Ask a graduate student in the humanities – an A(ll)B(ut)D(issertation) is who I really have in mind – what he “does” and you will likely hear something along the lines of “I do 16th century Venetian painting” or “I do 17th century French opera” or “I do 18th century English curate’s diaries.” If you hear that last one, escape as quickly as you can; you are at risk of being bored into a coma.
Period, language or location, form. Sometimes the period is replaced by a movement (Romantic), or a sub-period of a century (Restoration, Victorian), or an expansion in time (medieval, early modern). Once in a blue moon, a human is named (“I do Rembrandt’s landscape drawings”). An emendation: I assume, but do not actually know, that 20th centuryist humanities students always subdivide even more (“post-war Austrian post-serialist tone poems”).
I always start with these categories, too. This is all bedrock information for classifying a work of art. I place every work in its tradition. There may be a kind of imaginative freedom in not worrying about any of this, allowing works to fortuitously collide with each other, but the study of an artistic tradition has its own pleasures. When I wander into a reading project, like Yiddish or Portuguese literature, I am working not just on the texts but the tradition, discovering how writers play with and argue with other people’s texts. A scholar of, say, the 19th century Portuguese novel has a responsibility to read everything I am reading and then several shelves of books that I cannot read (because not in English) and do not want to read (because not as good as Eça de Queirós*).
I am beginning to sound like T. S. Eliot:
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. (“Tradition and Individual Talent”)
Please set aside the words “cannot” and “must” (“Yeah, Stearns? Make me!”). One of the pleasures of reading Eça de Queirós and Fernando Pessoa and Machado de Assis is that not only are the Portuguese and Brazilian literary traditions intertwined, but these writers were also directly responding to French and English literature. Eça even made Portugal’s complex cultural relationship with French art one of his recurring themes.
A reader might reasonably wonder if knowledge of Flaubert or Tristram Shandy is then necessary before bothering with The Maias or The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, but the effect is bidirectional. Reading A Sentimental Education affects how I read The Maias, but the reverse will also be true. The Maias (and Zola and Julian Barnes) changed Flaubert. Eliot again:
… what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them… the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.
Something similar is true for the reader. Anthony at Time’s Flow Stemmed is reading about re-reading: “Re-reading a once favourite book is potentially a perilous encounter… we re-read through the filter of every other book we have part-remembered.” But reading new books changes the old favorites, too. I have no doubt that A Sentimental Education will look different when I re-read it, but it has already changed enormously since I read it twenty years ago, now that I have read far more in Flaubert’s tradition, both the writers he was responding to and the writers who responded to him.
This is actually a continuation of my question about how to use the word “classic,” although I fear it is a bit oblique.
* But what of the books that are not in English, but are as good? Please, do not speak of those! *sob*