Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Adam Kirsch and James Parker discuss whether art should aspire to timelessness.
By Adam Kirsch
If you Google “Homer” and “bees,” you get images of Homer Simpson, not quotations from the “Iliad.”
In the early Renaissance, a writer who longed for immortality knew that his best bet was to write in Latin. After all, the humanist intellectuals of that era were obsessed with the Latin style of writers like Cicero and Virgil, who had lived a millennium and a half before; why wouldn’t the readers of the year 3000 still be reading and writing the same classical language? Latin was timeless, in a way that vernacular tongues like Italian and French couldn’t hope to be. Following this logic, Poliziano composed his “Manto” in Latin, and Petrarch did the same with his epic “Africa.” Today, of course, those works are known only to a few specialists in Neo-Latin literature. It is Petrarch’s Italian lyrics, his sonnets to his beloved Laura — along with vernacular works by Dante and Rabelais, Cervantes and Montaigne — that went on to influence the course of European literature.
The fate of the Neo-Latin writers, who were defeated by time because they aimed too directly for timelessness, teaches a lesson that modern writers have had to learn again and again. When Wordsworth, at the beginning of the 19th century, mocked the artificial diction of English poetry and dared to write about real figures from contemporary life — demobilized soldiers, tramps, “idiot” children — he was subjected to vicious abuse by critics. Surely, they argued, poetry was a timeless realm, in which diction and subject matter were supposed to be elevated and generalized; how could the mere anecdotes of Wordsworth’s “Lyrical Ballads” be real poetry? Again, a hundred or so years later, shocked readers objected to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” for including props of contemporary life, like motorcar horns and music-hall lyrics. Yet today it is precisely these poets who are the classics, while their more conventionally poetic rivals are forgotten.
There is something perpetually counterintuitive about the idea that the local is the royal road to the universal. If the goal of art is to speak to different kinds of people, across barriers of time and space, then it would seem logical for the artist to treat the lowest common denominators of human experience — the things that are the same for everyone, everywhere. For a very long time, that meant the standard of art should be nature. Homer, Virgil and Milton could all use similes comparing a crowd of men (or, in Milton’s case, fallen angels) to an agitated swarm of bees, because the way bees act never changes. But in the modern world, we are alienated from nature in ways that earlier generations could never have imagined: How many city-dwellers have ever seen a beehive with their own eyes? (A good measure of the distance we have traveled is that if you Google “Homer” and “bees,” the first results are not quotations from the “Iliad,” but images of Homer Simpson being chased by bees.)
The mutability of our outer lives — the way manners, morals and technology now change radically from decade to decade — means that writers today must trust even more in the unity of our inner lives. The way we dress, act and even think may alter, but they do not alter so much as to render generations unrecognizable to one another. In general, our moment is perhaps too impressed by distinctions and divisions — between past and present, but also between classes, races and genders. Of course, the individual cannot be canceled in the quest for the universal — that way lies a sterile Neo-Classicism or an empty humanism. But the continuing premise of literature is that our differences, though essential, are not exclusive: Each human being contains the potential for all forms of human experience, just as every musical pitch contains all its own overtones. This is not an ideal but an empirical fact, which is confirmed every time a 21st-century reader feels understood by Shakespeare.
Adam Kirsch is a columnist for Tablet. He is the author of two collections of poetry and several other books, including, most recently, “Why Trilling Matters.” In 2010, he won the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism.
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By James Parker
I resent it, this mania for topicality. Update, refresh, delete cache, clear history, change your underpants.
Ah, well now. (Rubs hands.) I mean to say, here we approach one of the great literary paradoxes, don’t we? One of the great mysteries. Which is: If you shoot for timelessness in your writing, consciously orient yourself to the upper realm, the shining truths and the inexhaustible symbols etc., you will — by a kind of law — produce drivel. You will waft and drift and never get a toehold. If, on the other hand, you bet it all on the particular, really dive unreservedly into specificity, with no thought for higher things, you will find — inevitably, magnificently — that your novel about three plumbers in Milwaukee in 1987 becomes a singing blueprint of human significance. You want to get some time in there, in other words, some moldering sandwiches, some mortality — as much as possible. Limitation, decay, the flickering and inescapable minute. Let’s hear that clockwork grinding. Says William Blake: “The ruins of Time build mansions in Eternity.”
Besides, we all know that there are only two real plots in fiction, two “classic” plots if you like, upon which all other, fancier plots are mere variations. I think it was Tolstoy who pointed this out, but it might have been Seth Rogen. The two great foundational plots, at any rate, are as follows: A dog falls in love with a cat, a neighbor borrows something and doesn’t return it. Wait — can that be right? The point is that our experience, in its essence, conforms over and over again to certain basic and universal patterns. So I’m told.
But who am I to pontificate about timelessness? I don’t do imperishable art; I do journalism, that miserable engine of contemporaneity. I hit “send” and wait to get pitchforked in the comments section. “What’s the peg?” asks the restless editor, meaning, “Why are you writing about this? Why now? Onto which knob-like protuberance of the current moment can you hang it?” I can’t just write an essay about, say, P.G. Wodehouse. I mean, I can, but no one would publish it. For me to write an essay about P.G. Wodehouse there needs to be a new P.G. Wodehouse movie, or biography, or app, or anniversary, or controversy, or disease, or sudden spate of imitators. And I resent it, I resist it, this mania for topicality. Update, refresh, delete cache, clear history, change your underpants. Which is why I’m fascinated, when I go to Whole Foods to buy my Dr. McDougall’s Roasted Pepper Tomato Soup, by all the Buddhist magazines up near the register. Cover story: “How to transform suffering.” Now there’s a peg.
Timelessness: You can only really use the word ironically. I prefer durability, things that stick, things that last. Things you can use. Like Philip Larkin saying, “Man hands on misery to man,” or David Byrne saying, “And you may tell yourself, This is not my beautiful house! And you may tell yourself, This is not my beautiful wife!” (Now that’s an essay I would love to write: Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” as one of the prime philosophical statements of the 20th century.) In Britain in the 1980s, an insurance company called Commercial Union ran an ad campaign with the slogan “We won’t make a drama out of a crisis.” Genius. Better than timeless. That line penetrated my proverb-layer — I forgot the name of the insurance company of course; had to Google that — and sits there now with Marcus Aurelius, Mark Twain, George Costanza, all the garnered pith and wisdom of the classics. Use it on your spouse sometime: “Now, dear, let’s not make a drama out of a crisis.” (Don’t use it too often.) Were the makers of the ad trying to be timeless? Certainly not. They were trying to be snappy, catchy, short-term memorable. They had a job to do and a product to push. They had no time to waste.
James Parker is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and has written for Slate, The Boston Globe and Arthur magazine. He was a staff writer at The Boston Phoenix and in 2008 won a Deems Taylor Award for music criticism from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.