Gateway to ideas; 3; A Redefinition of the Classics
Gateway to ideas. Gateway to ideas. A new series of conversations in which ideas are discussed in relation to reading. Today's programme wanted a redefinition of the classics is moderated by Ralph Backlund managing editor of Horizon magazine. For our discussion today our guests are Stephen Marcus associate professor of English at Columbia University and editor of the Partisan Review and the author of the book dickens from Pickwick to Dombey. Our other guest is Elizabeth Hardwick novelist short story writer and critic. I miss her because one of the founders of The New York Review of Books and remains as advisory Editor her own most recent book in a work of criticism called it a view of my own. I like that title as hardwood because it seems to telescope the
titles of two other minor classics Was that deliberate. Well I suppose it was though I didn't actually I wasn't quite conscious of combining Virginia Woolf's A room mile and Forester's a room with a view but I think that actually that's what I did and no I did not. Well it works but at the same time I slipped into something which is very easy to do I said a minor classic which means that this word classic is looming slippery one and has every kind of ramification. Do we need a redefinition of it. Mr. Marcus I don't think we need a redefinition of it really I think that the definition of it. Originally is difficult enough. And useful after the fact I don't know whether the definition really answers to our sense of what it is. Well however we feel about ourselves and apparently somebody feels that redefinitions and I checked this and the two editions of Webster's New International Dictionary and in Webster
to the one we all grew up with classic noun the very first definition is the work of the highest class and of acknowledged excellence. Turn to Webster 3 and the first definition of classic known is the work of literature of ancient Greece and Rome. It's one a one B the body of such writings that would be in the plural. One S. Kagan the student of the literature of Greece and Rome and so only we get down to the second definition do we get anything like our own work that is classic and it was an example of this they give a sentence his manual of botany has become a classic among scientists unquote. Or to be a work especially literature art or music meriting the highest respect. That's the old definition has been pushed way down the line of what is supposed to happen. Well I thought it isn't really part of the general trend of increasing relativism that this new dictionary has been accused of somebody. So as a first definition in the form of additional work of the highest class
it probably probably ended up as a kind of take that in Webster 3 This would be demoted to last. Oh Webster 3 a broad read fond of classic quotes am oh car. Well what's your definition of a classic not hard with a look of the word rally as Varrick corrupt but still it's a very useful word and in its corrupt uses it it's a good word even not classic clothes and so on the word wouldn't be so popular if we didn't know what it man it means. Well when you say of course classic prose that means things some sort of. Pattern that as is used over and over again but that doesn't have anything to do with books but it is a very difficult work a very difficult word when you think of the first of all it means how supposed to most people the ancient classics of Greece and Rome. Well that's a specific meaning that Webster who was brought to the surface.
Why do you say I'm studying the classics that's what you would mean I think that be the sort of generally accepted meaning that you were studying Greek and Roman wouldn't it. Yes I think so but that doesn't mean that it's the class that's the classics but I lash that I class like us you know in England for example the great horse races are called the classics. US will be out here every day just football and yes there's a there's a book by an English philosopher Michael up shop. In fact it's one of the two or three books he's written it's called A Guide to the classics. It's about horse racing. Well I don't think that absolute excellence is always a characteristic of a classic. Perhaps some sort of usefulness I suppose that it's the highest star and somehow try to do something you can't learn in another place. And also survival is terribly unwelcome you have excuse me I go
back to Harvard just to take up the first point you say absolute excellence is probably not a requirement you mean by that that. A classic need not be absolutely excellent or that that is not enough to make it a classic. Well you could say that manic classics that they're well they're all wrong. Just record of errors and not such as the books of the past The Anatomy of Melancholy medical classics and so on so. But they are excellent in their survey of past presidents past by whichever classic cookbook. Well I doubt if you have a classy queasiness they have in France Well you could have a classical but have to be then it would have to be not because it's a cookbook or because it's written by a certain person that's a lot and I don't have a complete But I was being passed about. Well I think we shouldn't spend too much time on the word because it is a word that has vast numbers Well I think what I mean why it is a matter of fact out because there are clearly many kinds of classics now. Is a book
of France plays a classic immortal Mr.. Well it depends on I want to answer using the word and I would say that in the most general sense a classic is of course immortal and one particular way that to me it on the right the most interesting thing I looked interesting problem really about a classic is how much survives. That is. What one finds is that these works which we call classics have the mysterious power of renewing themselves from age to age and from generation to generation. And as they renew themselves what I think is most interesting about it is that they change they become literally different works from what they were originally. Take something very obvious like say like eat APUs Rax or Hamlet. Those works have been classic for a long long time but the eight of us Rex to that exist today are the hamlet that exist today is as much a living ply classic as it was when
they were originally produced but is it not recognizably the same play in some sense too. Not if we don't mean the fabric has changed other words have not changed the way we look at it but I want apprehension of it and therefore it in so far as it exists. I. Have also stated this seems to me the most peculiar quality one of the most peculiar qualities of a classic on how it survived is that it keeps changing its identity. Apparently in some way or it has within it results says. Which transform it as people read it or people reading it transform it in some way. Such as when I was let's say that if you read the history of the criticism of the Shakespeare's tragedies especially of Hamlet every age defines itself by Rand typing Shakespeare's great play what is this this is one of the things I suppose that a classic can do then only can do but would you say Mr. Moggs that if it couldn't do that and had little chance of becoming a classic in a sense of the dead classics in the great sense yes it would be a dead classic then or become something to be read I suppose in a more specialized way in a
different different context as a very good example. Of it. I know that I'm speaking about this before with MS.. It was hard work. The performance of King Lear. That is being played. Play we will Schofield that Paul Schofield production is a very remarkable thing and it's remarkable by virtue of the fact that somebody made a connection between Samuel Beckett and King Lear and stage the great middle scenes around the heat and the mad scenes in the style of waiting for God or endgame or something like that. I when I saw it saw it and I would think that I had always felt suddenly became you know in a way once or blasted just sitting naked naked stage and crawling around and people hanging around like characters and baggage and suddenly I what one felt about things and kingly it became much clearer and much stronger and kingly for me at any rate I think but it was renewed in its identity as a as a classic by virtue of the fact that somebody had discovered a modernity and it was this one third
use Shakespeare to boast of this kind of argument because I suppose who's played the best of them anyway. The supreme example of the kind of thing that every generation has seen through so much. Well let's talk to Lester were. There other things like Dunn's poetry rights and sever their ads when that was not considered one of the great classical moments of English poetry and they are now these classical things they do change some things last for a while and have an immense interest that's what makes that for to us so interesting I think just to make this clear that was hard because I was done with his own time for theology or Salmons or when he was a great poet and but the 19th century lost interest in him I think that's right as Mr. Marcus Yeah the ranking centuries wrote an 18th century of his particular kind of obscurity which was that as T.S. Eliot I suppose was more important than not of one else and bringing him to back to modern poetry.
And so these things are always changing and the fact that something is considered a classic and then drops away from public interest doesn't mean that a remain forever these they change all the time one great critic one right writer can revive a whole tradition now or the classic if we think of that as not necessary not necessarily now I mean I really happened yes yes. Oh it was the same sort of joe you recognize class that you think is permanently dead it would you have been true. What used to be a classic. Yes but that is probably going to. Well let's let's take something like all the Fairy Queen fans there was lots of lost people think it's dead because it's not read by the public anymore. Is that a done classic kind of anymore in a sense in the sense that. A large public is going to read someday the Fairy Queen I think it's as dead as a doornail. But in the sense that poets and students and
people who are interested in poetry English poetry must read the fairy queen and must come I must feel a life in it. It's more than just the Pentagon tickle device I want it or yes I am for I would say a perfect example maybe even a better example of a very clean as what happened to the novels of Scott. Yeah something like that. They're not they're not part of my dad I don't think but I haven't read them for a long time. It would tell you it would take something very large to bring them back to life stop. I think whatever you know whatever life exists in them is apparently not accessible right now to us the way we look at literature demands that we make of our of a classic Josh. Those does I did that resonate with what's going on in Scott. And yet when you consider that all through the 19th century he was thought to be as great as Shakespeare almost understands not just because he was the great popular writer the peer out and we are great popular writers now that we can conceive of those as classics of the future.
No no no Ed but it was this is one of the interesting things that was one of those immense missed estimations that nobody ever had a set right by the way nobody ever had to stand up a critic I had to stand up and say Walter Scott is no good at all it's just that he did that a lot also just subsided not naturally. This is this is something very different I think than than the kind of thing that goes on to that when I mean this definition of a class that was sort of working toward or that we all assume we understand is the element of popularity of Central does I mean it doesn't have to be read by others and the experts. Why not if it has to be read by the next guy to have all the classics now because you don't have a vast public that will be right in saying except can tap read things and I don't have a sense maybe there are classics but we all know that there are no I mean I don't think the number of people reading the book it's more are they sought of crucial interest that even the few can bring to it the numbers.
So I dream of I very hard not important aside from a very few things I'd say like Shakespeare or like Dickens or something. Which people do read in their own right but those are very very few. In number. The classics that we now are not kept alive by general readers but they kept alive by institutions of learning and people who go through them and then continue reading and are interested in books. There are as I say a few writers such as Shakespeare and Dickens that you find all sorts of ordinary people still reading on their own people who don't read other things sometimes but have some interest in that. But generally I think that's hard work and it's quite packed. About about what how the classics are kept kept the kept alive by the attention paid to them of that back crucial people who care. College isn't the whole sort of structure that has to devote itself to stop teaching the young
and so on and then by riders themselves who keep these things and it was the writers who do most of it I guess the writers who do well enough not critics do it in their own way that they are I suppose caretakers but it's the writers who really can make things new Penryn know it precisely by the new attention that they give to a work of art from a previous era such as TS Eliot with done with done when other was the notion of the nineteenth century or the idea of the ideal perhaps I'm honored in the breach than otherwise that what that really cultivated person sat around reading the classics. That he was supposed to draw enjoyment from them and profit from them. I don't think anyone does it now. We go back to what we call classical The Shakespeare we go back to later classics like Tolstoy once in a while for pleasure but not really very often. Is this possibly because a great bulk of material that comes out is now so much greater than it was. There is much more to read
and having once done one's duty by the so-called classics we don't do it again. That's partly that I think it's also partly the nature of the nature of education that change what you're referring to as a model of English gentleman who went to school learned great Latin and spent his time spent just as leisure time reading these classic Matthew Arnold for example and I for the for all his life after he left school read great for half an hour every day reading his great testament half and I read to keep his great going this is a very different idea. One of the classic end to a work reading is for then we have today we don't. I suppose most most of us don't think that reading a large part of our age should take place in a foreign language. Most of us aren't able to redefine himself so I think the second is that I think it's interesting that because the reading doesn't take place in a foreign language a lot of us read I think much thought it was right we read for instruction and for use as much as we read for
pleasure that is there is the impulse of getting something out. That information of our information of a peculiar kind because we read classics for this kind of information. Because I feel you know that. The classics all the great body of people who can and have read Greek and Latin poetry and drama and all the English classics and I do have the feeling and classics and which is that these classics are immensely enjoyable and that those that wouldn't be true of a work on Madison. But what of nearly everything else in our philosophy on it. They are too in a way. The thing I think some people feel who've never experienced the either desire or the kind of education that gave them some training in the classics they have the feeling that these things are done whereas they are the greatest sort of continuing Joe I from far reader.
They really are I'm sure when Matthew Arnold read his Latin and Greek there and oh it was the way we enjoy reading a magazine every week so it was not a duty imposed in a puritanical honor but we don't enjoy it we're in the same way I'd like you to feel that I do still do it after I die they wouldn't do it. You kept up except perhaps teachers but there are a few specialist who don't but they reading for instance of what we call and. Ledford base the sort of great modern classics the Russian and even Joe ice and Proust and all that. Well of course we read those for pleasure but I think different kind of pleasures and also as a Democrat of class I think that when Matthew Arnold read the great There was a kind of simple pleasure that he got in the reading of it that we have. I'm not saying that this is a great loss necessarily liking a descriptive difference that we
have foregone when you're set on re dusty Esky approached or Joyce. I'm not saying there isn't great pleasure in it but it's a different kind reading out of the end I had been studying I was very much like re reading the possessed I think the Holocaust I think not because you know if you remember what the kind of thing the way if you the way Arnold would describe the great cities with the pre Nietzschean race he was a smiling breaks the sun he breaks the healthy great they were and I would also how much pleasure he simply got simply out of the reading the Greek itself we brought you in and saw his eyes exercise almost Yes subtle and yes I mean as a Manson diamond like anything on the nose. But that point came up here when Mrs. Hardwick said the great modern classics and I suddenly realized that up until that point every classically mentioned that had been written before that middle of the 19th century. It which it confers about the idea of age well now can we have a modern We do have modern classics we all think they're modern classics but what how are they different from the older classics. What makes the modern classical opposed and one that's acceptable enough
time for one thing. Part of the how do you see is about to say this is going to be a class where you can't for instance it's possible I don't think it would quite happen this way but suppose someone like camming Lai who is an immense figure in the American law he might take a place like measures a for a buying are the novels of Israel they are some of those perhaps not the best examples but we don't really know about someone whose career is only in the last 30 or 40 years however the Russian novel has lasted long enough and it seems almost universal. The approval and the amount of interest in the amount of sustenance and Joe I that's been derived from it would indicate that all those books of those four or five writers are classic. One doesn't feel that there's a single dissenting voice like that not about the rock I don't know I don't run field even without hearing it that there are that they could be and often will be dissenting voices about
something like Hemingway and the caps they were talking about. There were dissenting voices about the Russians of the time with another. Yash ABA or was it a matter of just playing one against another Prince Henry James preferred to gain of two to Tolstoy and not some people didn't like Boston and I would not I don't know but they didn't like it not in the sense that they said it was that they didn't like it in the sense that they were overpowered by it and didn't like the quality of what they were making a different kind of judgment nobody would say it wasn't it wasn't a great thing. No they probably Pinsent those books a supreme compliment of judging on the basis of their ideas rather than of the style. Yes and those are. As a matter of fact that this is a totally different subject but it does suggest something about a classic book it seems to me when you go back to any Russian novel if you go back to one of the earlier the lemon toughen you don't have to stay with the biggest names of all they all have a quality which you recognize immediately as something classic but as I said I think among one things the Supreme naturalness of the Russian novel. Anything that happens there seems to be perfectly natural but how eccentric in that in an American setting
in Arghandab Valley now it's all nature I mean it's a little jealous sometimes of everything in life which. Well that's why I feel that the Russian novel is really the peak of the novel in all cop dramas because it added to this sort of plot that all the teeming life of Dickens in the English novel this tremendous sense of naturalness. It could include. And yet they were they don't have unwieldy plots it's all just nature working itself out in this immense way. Flirting does the F-keys nature you know them best of all we all are spiritual and demons when I think we don't need to be a Russian novelist as we are. There's no argument about but what about says someone like Thomas my son you know my love. Yeah I'm absolutely crazy about him but many people do not like him including young Germans and so on. Now whether he will be widely read 20 years from now 30 years and I don't know.
Well I think I might my opinion is that it will be what I think is what is most interesting about but bring out mon is that he was a writer who set out to be a classic yes. I had very much the idea from the beginning I want a classic was and he almost virtually had a formula but you could feel it you know and you can feel him cooking up. And shall the story is laid out as a classic site with classical allusions let's I like that in Venice or the magic mountain and you feel that that Mon. Almost peculiarly among modern writers has taken has grown to be what it is to be a classic and has somehow written his works almost with that in mind. I'm sure that some readers resent that as a matter of just I don't know what I wanted it. If it had worked it would be grotesque but it did work really because he had math ability to create characters and great. So this brings up another point. Is it necessary that we you mention mine is manifested as it is as somebody who's probably going to be a classical sentry isn't
necessary for a classic that to have some concern for form because all the people we've mentioned really are people these are all books in which form is important. Are there any classics which are formless and unconscious outpourings I mean structured part of the classics. Why can't I do the whole element of deliberate attention to yours. Your materials and you don't play well I can't there's such a now and I would have a different notion that we have no magic formula. No I don't I want to keep that out. I mean a classic in a sense doesn't also have to have a satisfying structure. Oh yes there is no question in my mind that it has to have a satisfying structure all of it. That structure can be very complex and not symmetrical and neat but it can be unwieldy arm primly to be primitive you know in Beowulf for example something with a primitive structure and primitive way of dealing with things I've thought. As are other things for example. Nobody would say that a novel like Dusty Eskies the possessed is anything less than a great
classic and yet the structure of this twisted and tortured there are all sorts of things going on. Yes but it's like you said it's a manufactured I would say manufacture that's a better way but it is a structure anyway loose only it's part of a very sophisticated when I am up I much rather that the structure is weak and I suppose you would have to say yes but you know what you're implying I think it's true that a really good sophisticated and creative literary mind can only conceive of things in terms of its a structure where the meaning is always there in it but some classical things are written by unconscious people who are not sophisticated and who have some tremendous outpouring I'm stunned they kept thinking Bunyan. Yeah it's possible yeah sort of but that has classical form that is unless you're out of the Bible it seems to me we all know pretty well and are able to tell that. Recognize elements of a classic in a book. Oh which must mean that even though any writer falls into a trough after his death and
then comes up again can you think of any book which is now regarded as a classic which was never from the time was written thought highly of me. Done what was an example of man was thought highly about at this time then forgotten and then came back to what a classic has to be recognized at the time it's written does it not know how I think. Why not see a radically I don't think theoretically but actually usually those in the know. I think someone is sad and I feel there's fire i important that as many classics have been buried as survive and I feel that's absolutely true that there are books that have equal merit and works of art that somehow have been lost. Oh well well that's physical survival were their courses Well they were imperfect picture come up the whole thing is well it is very complex because it also has to do with things like Translation. I think of something like the works of Kleist which I've just you know only in the last few years been translated into English. Well he's a great classic. What he wasn't. Yes for a while but not only recently that
as I buried him for a while hope but he never existed in English before and was translated a few years ago he exists now in English and became a classic. Just like that just by virtue of the fact I was translated I becomes an exception. Well I want you to think you know where which brings us back or would you point to the classic sequence of vitality I think is that you have something to say to every generation of readers and that in order to be a classic it must have survived over some period of time. You agree must continue to survive and must continue to survive. Well I think we all agree that we don't need a new definition of the classics we all owe very well what they are. You have been listening to gateway to ideas a new series of conversations in which ideas are discussed in relation to reading today's program. Wanted a redefinition of the classics as presented Elizabeth Hardwick author and one of the founders and presently advisory editor of The New York Review of Books and
Stephen Marcus associate professor of English at Columbia University and author of a forthcoming book on Dickens the moderator was Ralph Backlund managing editor of Horizon magazine. To extend the dimensions of today's program for you a list of the books mentioned in the discussion as well as others relevant to the subject has been prepared. You may obtain a copy from your local library or by writing to gateway to ideas. Post Office Box 6 for 1 Time Square Station New York and please enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope that is Box 6 for 1 Time Square Station New York gateway to ideas is produced for national educational radio under a grant from the National Home Library Foundation. The programs are prepared by the National Book Committee and the American Library Association in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters
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