Thursday, June 10, 2004

what is a classicist?

today i read t.s. eliot's essay 'what is a classic?' (given as lecture to virgil society in 1944, published 1945). much to the chagrin and scorn, i suspect, of most modern commentators, he actually has the audacity to make unabashed value-judgments about literature, calling some better than others! he wears his eurocentrism on his sleeve (a bit excessively at times, to my mind). there are a number of aspects to the essay which i enjoy--for example, his attempt to formulate positive definitional criteria by which one may recognize greatness in literature. the one word he centers on to define the 'classic' is 'maturity'. unfortunately, instead of further defining this word in any rigorous fashion, he resorts to the pornography definition ('you know it when you see it'--this line of thinking has always been a little unsettling to me) with a little touch of high-handed dismissiveness:

'To define maturity without assuming that the hearer already knows what it means, is almost impossible: let us say then, that if we are properly mature, as well as educated persons, we can recognize maturity in a civilization and in a literature, as we do in the other human beings whom we encounter. To make the meaning of maturity really apprehensible--indeed, even to make it acceptable--to the immature is perhaps impossible. But if we are mature we either recognize maturity immediately, or come to know it on more intimate experience.'

This is, in the end, though, rather a small point, i think, and does not destroy the essay as a whole. he has some intriguing comments on the development of a 'common style' in the writing of a culture ('A common style is one which makes us exclaim, not "this is a man of genius using the language" but "this realizes the genius of the language") and makes some interesting comparisons of latin literature with english literature (alexander pope being the closest approximation of a 'classic' in the english language).

he crescendoes toward virgil as the epitome of what a 'classic' is, and points toward his universality, over and against the 'proviniciality' (read the essay for his definition) of writers in any modern language (this is not necessarily seen as a detriment). he writes, 'It is necessary to go the the two dead languages: it is important that they are dead, because through their death we have come into our inheritance...'. he claims that individual writers (shakespeare, pope, etc.) may have exhausted one aspect and mode of expression in the english language, but not the whole language itself, whereas virgil exhausted latin's entirety, making it impossible not to work in his shadow in the post-virgilian world. eliot gives a good impression herein of the *feeling* one gets when reading virgil, that feeling of the sheer comprehensiveness of it all.

at any rate, it is well worth reading, if for no other reason than that eliot himself writes with a masterful facility. i leave you with a final comment from him (included mostly for his use of the word 'ruffians', and also for his calling horace a 'plebeian'):

'I think that we are conscious, in Virgil more than in any other Latin poet--for Catullus and Propertius seem ruffians, and Horace somewhat plebeian, by comparison--of a refinement of manner, springing from a delicate sensibility, and particularly in that test of manners, private a public conduct between the sexes.'

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