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Giving It Another Try

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So let me apologize, first, for yesterday.  For some reason beyond my comprehension, the program just would not work right.  I would type the post, the program would disappear and shut down, I’d reboot and find that it had only saved part–and the lesser part–or anything I’d written, and on and one and on.

I was on reboot number six when I tried to publish what I thought would be a complete but much shortened attempt at the post, only to find later on in the day that only part of it had actually published.

Okay.  We don’t actually want to get me started. 

But let’s see if I’m having better luck today, and eventually I really will get around to those nativity scenes.

I’ll stick to what I said–the Middle Ages, although far more “religious” than society now, were nowhere near the sort of monolithic, religion-only centuries the Enlightenment narrative leads us to expect.  Religion was, in that era, part of everyday life in a way it isn’t now, and for that reason there was often a lot less religiosity than at periods when religion was less automatic and more self-conscious. 

In a way, you can look at The Canterbury Tales as the example of what it is I’m talking about.  The frame was definitely religious–a pilgrimage to the tomb of Thomas a Becket–but the content of the poem as a whole and of the individual tales within it is not particularly.  Oh, there is a religious tale or two, but there are more concerned with what we would call secular subjects–love, lust, marriage, greed, and all the rest of it.  The Canterbury Tales is not an elongated morality play.

What it is, however, is a good example of one of the usual differences assumed to excist between high and low culture, at least in the realm of literature:  in a world in which the full range of character as it had existed in the plays of classical antiquity had largely disappeared, The Canterbury Tales gives us many fully rounded characters whose natures and actions are not readily attributable to stereotypical assumptions of how people should behave.

I feel like I’m putting this badly.  But all I’m saying is that the characters of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales are closer in execution to the characters in a Victorian novel (and a good one) than to the non-characters in a morality play. 

I don’t remember who it was who said that simple longevity would not be enough to make a book part of the Canon for her, but I sort of half agree with her.

The problem is that any book that lasts–uncoerced–for centuries is something we need to pay attention to, because it’s certainly hooked into something very important in the culture at large.

I’ll insist–the Canon isn’t a list of books drawn up by a literature department.  It’s the respository of the culture, and it exists whether anybody acknowledges it or not.  The first requirement is that the work should last long enough to become part of the fabric of the civilization.  And I think that longevity is a good indicator.

But the other things that put a book into the Canon–once it’s been around long enough–include technical skill in execution, and in that area The Canterbury Tales is a remarkable piece of work.  It would literally be a centuries before the general technical level of even high-art literature in English would equal what Chaucer did in this one long work.  Even the European sources Chaucer used as a basis for his stories and his form do not reach the level he did of characterization alone.

I do think that it is the case that technique contributes to longevity, at least up to a point.  For one thing, even if the general public does not take to a work, if that work is highly techniqually proficient, other writers will take to it, and incorporate what they learn from it in what they do.  That’s why James Joyce has been the enormous influence on modern fiction that he has been–even writers well down the prestige food chain have often read him, admired him and tried to copy him in at least some ways.

I think that part of what divides canonical work from noncanonical work is what I think of as the truth factor–that is, the work “rings true” generation after generation–and the comfort factor.

This is, in a way, where I was going to get into the nativity scenes, but you can see it in a lot of different areas, and a lot of different ways.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has an El Greco Crucifixion, and there is a lot you can say about it, in terms of technique and otherwise, but I think the one thing everybody would agree on is that you wouldn’t want it hanging in your living room. 

Christianity can be a very comforting religion, and it has been made more comforting over the centuries by people wo concentrate on happy baby Jesus in the manger, angels who look like five year old Christmas pageant stars, and even Crucifixions carefully cleaned up of all the blood and pain–or, parodoxically, perhaps, on scenes with lots of blood and bathos, so that what should look painful looks merely grotesque. 

But the El Greco Crucifixion is not grotesque.  Like Michaelangelo’s Pieta, it is simply nearly unbearably real.

And yet, in the middle of all this, I don’t want to suggest that better-educated people, or more literate people, are somehow less prone to falsifying and prettifying human existence than people with less cultural training or range.  And I really don’t want to suggest that about richer or more highly placed people vis a vis poorer and less highly placed ones. 

Maybe all I’m trying to say is that looking life in the face and without illusions is a minority taste, but a valuable trait to have, and the best art–the very best of it–is the art that does that for us, that helps us do that for ourselves.

And that includes both the hard look at what we are and the unmodified call for us to be what we ought to be.

I may be blithering, here.

But that, above, is the third plank in deciding if one work of art or literature is better than another.

I’m going to try to post this now, and with any luck, it will post, all the way.

Written by janeh

November 19th, 2009 at 11:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Giving It Another Try'

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  1. “The first requirement is that the work should last long enough to become part of the fabric of the civilization. ”

    Dr. Seuess’ body of work is or is coming up on 50 years. I’d say he’s become part of the fabric of our civilization, at least as much as Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm.

    Part of the Canon? Hmmm.


    19 Nov 09 at 12:39 pm

  2. I should point out that however comforting the baby in the manger and the cherubs stuck on the stable roof are, the core of Christianity – and any comfort it supplies – comes from the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Let me see if I understand where you’re going here – we, or some of us, sometimes go for comfort rather than reality – the sentimental scenes and stories version of religion, for example, and perhaps crime novels in which the villain is invariably caught and punished. And this is not truth – truth is the hard look at what we really are, without illusions.

    You might have something there, if I have understood you correctly. I do think you get both impulses in the same person. There are days to stare unflinchingly at the evil people do and days to curl up with a good crime novel or romance.

    I think there’s a danger if you over-emphasize the looking life in the face ++thing, at least the way some people do it. There’s sometimes a tendency to act as if something is nasty, hard to accept and generally disturbing, it must be more true or real just because it’s nasty etc. I can’t help suspecting that some modern art falls under that category, as do the types of political theorists who end up thinking their ideology must be true because see how many people have died or been murdered from it!

    This is a dangerous fallacy. Yes, if we look at live as clearly and honestly as we can manage, we’ll see nastiness. We’ll also see joy and courage.

    Can a good book aid the process? Sure. If it can be read that way. If the reader can make the connection between the story and reality.


    19 Nov 09 at 12:41 pm

  3. Qualities that determine works included in the canon, then, are longevity, technique and truth. The first component is easily recognized but what about the others? I believe the second is objective because most writing texts emphasize (or did at one time) good diction and syntax as well as correct grammar and punctuation. Truth is a more difficult to define. Aren’t the final lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” kind of a kop out? A great deal of what is considered truth is anything but beauty. One of my former creative writing teachers, whom I truly despised, harped a lot on that “old dog truth.” Does looking life in the face mean the same thing for everyone? Or is it still a question of how you perceive it?


    19 Nov 09 at 4:43 pm

  4. “Does looking life in the face mean the same thing for everyone? Or is it still a question of how you perceive it?”

    That’s an interesting point. I think that there is truth, reality, whatever you want to call it, and that is what all of us are looking for when we talk of “looking life in the face”. But we aren’t all equally capable of perceiving the truth, or of understanding it when we see it. This is partly because we all have our own blind spots where we can see nothing and an inability to understand some of what we do see, and partly because truth – any truth, about the physical world or the human heart – tends to be very complex. Two people can look at the same troubled person, and each can see different parts of the truth of the life of that person, while that person can only see part of the truth of his or her own life – which might or might not be partly or entirely congruent with the observations and interpretations of either observer. A truly observant and wise person or one with a lot of relevant experience sees more of the truth, and sees it more clearly than someone, however well-meaning, with less insight or less knowledge and experience. And that’s where the claim of the value of literature comes in – it can provide insight and at least vicarious experience, thus improving our ability to spot truth and understand its meaning.

    I most emphatically do NOT believe that truth depends on how you perceive it, or that there are different ‘truths’ for different people.


    20 Nov 09 at 6:34 am

  5. “A truly observant and wise person or one with a lot of relevant experience sees more of the truth, and sees it more clearly than someone, however well-meaning, with less insight or less knowledge and experience.”
    And how is it determined who is an “observant and wise person and has a lot of relevant experience?” By the person or persons who feel that they alone have a corner on truth and relevant experience? Ordained by God? A part of the constitution? Is there a universal definition of wisdom and relevant experience?
    Pontius Pilate and Nietzsche had decidedly diffent slants than the absolutism indicated by “A truly observant and wise person or one with a lot of relevant experience sees more of the truth, and sees it more clearly than someone, however well-meaning, with less insight or less knowledge and experience.”


    20 Nov 09 at 10:46 am

  6. Since we (in the sense of humans, not just you and me!) are incapable of fully recognizing much less understanding truth, those questions would seem almost irrelevant in a world of people of varying capabilities, none of whom are perfectly able to understand anything. And neither great perceptiveness nor great wisdom are necessary for someone to be a human being worthy of respect.

    But we need truth to be able to both choose the best aims for our lives and to figure out how to achieve them. I think the best we can hope for is to learn as much as we can from as many sources as we can before we decide – and if we decide that our view of the truth is better – more true – than that of some Great Man, Nietzsche or any other, so be it. I don’t consider Pilate a Great Man in the same sense since he was merely the governor of a minor Roman province long ago.

    Of course, (descending to practicalities with a crash) since we live in groups, we have to have some way of deciding collectively what aspects of the truth we will accept and live by, and how we’ll guard our society from the misguided efforts of the well-meaning who want to enforce their little scrap of the truth on the rest of us by force while leaving it open to beneficial changes urged by other well-meaning people.

    There’s no excuse not to search for truth and understanding, and no excuse to pretend that some people are not a lot wiser and know a lot more of the truth than others. I could even probably come up with criteria in some spheres – someone who comes up with a theory that explains the biochemical breakdown that causes some disease and can be proven by the development of a successful treatment undoubtedly knows a lot more of the truth about disease that I do. A successful politician knows more about the truth of the operation of our political system than I, who probably couldn’t get elected dogcatcher, do. Whether the politician’s – or the research scientist’s – views on the truth of human nature and how people should live are closer to the truth than mine are is more debatable and harder to quantify. But there are still ways to get close to an answer.

    If someone proposes a particular view of human nature or morality to me, I can question it. What evidence there is that this is true (or would improve society)? What chain of reasoning led to it? Does it fit with other principles I have accepted? I can come to a conclusion as to whether this person is closer to the truth on the particular issue than I am. In fact, I see it as a duty to consider such truth claims carefully, at least the first time I encounter them.

    OTOH, insulting or making fun of someone I think has less insight than I do is just rude, and there are some situations in which it may be morally acceptable to agree to disagree, since the disagreement is unlike to be injurious to the individual or others.


    20 Nov 09 at 1:10 pm

  7. And you certainly have the right to THINK so.


    20 Nov 09 at 1:17 pm

  8. As I recall, when we studied The Canterbury Tales, it was a specific study of the human failings of all the characters (save one). When you read the characterizations of each of the pilgrims, if you look, they are each flawed. (An example, as I recall, was that the nun was wearing lipstick). I believe that one of the members of the pilgrims was actually a “good” example of appropriate propriety. It’s been a while so I could be mistaken, but all of the others showed human flaws which undermined their piousness and virtue.


    21 Nov 09 at 4:12 am

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