Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tradition and Individual Blogging - the past is altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past

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 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 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*


  1. In reading Irish Short Stories, my current project, you can see the giants of Irish lit looking down from Mount Parnassus and shaping 21th century stories. one reason I like the work of Kenzaburo Oe so much is he shows us how literary works shape and reshape the traditions in which they are read.

  2. I really like the idea of setting a work (whatever the form) in its tradition, at least knowing where it belongs to. The idea of knowing all about the tradition is overwhelming (impossible?), but knowing that the response of literature is bi-directional is reassuring. I imagine the importance we assign such placement is relative to our interests as a reader, but then again no work exists in a vacuum. Even an amateur musician finds value in knowing the tradition of their art form, so perhaps we short change ourselves as readers by not thinking about this more? (I think here too of general history and culture, not just the written tradition.)

  3. Two of my favorite examples in support of your comment that "the study of an artistic tradition has its own pleasures" have to do with the origins of Romance language vernacular poetry and the literature of medieval Spain in Castilian Spanish. In the first instance, you have a clear case of a now "minority" language (Occitan, Provençal) influencing all later Romance language poetry traditions via Dante, Petrarch and countless others--and later influencing non-Romance language giants like Pound and Eliot in the 20th century. In the second instance, you have a case of a "national" language tradition heavily influenced and cross-pollinated at the time of its creation by Arabic and Hebrew literatures at their heights and also in dialogue with medieval Latin literature and all the other languages used in the Iberian peninsula and the south of France at the time. Supremely interesting subjects--well, at least for me!

  4. overwhelming (impossible?) On the one hand, yes; on the other, do you keep up with The Little Professor. That is how it is done.

    There is a reason a high proportion of humanities scholars write their masterworks in their old age. It can take a lifetime of study to assemble all of the little pieces.

    Richard's examples are almost typical of medieval literatures and show why the study of medieval literature is so fascinating - and so difficult. Just the language requirements are so demanding. But the results are wild.

    Japan is similarly interesting - the adoption of and resistance to Chinese influence early on, but then somehow Japanese literature falls into disrepair in the 19th century, only to be revitalized at the end of the century by a bunch of young writers all hopped up on European, especially French, novels.

    For all of the achievement of the Victorian writers, it was France that was the center of the literary universe for most of the 19th century.

    1. No, I am unfamiliar with that blog, but I will check it out, thank you. In some ways (most) it's reassuring, actually, to know that there's so much to learn and read--we never have to worry about running out, at least.

  5. My ABD spiel about what I do was "the way in which certain French WWII authors used medieval imagery in their work as a way of talking about the contemporary culture and political situation." I talked about two novelists, an essayist, and a poet. I still find it fascinating!

    My point is that this cross-pollination (thanks, Richard) between ages and authors takes place all the time. You have to read an awful lot before you start to realize you haven't read everything (cue Joseph Epstein on wishing to be better read than dead.) Having read only French and German during undergrad and grad school, I am spending my years now catching up on English and American (and Chinese and Japanese and Arabian and Persian and Spanish and Greek and Roman and Portuguese, alleluia, amen) works I never touched. Finding the way these talk together has been one of the great delights, perhaps the greatest, of the past few years. It's where my ABD spiel started, and now I see a glimmer of the rest.

  6. Just to be clear, The Little Professor specializes in books to not read, books no one else reads, or should read. But that's real, deep, scholarship.

    It is a shame that literary history has lost so much of its status. I suppose it is so much fun, pace Jenny and Richard, that people figure it barely counts as work.