Wednesday, January 07, 2015

`Democracy Is Not an Aesthetic Category'

Arthur Krystal writes, “Just because there is no objective list of Great Books does not mean there are no great books,” without sounding fussy or hidebound. He has read the Great Books, the great books, the lousy ones and even the “good bad books,” and has earned the right to judge them all as he wishes. Literature prescribed as medicine is repellent and moves good readers to non-compliance (see Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee), though in some patients it can work wonders (see Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld). So too, a strict diet of literary junk food – sci-fi, say, or thrillers – leaves us bloated and empty. Krystal continues: 

“I’m not suggesting that one can’t fully enjoy James Crumley, James Lee Burke, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, and Orson Scott Card, but I’m not sure one can love them in the way that one loves Shakespeare, Keats, Chekhov, and Joyce. One can be a fan of Agatha Christie, but one can’t really be a fan of George Eliot.” 

I’m not certain about that final point (see Daniel Deronda), but Shakespeare and Co. offer lasting pleasures unavailable in Crumley and Co. The former spur loyalty and an eagerness to read them and read them again across a lifetime. I remember that The Last Good Kiss a long time ago helped to painlessly kill some time but can’t imagine wanting to reread it. For this reader, nothing else remains of Crumley’s novel. Krystal’s point is that serious reading is a skill to be learned and it rewards us. His conclusion is defiant: 

“Although serious writers continue to work in the hope that time will forgive them for writing well, the prevailing mood welcomes fiction and poetry of every stripe, as long as the reading public champions it. And this I think is a huge mistake. Literature has never just been about the public (even when the public has embraced such canonical authors as Hugo, Dickens, and Tolstoy). Literature has always been a conversation among writers who borrow, build upon, and deviate from each other’s words. Forgetting this, we forget that aesthetics is not a social invention, that democracy is not an aesthetic category; and that the dismantling of hierarchies is tantamount to an erasure of history.” 

On the day Dave Lull sent me Krystal’s essay, I was in the middle of One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper (eds. Richard Davenport-Hines and Adam Sisman, Oxford University Press, 2014). In 1988, Trevor-Roper writes to Alasdair Palmer: 

“And if you have read any good books (do you have time to read any books?), please tell me. I want to take something to read, or re-read, in Colorado. Something substantial, but portable, and written in exquisite prose. Not Don Quixote, that incomparable, inexhaustible book—the only book, Dr Johnson said, that we wish were longer: I have re-read it too recently. Doughty’s Arabia Deserta and George Moore’s Hail and Farewell, two marvellous works of antipodean difference of style, are alas too bulky to carry. Perhaps I shall re-read Boswell’s Johnson, or The Golden Bough (the original version, before it was swollen to intolerable length), or The Brothers Karamazov. Or perhaps even something new: is there any great work of literature or perfectly written work of scholarship that you will recommend?” 

Palmer’s response is not recorded.

[Of related interest, from William Giraldi: "On Loving Literature."]

1 comment:

Miguel (St. Orberose) said...

Now there's something that needs to be repeated again and again!