Friday, October 21, 2005

"The test of time": a response

I have a moment to post a response to the question I raised in this post a while back (thanks again to Ariel's blog, BitterSweetLife, for prompting all this). I must say that I was pleased to see the lively dialogue that occurred in the comments--thanks to all who visited and posted. Also of note is this discussion, on Raminagrobis's own blog.

To sum up the two big themes that get raised in the comments on my post (which, as Fearful Syzygy and Grobie note, are difficult to separate from each other), they are 1) the extent to which a work passes "the test of time" is the extent to which that work remains (or is deemed to be) "teachable;" and 2) the academy, via the "canon," sets itself up as the arbiter in those matters. Grobie and Rene Lopez in different ways also raise the idea that "difficulty" probably figures into all this as well, the idea being that if it doesn't take someone with a PhD to reveal a book's pleasures to the intellectually-unwashed, then it is of lesser value and so won't get taught.

One comment, and one response:

The comment is that I think that there's something emasculating about the term "classic": that is, to call a book that is, in a figurative sense, to give it a tooled-leather cover and gilt-edged pages and then put it on a shelf, admired but unopened. It becomes a trophy rather than a challenge to its possessor. Flying in the face of that image, though, is Harold Bloom's definition of a great book (and I'm paraphrasing here): one that makes the world around you look strange. While there's something monolithic-sounding about "the test of time," Bloom's definition implies that, in order to pass "the test of time," new readers, no matter where they are, will continue to have their respective worlds made strange. That, of course, is something that can as easily happen--in fact, may be more likely to happen--outside the classroom as inside it, since it's the academy's goal, via not just instruction but theorizing, to make familiar the strange. To explain it, in other words. To domesticate it.

And now the response: What's interesting about all this is that, except for Rene's reference to Joyce's being aware that most of Ulysses' readers would likely be the tweed-jacket crowd and Mr. Syzygy's Twain quote, no one seems to have addressed the issue of audience as it figures into the "Test of Time" criterion. Being a product and member of the academy myself, I'm well aware of those debates over the politics of a work's or an author's canonicity, how, historically, works by women and minority writers were kept out of college classrooms because, the thinking went, they didn't deal with Big Ideas and then in the late 80s/early 90s, according to cultural conservatives, the resulting movements of inclusion have caused the pendulum to swing too far the other way. But it's equally clear to me that running parallel to that debate was and is the fact that some works and authors enjoy a healthy reputation not because of but despite the academy's regard for them. Poe and Twain, even if the universities passed a moratorium tomorrow on teaching them, would not suffer much, they are so popular among the masses, so they don't count. I'm thinking in particular of an author like John Steinbeck and his novel The Grapes of Wrath. Unless things have changed lately, this novel, once widely taught in high school and college when I was in high school, no longer is; yet its easy availability in various editions is clearly testament to its enduring appeal. Some would argue that precisely the fact that it WAS widely taught in high schools at one time is a sign that it's somehow less worthy of being taught in college . . . but more and more these days I keep running into students who have read Faulkner in high school--and, for that matter, Shakespeare--and it seems highly unlikely that the academy will deem those writers' works unworthy of their attention any time soon.

Or what about a novel that, on the one hand, still enjoys mass appeal but, on the other, was once wholeheartedly embraced by colleges but is now approached by some faculty with a certain wariness, if at all? I'm speaking here of my nation's greatest novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. To my mind, there's no more teachable novel in the American canon: its vocabulary is literally that of a young teenager, but it raises questions that we as a nation and as individuals are no better at answering now than we were in 1885--and I'm not speaking only of race here. This is one classic that, to borrow my image from above, fights off emasculation--that is, easy categorization. As I tell my students when I teach it, it isn't a racist novel, but neither is it as politically correct as some would have us believe. Huck Finn passes the test of time with flying colors because, through its setting and characters and themes, it still speaks to us--and by that, I mean that it makes us take a very good, hard look at ourselves if we're taking it at all seriously. Though you can find children's editions of it, we haven't outgrown it.

Perhaps to pass (and to keep on passing) the test of time, then, means that the questions a work poses are ones that we still don't know the answers to (and you may define "we" as broadly as you wish). I know that that makes me sound like a big ol' warm and fuzzy, relatively harmless humanist, but there you go.

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Ariel said...

"a great book: one that makes the world around you look strange."

I like the simplicity of that criterion. It says a lot without needing a 12-point outline.

I also like the way you pull "audience" into the mix. A book that continues to turn our eyes toward profound, irresolvable (?) and highly worthwhile questions must be recognized.

Now, if we could just find a way to merge the 5-6 personal takes that were given into one smoothly-operating hermeneutical tool... ;)

fearful_syzygy said...

I think the Bloom quote is similar to what I was trying to imply with the Barthes quote before I got waylaid with the whole teaching thing. Just to recap: Barthe claims that 'teaching literature' is a tautology because literature, by definition, should teach itself. Thus, to my mind, in order for a book to have lasting appeal, it must have something to 'teach' the reader, regardless of whether or not it can be taught academically.
Naturally, it is too limiting only to posit that the 'canon' as studied in school or at university constitutes all the world's classics. You bring up Huckleberry Finn, but another simple example would be The Wind in the Willows or The House on Pooh Corner. You don't read children's literature at school (although you may find certain PhD students working on it), but that doesn't mean that those two, or, say, Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland, aren't classics.
Will children still go nuts for Harry Potter in a hundred years' time? Only time will tell...