Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reading Literary Classics, Again

Time and again I have been struck by the difference between people how are supposed to read literary classics, and the far less inspiring way they actually experience them--a combination of unthinking respect for their Authority, and equally unthinking boredom with the actual stuff of them.

As it happens, this is not a new situation at all.

Oscar Wilde summed up the situation almost one and a quarter centuries ago in similar terms, when he remarked that:
In Art, the public accept what has been, because they cannot alter it, not because they appreciate it. They swallow their classics whole, and never taste them. They endure them as the inevitable, and as they cannot mar them, they mouth about them.
Certainly where Shakespeare is concerned, it seemed to him "quite obvious that the public really see neither the beauties nor the defects of his plays."

Moreover, he took the view that this tendency "does a great deal of harm," the public "mak[ing] use of the classics of a country as a means of checking the progress of Art. They degrade the classics into authorities."

Some decades after, H.G. Wells observed in The Outline of History that it was "a pity that the ridiculous extravagances of scholastic admirers . . . speak of [Homer's Iliad and Odyssey] as supreme and unapproachable and so forth," for these attitudes had left the general reader's response to these worthwhile works an "awe-stricken neglect."

And so it went with every other writer enjoying a company of "scholastic admirers" prone to "ridiculous extravagances" of this sort, who insured that that part of the public which did read fiction gave their attention to figures like E. Phillips Oppenheim instead. So it still goes, long after Oppenheim himself became obscure, while his heirs advertise their novels on television.

Incidentally, I expect to have more to say on Wells' Outline in upcoming posts.

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