thing seem from a distance, that , from close-up, may seem very similar. Thus, from the Western perspective, for instance, Indian culture seems a single homogeneous entity, when in reality it contains a vast diversity. Conversely, and Indian looking casually at Europe is likely to find greater similarities than otherwise between British, French, German and Spanish cultures, say.

      I was a bit unsure whether to use the word “canon” above, since the word has acquired so many negative associations. I do think it is the case that there is a greater degree of commonality in our aesthetic responses than is generally believed: nothing else can explain why it is that generation after generation continue to respond with such intensity to certain works. Yes, it is true that we influence each other: discussion such as this would be pointless otherwise. We enter into literary discussion in the hope that we may influence others, and also, I think, that others may influence us, and help open our eyes to certain things that had previously eluded us. So yes, I do accept that we read canonical works differently from non-canonical works; but I remain unconvinced that this can account for the extraordinary stability of the canon. For a canonical status could just as well encourage readers to read with a more sceptical than with a more reverential frame of mind – especially in our age which tends to be suspicious of authority. I do strongly suspect that there is a certain commonality in our aesthetic responses.

      All the best, Himadri


  5. To take your specific example of Oedipus Rex: I think what moves us so profoundly as far as that play is concerned is – and this is the cornerstone of most ancient Greek tragedy – is how a morally perfect person, with all the correct intentions and objectives, nonetheless ends up utterly compromised; and not only through no fault of his own, but also with a sense of horrifying inevitability. This idea of the sheer arbitrariness of fate, that it can hurl you into the abyss just-so – is perhaps what lends the play most of its power. And isn’t that, in turn, the case because – albeit at a much smaller scale, we recognise something similar in *our* lives? So I think I agree with your analysis – it isn’t specifically the fate of Oedipus *as Oedipus* that we are interested in; it is the fate a man who is rendered helpless in the face of forces he cannot even begin to comprehend, let alone control. And isn’t that the case with Shakespeare as well? What he captures, I think, is *themes*, and it is the themes that are timeless.


    • Hello Gautam,Oediopus is a difficult play to analyse, if only because, despite being regarded as the archetypal Greek tragedy, it doesn’t appear to conform to the Aristotelian principle of “hamartia” – the fatal flaw. (Oedipus is a proud character, certainly, but his pride is not the cause of his downfall.) I think you’re right, in that we respond to the vision of the implacability of fate, and its picture of the fragility of human happiness in the world. I would love to see a good production on stage: even reading a good translation, I find myself transfixed. The nearest I have come to experiencing it in performance is in Stravinsky’s magnificent opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex.


      • As someone who likes to defend Aristotle, may I just point out that “harmatia” doesn’t mean “fatal flaw”, Aristotle never talks about the tragic hero having a fatal flaw, he never mentions pride in relation to tragedy, and only once in all his works does he use the word “hubris”: it appears in The Laws, where he defines it in a completely different way to our usage. He also didn’t believe tragic heroes should be “morally perfect” – indeed, he specifically states they shouldn’t, believing that if they were, we would be reluctant to emphathise with them.

        This has all been made up for no good reason.

      • Hello Obooki,
        I hardly think Aristotle needs defending, as i hope I wasn’t foolhardy enough to attack him!

        I did know, or at least should have known, that there is no exact English equivalent of the term “hamartia”, and that “fatal flaw” is a most inadequate rendering of the term. In the translation I have of Poetics (translated by Kenneth mcLeish), the word “harmatia” is given untranslated, and is glossed as follows:

        Harmatia is the failing in understanding or moral character which leads someone to a disastrous choice of action: a choice which arouses our pity because it is both catastrophic and made deliberately but not out of wickedness, and arouses our terror because we identify both with the innocence and the helplessness of the person who makes the choice.

        There is further discussion of this in the introduction.

        There is also an interesting discussion of the issue in a very interesting book I chanced across lately by Walter Kaufmann (better known as translator of Nietzsche) called Tragedy and Philosophy. At one point, he discusses differing interpretations of “harmatia”:

        Grube renders [harmatia] as “flaw”, and adds a footnote explaining that “a moral or intelectual weakness is meant”… Else has “mistake”,, and argues at length that an error about the identity of a close relative is meant – in other words, the confusion that precedes recognition. Cedric Whitman … argues that “There can be no real doubt that Aristotle meant by harmatia a moral fault or failing of some kind”. … Butcher … examined the passages in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics where harmatia is mentioned and came to the conclusion that, “as applied to a single act, it denotes an error due to inadequate knowledge of particular circumstances,” especially but not necessarily “such as might be known”. But the term is also “more laxly applied to an error due to unavoidable ignorance” Thirdly, it may designate an act that is “conscious and intentional, but not deliberate”; for example, one “committed in anger or passion”. But “in our passage there is much to be said in favour of the last sense”, in which harmatia denotes, fourthly, “a defect of character, distinct on the one hand from an isolated error or fault, and, on the other, from the vice which has its seat in a depraved will. This use, though rarer, is still Aristotelian”.

        Going by some of these definitions, harmatia is applicable to Oedipus; ging by some thers, it isn’t. But clearly, “fatal flaw” is an inadequate rendering, and I should indeed have been more careful in using that term.

        Cheers, Himadri

      • I’ve always liked the discussion of the matter in this amusing paper by renowned Classical scholar E.R Dodds, “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex”:


        I think Dodds is right: Aristotle gives two examples, Oedipus and Thyestes; what’s the basic thing they have in common: they commit some terrible act in ignorance that what they are doing is a terrible act; this is the same definition of harmatia Aristotle which uses most of the time.

        But this also fits in with the notion of what a “tragedy” is in the first place: if a man deserves to punished by life, then it’s not really a tragedy is it, and we don’t feel much driven to fear and pity. A tragedy is something that just happens to innocent people: like school-children being killed in an earthquake.

      • Hello Obooki,
        School-children killed in an earthquake in real life is, of course, tragic beyond words. But the rules of real life don’t necessarily hold in art. In real life, a man killed by a tree falling on him during a storm is tragic; but if Shakespeare had ended King Lear with a tree falling on his head in the middle of Act 3, we wouldn’t think that tragic at all: we’d think that merely silly.

        Is tragedy really “something that just happens to innocent people”? Is Othello innocent? Were Othello’s case to come to court, I doubt very much whether mitigating circumstances would even be considered. What about Hamlet? When Hamlet protests his innocence to Laertes, claiming that it was his madness that was the source of his misdeeds, he is being dishonest, and we know it: whatever the circumstances, Hamlet is guilty. And what about Macbeth and his good lady wife? Not innocent, surely! Admittedly, when Macbeth tells us that he begins to be aweary of the sun, we don’t say “Serves you right!” But nonetheless, it does serve him right, filthy mass-murdering beast that he is!

        I feel uncomfortable about formulating rules when it comes to art: rules are for lesser writers, and any rule anyone can come up with can always be met be conspicuous counter-examples. The popular misconception (and I stress: misconception) of Aristotle’s precepts is that the tragic protagonist comes to grief because of his or her tragic flaw. Until, that is, one starts actually to read Greek drama, and finds that not only do tragic protagonists often end quite happily (Elektra, Medea, Philoctetes, etc.), but that, sometimes, there isn’t even a tragic protagonist to begin with (who is the tragic protagonist of, say, The Bacchae? Not Pentheus, surely!) But that view of tragedy as springing from a tragic flaw, facile and simplistic though it is, and having counter-examples as powerful as that of Sophocles’ Oedipus, need not be jettisoned completely, I think. For a story of a protagonist merely buffeted by Fate till meeting a sticky end through no fault of his or her own is likely not so much to overwhelm the reader with pity and with terror, but, rather, to make the reader think that the chap in question simply had bad luck. What bad luck that the tree fell on Lear!

        Of course, all human beings are flawed; but all human beings are not necessarily tragic. Flaws, shortcomings of human character, are only to be expected; but one gets tragedy when people find themselves precisely in those situations with which their particular flaws and shortcomings cannot cope. It has often been commented upon that had Hamlet been in in Othello’s position, or Othello in Hamlet’s, there would have been no tragedy in either case. But it is because Hamlet with his complex character happens to be in that particular situation; and because Othello with his perhaps somewhat less complex character happens to be in his particular situation; that the tragedies occur.

        But this too is a formulation that fails to cover all instances of that which we recognise as tragic. It doesn’t cover Oedipus for a start, and any formulation of the tragic principle that doesn’t cover Oedipus is at best limited. But by the same token, any formulation that doesn’t cover Macbeth is also at best limited, and the concept of tragedy as something “that just happens to innocent people” most certainly doesn’t begin to cover Macbeth. In a way, I am quite pleased about this: art of the highest quality is above any rules we may formulate. Rules are only for lesser writers.

      • PS I will read the essay by Dodds later tonight, when I have more time.

      • I have now read Dodds’ essay, and enjoyed it greatly. I agree fully with what dodds says, but I do feel it was a bit naughty of him setting the question in such terms. Oedipus has nothing to do with Miltonic theodicy, and he seems quit edeliberately to have set a trap for the poor undergraduates with such a misleading question!

  6. I am skeptical of timelessness. Talking about the survival of “Shakespeare” conceals a lot of messiness. How do we know that different audiences, scattered through time and space, found the same aspects of King Lear valuable? Perhaps it is not the universality of a work of art that is important but its complexity. SInce everyone, or every time, or every culture, is responding to something different in a work ,the more meaningfully complex the work, the more likely it is to have something for everyone.

    You could work on a similar argument – similar to yours or mine – across cultures as well. How interesting that Japanese, Russian, and German culture have all responded so strongly to Shakespeare, adopting him into their own literatures. But perhaps it is even more interesting how French culture and French literature have generally resisted Shakespeare.

    As far as the canon business, you are pretty close to what I have called my “social scientific” use of the concept. Few arguments against the canon are really against it as such – they are mostly attempts to change the canon on political grounds.


    • Hello Tom, you’re quite right, of course, to be sceptical (excuse my UK spelling!) of the concept of “timelessness”. The world itself is not timeless: the great globe itself, as Will so astutely pointed out, will dissolve and leave not a rack behind. And long before then, we humans will either have become extinct, or have evolved into some new species to whom The Iliad may mean absolutely nothing. So, yes, I am using the word (which I must admit to not liking very much) in a somewhat loose sense. I am using it to refer to the extraordinary fact that, despite vast changes in just about everything we can think of, the human species can continue to respond, often at a very deep level, to works written hundreds, even thousand years ago. Why this should be, I really don’t know: I am merely guessing. But that this is so is, I think, a verifiable fact, and our enquiries should start from there.

      It could certainly be, as you say, that we are responding to these works because they are sufficiently complex, thus allowing different generations to admire different aspects that result from the complexity. Of course, it’s easy enough to think of counter-examples: Aesop’s fables, say, (which have their counterparts in Sanskrit literature, and, I suspect, most other literary traditions); or the tales from the Thousand and One nights, which, for all their colour and exuberance, have very little in terms of complexity. But in general, yes, I do take your point: different generations respond to different aspects of something such as King Lear, and interpret accordingly. Not that long ago, for instance, King Lear was seen as a play of Christian redemption – of a man losing the whole world and gaining his soul; nowadays, we tend to see it through a Beckettian lens as a terrifying glimpse into the wasteland of futility. The play is complex enough to accommodate the different needs and preoccupations of different generations.

      But I don’t know that we should throw away the concept of universality altogether. A work of the stature of King Lear, say, is greater than the sum of its possible interpretations. I can exhaust all possible ways I can think of to interpret the play, and still feel there is something left over – even though I cannot quite define what that something is. Braque once famously said: “There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.” Possibly there is an aesthetic quality to this “thing you cannot explain” that is universal. I don’t know – I am only conjecturing.

      As for the French resisting Shakespeare, I can only put that down to Shakespeare’s most unfortunate anti-French jingoism in Henry V, or to his scandalous depiction of Jeanne d’Arc in Henry VI, Part One. But theresistance has not been total: Shakespeare’s plays are widely available in translation, after all, and even the Comédie-Française put on Shakespeare’s plays quite regularly! But yes, there most certainly do exist cultural differences; but these differences aren’t anywhere near as absolute as relativists, with unintentional irony, insist: after all, Shakespeare was revered by such French Romantics as Berlioz and Hugo. But given this understanding (that relativism is only a relative thing), it is certainly something worth exploring further. But only once I’ve had a good rant on cultural relativism!


  7. Yes, not total – I said resist, not reject! I do not think we need to turn to minor anti-French jabs to explain anything. France had its own strong, thriving theatrical literary tradition rooted in Racine and Molière that was in many ways antithetical to the aesthetic principles of the English stage. The French Romantics embraced Shakespeare in part because he was a useful weapon against French classicism. Shakespeare was for a long time a site of struggle in French literature. In Germany, Shakespeare was simply absorbed into the literary core.

    Aesop is not bad, but I do not think The Arabian Nights works well as a counter-example. Recent interest in the book has been more about its structure and about the function of storytelling – see Borges or John Barth for examples – which is not what earlier readers were getting out of it. The book may not be as complex as Lear, but it must be complex enough.

    There may be a temperamental difference at work here – what you see as a stable canon I see, based on the same evidence, as quite fluid.


    • I wasn’t being entirely serious when I suggested that France’s resistance to Shakespeare may be due to his anti-French jingoism. (Maybe I should have added a smiley face or something to make this clear!) Yes, France as certainly been more resistant to Shakespeare than has Germany, say, but, however reluctantly, Shakespeare is nonetheless accepted, even in France, as a major literary figure. If they didn’t – if they thought say, that Arthur Wing Pinero was a greater English dramatist (nothing against Mr Pinero!) – then there certainly would be a case for relativism.

      I don’t mean to suggest that the canon (I don’t like the word, but don’t know what other word to use – that list of works that we collectively think exemplify excellence) is set in stone: there most certainly are, as you noted, local variations, often significant variations, both in time, and also geographically. But, even given these variations, the same writers do continue to be admired across the centuries; succeeding generations do continue to respond to the same works. And it is this stability rather than the local variations that I am focusing on here, because this stability seems to me to make nonsense of the position that all literary standards to be merely subjective, and hence, relative. If that were to be the case, it is hard to see how there could be any degree of stability at all, It seems to me that our aesthetic responses do have a high degree of commonality.Not necessarily unanimity – but a sufficient degree of commonality for a consensus to emerge. I don’t see why this should surprise us: after all, most people think a colourful sunset is beautiful and that streets strewn with litter are ugly; most people think the Taj Mahal is beautiful, and that a dog turd is ugly.

      I agree that the Arabian Nights was a bad example. I’d like to follow up your idea that the works that tend to last most are those that are sufficiently complex to be seen from different perspectives. But I’ll need to think about that a bit more.


  8. While I’m here – I know my literary education before college is not anything too impressive, but good Lord, we were all assigned Julius Caesar when we were 12 years old, and we all had to get up in front of the class and recite Antony’s funeral oration from memory, and we all did it, so even people who didn’t read the whole play had at least read that much.

    Two books! Nick Hornby! At least the school should have assigned High Fidelity, to educate the youngsters in important topics like Cheers and Steely Dan and the value of original-pressing Otis Redding singles. That last sentence was not even sarcastic.


    • The irony is that they were given About a Boy to read because they felt that a book dealing with contemporary life would be easier for the kids to relate to. and yet, from what our daughter tells us, everyone in her class hated it with a vengeance. If they’re going to hate the school book anyway, then they might as well be given something worthwhile they could hate, says !!


  9. Posted by severalfourmany on February 5, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    I think literary fashions change quite dramatically. Novels, the pinnacle of our literary invention, were once considered frivolous entertainments not worth the time serious readers. What was considered obscene in some eras are classics in others. Our lists of worthwhile reading have changed substantially over time.

    A hundred years ago our classics were Southey, Carlyle, De Quincey and Tennyson. Two hundred years ago it was Xenophon, Livy, Caesar, Cicero, Arrian, Sallust, Horace and Juvenal. Three hundred years ago we were reading Burlamaqui, Demosthenes, Jonathan Edwards and Erasmus. Even when we read the same books, the “abstracted qualities” we see in them are different.

    Xenophon was the most widely read Greek in the 19th century. He was read not so much for his views on democracy and political systems, his insightful history of the post-Peloponnesian war Mediterranean or his alternative view of Socrates and philosophical dialogue. What the 19th century reader found appealing about Xenophon was his grammar and prose style. For students at end of the 19th century Xenophon had become synonymous with tedious rote grammar lessons, who then rejected his original thought and insight.

    Today we look at The Odyssey as an example of heroic bravery, steady perseverance in the face of adversity and inventive problem solving. Cicero (late Republic) praised Ulysses for his love of wisdom but Virgil (early Empire) found him false and heartless. Racine (17th Century) viewed him as a dangerous master of deceit and Dante (14th Century) puts him in penultimate circle of Hell for Fraud.

    I think a text becomes “timeless” not because it conveys a universal meaning but rather is a vehicle for multiple meanings. It is fluid enough to change with time and fashion. It is sufficiently resonant that many different people in many different times and places will look to it and derive meaning that is relevant to them. The lessons we learn from Beowulf, the Iliad and the Bhagavad-Gita are almost certainly very different from their original purpose, but nevertheless of great importance to us.

    More here: http://bit.ly/14C1jGO


    • Hello, and thank you for joining in the discusion!

      I do not actually disagree with the thrust of your argument: literary fashions do, indeed, change. I do acknowledge that, although I did not emphasise it, as my specific argument rests on the somewhat different point that certain things persist through all the changes. There are limits to the fluidity: no generation has ever seen the Antigone of Sophocles as a comic farce, for instance. And whatever we may think of Antigone’s heroism, no-one, to my knowledge, has actually denied that she is heroic. (I guess, on reflection, that some may have done – there’s no accounting for individul perspectives! – but this has never been a consensus viewpoint.)

      I agree with you that when a work survives, it often does so because it is sufficiently complex to allow different generations to interpret differently (Tom made a similar point in his comments above). But we should, I think, be careful when we speak of the “original purpose” of this work: we can but interpret the text we have; what specific interpretation the author may or may not have intended remains purely a matter of conjecture.

      (Personally, when I find myself responding deeply to any work; and, further, when the work appears to affect other readers with similar intensity; I find it hard to believe that the effect was achieved merely by accident. The ability to see beyond the limited interpretation of any one generation seems to me among the hallmarks of great genius. But I won’t press this point, since, obviously, no-one can establish for certain what was going on in the writer’s mind.)

      While one may be understandably dazzled by the differences and the varieties of interpretation over time – and, I agree, these differences are well worth studying – we mustn’t overlook the constants either. I could, I am sure, provide a long list of constants in interpretations through the ages. When, in Agamemnon, Cassandra foresees her own death outside the doors of the Palace of Atreus, we feel terror, just as past generations have felt. When, in The Aeneid, Dido is deserted by Aeneas, we feel immense pity – again, as past generations have felt. A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues to enchant us, The Miller’s Tale still makes us laugh, we are still struck by the tragic solemnity and the grandeur of passion in Racine’s Phèdre, and so on. I would be foolish to deny the changes you outline: but the continuities are also numerous and powerful, and these should not, I think, be ignored either. And the very existence of any continuity at all casts serious doubt on the position that claims all values to be but subjective, and contingent merely upon the outlook of the times. For if this relativist position were to be true, it is hard to see how there can be any consensus or any continuity at all.

      I’ll have a look in greater detail at your link once I get back home (I’m still in the office, and about to leave for the train!).

      All the best for now,


      • Posted by severalfourmany on February 6, 2013 at 5:53 pm

        Yes, it is certainly not an either/or argument but I think, like Tom, I’m finding the differences more salient and interesting. Today, at least.

  10. Some of my resistance comes from the sense that finding much of what really is universal takes a lot of work – study, imaginative effort, time. The “we feel” language makes me nervous, as does the claim that we are “more able” to understand other points of view. Maybe we are exactly as able but just do it more. Maybe you and I have a particular response to Agamemnon because we are experienced readers and have spent a lot of time living with ancient Greek thought.

    The existence of continuity over time does not do any serious damage to relativism. Institutions are long-lasting and pass on their (arbitrary, subjective, coercive) values. Or maybe values are just highly path-dependent, so our continuity is just one of many arbitrary possibilities.

    I do not really believe anything in that last paragraph; I am just saying that your evidence doesn’t do the job.

    From my own reading, my sense of what is easily universal inevitably narrows as my understanding of it (a text, a culture, an idea) grows more complex. But: my sense of what is potentially universal greatly expands. With a lifetime of study – perhaps even less – all sorts of alien, distant attitudes and values can be understood. Very little is universal; almost everything is universal.

    Can you tell I have been reading Schopenhauer? Ha ha ha ha! He’s insidious.


    • Hello Tom,

      I think we may have reached that stage where each of us has stated and argued their position, each understands the other, but, as a matter of personal preference, each sticks to their own: I, being culturally conservative by nature, find the continuities more fascinating and indeed more salient than the changes, and think this indicates certain constants in our aesthetic responses; you, being, if not radical, at least not as conservative as I, perceive greater noise than signal in the range of our aesthetic responses, and remain unconvinced.

      So is there anything more to be said? Just a last, and, I hope, pithy summary of my position:

      That a pattern in our aesthetic responses may be discerned despite some seemingly random noise leads me to inquire into the reason for the pattern; and, if we are to reject such hypotheses as the influence of long-lasting institutions (as I see you do immediately after proposing it!), a commonality in our aesthetic responses seems to me a reasonable conjecture. And, indeed, one I am happy to stick to until a more plausible one comes along. But let’s leave it there.

      (Did you know, by the way, that I had initially thought of calling this blog “The Cultural Conservative”? This was considered as an ironic response to a drinking friend and long-time sparring partner of mine who often refers to me as such!)

      As for Schopenhauer, that man was devoted to the Upanishads, so it’s little wonder that he ended up speaking in riddles. But I am very badly read in philosophy, I fear. I really should get to know something more about it.

      Cheers for now, Himadri


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