Monday, March 29, 2021

Transcending One's Era

In discussing great books of the past, there is now a tendency for modern examination to get stalled by accusations that the author was sexist, racist, or homophobic. While these are excellent questions to apply to anyone we are proposing be read now, I find that the objection seems to work well for those who would prefer to talk about nothing else.  They have succeeded in focusing all attention on what they personally want to talk about rather than anything else the author might have to say. Funny how that keeps working in every era and culture.  Much of modern art is about "starting a conversation" about...whatever the artist wants to spend endless evenings talking about.

The defenses of the author can be similarly weak, however. "Well, he was a product of his time..." is a frequent starting point. It is a valid explanation at times, but that is also why people fall back on it as an excuse. All decent excuses are subject to abuse. Wolves don't hide in wolves' clothing, but in sheep's. If we are to be reading someone now, we expect them to transcend their times in some way, else why would we read them at all? They should provide something from outside their time, whether that be a universal, something that anticipates later developments, or something that summarises the past up to their point.  There is some value in reading an author who is simply representative of his or her time in order to learn about that era.  But we are not then learning from that author, but merely learning more about that era.

However, when that objection is answered, the accusers usually double down and expect that an author entirely transcend his or her era. I sigh when this happens because it comes under the category of "Suspicions Confirmed."  The accuser does not expect in the slightest to learn anything from an author from another era or from understanding the era on its own terms. The accuser wants only that all views echo his own. He does not see that insistence saws off the branch he is sitting on. If earlier writers are rejected because they do not support what our era insists must be true, then the question quickly* emerges "Well, doesn't that also apply to us, then?" Writers from earlier eras might be used as ammunition, to "prove" that the modern's current prejudices are in fact universals.  Isolated quotes are very good for that.  I think many of my papers in college followed this template. See? **Malory, Euripides, and Jung all agree with me.  

The problem is not that failing to entirely transcend one's era should not be a criteria because it is a bridge too far that even brilliant writers might not achieve, it is a bad idea in its own right. All human beings lived in an actual time and place.  Even Jesus ate fish and wore sandals. He did not leave a one-page, double-spaced document with simple directions, then quietly go off to die for our sins and defeat the powers of hell - salvation SOLVED. We sometimes try to put him in such a box, but he keeps escaping it. Mark Twain transcended his era on the issue of race admirably. To wring our hands and clutch at pearls that he doesn't write as "_____ Studies" professors think would have been better is not just weak thinking, it is backwards. People who attempt to write from completely outside of time and place are bloodless. The thing is neither possible nor desirable, and we should be deeply suspicious of those who claim it. 

To express universality, one can only write about the particular. This is so pervasive in literature that modern authors use it as a trick, because others have used it so effectively. But in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," it is the very small-town plainness that leads to the universality (as in the postal address "Jane Crofut, The Crofut farm, Grovers Corners, Sutton County, New Hampshire, United States of America, Western Hemisphere, the earth, the solar system, the universe, the mind of God"). Solzhenitsyn is not universal in spite of his Russianness, but because of it. No one reads Jane Austen because they want to return to that world, except perhaps as a visitor on an adventurous vacation, but because her world of women is alike enough for the modern woman to understand it, but different enough to provide a contrast. She gives us a clear particularity, which is the only foundation of universality. St. Paul is writing to particular churches, and even the Revelation to John is structured around admonishment to specific churches. Those who purport to be universal right out of the gate only become vague, platitudinous, rather Eastern in their understanding.

*By quickly, I mean both  "immediately, to those who have self-observation," and "never, to those who refuse to acknowledge that mirrors exist." 

**Liberal-Arts majors will recognise this as a good Trifecta.


Douglas2 said...

In my mid-20's I met a beautiful, kind, and intelligent woman who became a good friend rather than a romantic interest mostly because I recognized that her ideal partner was the one who would most upset her father.

In the course of one good discussion it emerged that she was very firmly of the belief that when any writer past or present used the word 'man' to refer to humankind, the writer's intent was to restrict the point to the male of the species and to 'leave out' women.

It didn't matter, as I showed her many examples over the next few weeks of excerpts where 'man' obviously meant humankind when read in context, or 'men' meant all people. She could not be persuaded that the meaning clearly evident to me was the intended one, and the writer not misoynistic and exclusionary.

It didn't take me long to work out that this was a dogma that she had been taught, and it had been so well reinforced by teachers she esteemed over so long a time that I was unlikely ever to overcome it with logic and contrary examples.

And as we had many deep discussions in the two+ years I lived in that city, it occurred to me that there was a purpose of teaching that dogma - it was a filter she would apply in reading any philosophical work that predated postmodernism; it would twist her understanding of what the author was saying. Any book written before the time of women's liberation would be peppered with innocent phrasing that I would just consider archaic, for her it would trigger feminist antipathy toward the author and all he or she stood for.

When properly applied, teaching that dogma is as effective as burning the library of Alexandria -- the best knowledge of those who preceded us is effectively lost, even if the books and words are still right there in front of us.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

The intent to annihilate the past is a goal of much modern teaching, I have long believed. This is an exceptionally good example.

There is a primitive, almost childish sentiment behind such thinking: "They should have just known."

Grim said...

Should one aspire to transcend one’s era, reading older works is close to the only way to do it. Only by encountering minds and ideas from another era are you likely to develop a platform that would allow you to think critically about your own.

Plato is wrong about a lot, but he really does offer a different perspective.

james said...

Or reading works from other civilizations, though thanks to the ubiquity of Western ideas that probably means older works there too.

I think that the goal has to be learning truth, and transcending one's era merely a side effect. I can think of some writers who were trying harder to be unique than to be right.

Sam L. said...

One cannot talk to those who will not listen.

Sam L. said...

Well, one can, but it's a grievous waste of time.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: All human beings lived in an actual time and place... To express universality, one can only write about the particular.

There is much truth in this.