Monday, October 10, 2005

"The test of time"

I have been and will be swamped with grading essays for this recent and approaching span of days, but I would like to leave this here for my reader(s) to think about:

Via this post at Ariel's blog, BittersweetLife comes the question: One of the prerequisites for a literary classic is usually, "It stands the test of time." But what exactly does that mean? What is Time's test? Can a work at first "flunk" that test and then "retake" it, as it were; or, for that matter, can a work at first seem to pass and THEN flunk out? Does the mere fact of a work's passing this test necessarily mean that it's worthy of our consideration? Or, another way of putting it: IS a legitimate definition of a "classic" "a work which never goes out of print"?

You may respond here or at Ariel's blog or, as he himself encourages, post your own version of this post. I'll see you around.

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11 comments:

fearful_syzygy said...

Just moments before reading this entry, I happened upon this statement by Roland Barthes:
‘“l'enseignement de la littérature” est pour moi presque tautologique. La littérature, c'est ce qui s'enseigne, un point c'est tout.’
By which I think he means that our notion of literature (or rather the institution of 'literature') is indissoluble from pedagogy. In other words, unless you can teach it, it ain't literature. Perhaps one way of perceiving the 'test' of time, whilst at the same time keeping within the scholastic meaning of 'test' which you bring up, would be to say that a classic has passed its test if it continues to be taught. For one may assume (or at least hope) that a text which continues to be studied, still has something to 'teach' the modern reader.

Raminagrobis said...

But wasn't Barthes being a little mischievous with that quote? I think what he meant was that our understanding of what literature is is inextricably bound up with what the academy, the establishment sanctions to be taught; not that what emerges from literature is what is teachable, and anything else isn't literature. Wasn't Barthes saying that what is valuable or pleasurable (or even orgasmic) in literature is precisely what evades teachability?

Right, now to read John B's link!

fearful_syzygy said...

Oh you think? That probably makes more sense, actually; I was really just trying to crowbar it into some kind of definition of 'classic', whilst avoiding the whole 'what is literature?' debate entirely. Trust you to trump my crowbar with a spanner.

Ah well, I suppose I shall have to go with Mark Twain, in that case, who, as we all know, defined a classic as 'a book which people praise and don't read'.

Raminagrobis said...

I wasn't out to trump you; in fact I think the point you made is entirely right: 'the classics', 'the canon', whatever you want to call it, is precisely what gets taught in schools and university departments. The criteria for the establishment of a 'classic' really are 'teachability' and 'jargon-bollocks-easy-write-about-ability'. The term 'classic' is an arbitrary value judgement - that's all it is. The only reason there is some leeway in the definition of a 'classic' is that academia, though as a rule profoundly conservative, can be a capricious fashion-conscious little thing. varium et mutabile semper academia!

Ariel said...

"The criteria for the establishment of a 'classic' really are 'teachability' and jargon-bollocks-easy-write-about-ability."

Tell me it ain't so. Though judging by some of the evocative, ephemeral stuff I read en route to my English degree (and my prof's inability to disect and label it neatly) I find grounds to disagree...

I may be splitting hairs, but a number of the "classics" I encountered in college were hardly stars in the easy-write-about field.

Raminagrobis said...

But easy-write-ability isn't the same thing as easy-understandability. In fact, for a work to be a classic, it has to be resistant to understanding on at least several levels! One or all of the following is essential:

-peripateia - whether incorporatated into the narrative (if any) or as a function of form.

-ambiguity - this is the Most Important Thing in any literary work.

-failure - failure of language, of interpersonal relationships, whatever, it's all good.

-self-consciousness or metatextual commentary in any form

-bit more ambiguity

And that's what makes a classic (and a winning undergraduate essay)!

Andrew Simone said...

That is depressing Raminagrobis. Although I agree with you on a practical level, academia seems to define rather than describe. But what academics ALWAYS forget is that they are describers not prescribers.
As for peripateia, that is what cause UNDERSTANDABILITY. In other words, were it not for peripateia we would not have an ephiphatic experience. Ambiguity, firstly, is the nature of language which is why writing is such a terribly difficult craft. Secondly, ambiguity may be a tool of the writer for the sake of peripateia.
Lastly, self-consciousness, while always existing has snuck its way into contemporary literature. Who remembers the antiquated teacher who forbade the use of the first person in essays. This is nearly unthinkable now, but then Montaigne did it. One thing is for sure the only people who care about self-conscious metatextual commentary are undergrad students who wish to please professors and after years of writing tripe - becoming professors themselves - become accustom to it and perpetuate the madness.

Andrew Simone said...

That came off a bit more polemical than I intended; I meant to be forceful, not harsh.

Raminagrobis said...

It's OK, overlyconscious, I didn't really take offence because I didn't understand what the hell you were talking about anyway...

;)

Andrew Simone said...

ouch, that hurt more.

René López Villamar said...

I wholeheartedly agree wiht Raminagrobis. We must not forget, for example, Joyce's reasons for creating a body of work that would entretain academicians for years and years...