Entertainment Value in Literary Classics

Let’s agree that there are classics of literature.

I’ve just started reading the Russian classic, Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev.  I didn’t know what to expect when I bought it.  I was surprised with what I found in the first pages.  It was spellbinding!  I really enjoyed reading this classic!

I have had the idea, like a lot of people, that classics of literature are boring and dense and you have to plod through them.  And that’s true of some.  But not many.

Can it be that classics are classics because they are entertaining?  Another way to phrase this is to say that classics are entertaining because they are written well.  The artful style of telling a good tale is what makes the classic entertaining.

I first noticed this with Hemingway.  I discovered Hemingway in graduate school, at the age of 27.  I still remember sitting in the student lounge late at night reading, For Whom the Bell Tolls.  I couldn’t put it down.  At the time I was reading Hemingway, he was considered great literature.  In fact, Hemingway did win the Nobel Prize for literature, and a Pulitzer Prize.  Today, some scholars are debating Hemingway’s literary standing because in an age of feminism, his work is too macho.  But his innovation with language, I believe, will secure his place in the literary pantheon regardless of whether he is too macho or not.

I notice an analogous entertainment value in the works of Tom Wolfe.  His works are artistically plotted, and riveting to read.  It’s always risky to try to discern the artistic value of contemporary writers, but I think that he may well be considered a major author of our time.  He is most certainly a popular and successful writer.  But I believe that his works will be considered classics after this age passes into history.

In fact, I find Shakespeare equally entertaining.  If it isn’t the pace of the psychology, Shakespeare is an entertainer.  A sword fight will break out after a heavy scene, or when psychology becomes too overwhelming.  I don’t need to say anything about Shakespeare’s union of sense and sound.  If we lived in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare’s language wouldn’t be hard to read or hear in a performance.  With footnotes, contemporary readers can follow the story and discover the delights that the Bard offers.

Great literature delights.  Maybe that’s why such literature is considered great.  Much could be said about why literature delights–accuracy to the human situation, plot tensions that we feel . . . But that is material for another blog.  This one is about the entertainment value that great literature possesses, that makes literature great.

Advertisements

THE LEXICON OF LANGUAGE

Human community is the lexicon of language
Shared speech defines word and syntax
I know holy language, spoken among
Those self-identified spiritual
The lexicon of holy books, prayer, chant, doctrines
To whom these matter
I know ecstasy and peace
I know sin and craving
Shadow only exists by sunshine
I know secular language, spoken among
Those self-identified disinterested to spirituality
The lexicon of sciences, literature, arts, pop-culture, ego-gratification, social standing
To whom only these matter, or matter largely
I know class, sophistication, cultivation
I act the fool, commit faux-pas, social blunders
What honest human doesn’t, can’t, won’t
Secular language grounds the holy
As bark encloses trees, skin encloses the body, callous
Only flowers are unprotected

Well-Rounded and Alienation

In the renaissance period, the character ideal was to be well-rounded.  The various character virtues a courtier was supposed to acquire were listed in Castigione’s “Book of the Courtier.”  Among them were knowledge of the classical languages, aesthetic appreciation, musical proficiency, literary knowledge and practice, poetic ability, historical knowledge, philosophical knowledge and reasoning ability, wit and good manners, wrestling.  In general, the liberal arts.  Plato had another similar list of virtues in his “The Republic,” and Aristotle, also, in “The Nicomachean Ethics.”

Today, it is hard to figure out what character virtues western society values.  Society has become so fragmented that it is impossible to discern what the twenty-first century person is to aspire to.  Consequently, people tend to stay within the prescriptions of their career and family.  Emerson decried this form of society.  He said, “The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship” (The American Scholar).

I have tried to widen my horizons by becoming more of a renaissance man, a more well-rounded individual than someone defined by his profession, geographical region, and family relations.  But I have found that by being well-rounded, I am rather alienated and that I don’t really fit in anywhere.  In a bar, I sound too intellectual and like I’m putting on airs; in a university, I sound too raw and unrefined; in a church, too worldly and in my denomination, too interfaith oriented; in secular society, too spiritual; among intellectuals, too uninhibited; among scientists, too literary, etc . . . I like the character I have developed in my pilgrimage on this planet.  My soul is rich from having lived a variety of lives–academic, spiritual, philosophical, construction worker, poet, minister, lover and friend, scientist.  But for all this, I am not a dilettante.  I have a strong enough background in a discipline which I practice.  But I am not only my discipline.  I am not a form, a statute book, a machine, a rope, a test-tube, a hammer, a library.  I am a man.  A happy man.  A man with wide horizons.  I do not mind that I don’t really fit into a narrow social box.  When I was growing up I was taught to do your own thing.  I have done that, continue to do that, and my world is many worlds.