Sunday, August 27, 2017

`Historians of the Present'

“. . . all literature is in fact imaginative literature.”

Seemingly a truism, but not for all readers. To dismiss novels as frivolous or histories as mere transcription of what has already happened is to fundamentally and stupidly misunderstand the roles and capacities of writers and readers. Henry Adams was at his most imaginative when writing his great histories of the Jefferson and Madison administrations. His novels lumber along, unread or at least not read a second time. As readers, we are at our most imaginative when our imaginations actively engage the work. Reading is not the passive ingestion of words on the page or screen. Simon Leys’ “On Readers’ Rewards and Writers’ Awards” (The Hall of Uselessness, 2013) was originally delivered as an address to a literary award ceremony in Australia. It reception is not recorded but his intent cannot have pleased guardians of literary conventionality:

“Distinctions between genres — novels and history, poetry and prose, fiction and essay, etc. — are essentially artificial; these conventional classifications are of practical use mostly for booksellers and librarians who have to compile catalogues or arrange books on crowded shelves; otherwise, above a certain level of literary quality, they present little relevance.”

This will come as news to most literature instructors and students. For medicine to be effective it must be carefully measured and stamped into readily swallowed pills. I’ve come to suspect that literature cannot be taught, at least to most of today's readers. Reading is too eccentric a taste to be collectively imposed. Only inspired amateurs read ecstatically and with dedication. For the pros it's just a job. Leys goes on:  

“For the perceptive reader, indeed, Proust’s great novel is in fact a philosophical essay; Montaigne’s essays are more diverse and surprising than any novel; Gibbon’s and Michelet’s histories remain alive first and foremost as great literature; and, of course it would be ludicrous to reduce a polymorphous giant such as Shakespeare to the absurdly minor and narrow craft of playwrighting. As to the art of fiction, we have already learned that its aim is nothing less than `to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe,’ whereas the mission of the historian is to imagine the past — since history is believed only when a talented writer has invented it well. Novelists are the historians of the present; historians are the novelists of the past.”

Leys (1935-2014) is one of the last of the giants. His essays and the books on China stand among the final imaginative triumphs of our civilization.

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