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.

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Three Billboards Outside Hamlet

What is it with Hollywood and dark stories?  So I’ll add Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to my list.  That list is highly acclaimed movies that are gratuitously dark.  On the list are Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, and even though it isn’t highly acclaimed, Avengers: Infinity War.  What I found so uninteresting about Three Billboards is that it is a study of hate and revenge.  The movie showed us different ways and reasons and expressions of hate and different ways to take revenge.  For two hours.  Then, in the concluding 15 minutes, there was forgiveness and humanity as Mildred and Jason decide not to murder a rapist.  While I was watching, I asked myself, “Do I want to watch two hours of hate and revenge?  To what purpose?”  No.  I don’t.  I’m beginning to think I’ll have to take a vacation from Hollywood, as I did with pop music during the disco period.

Do we like to watch human darkness?  Do we want to pay money to watch hate and revenge?  For two hours?  Is life dark in its essence?  My life isn’t.  And the life of my friends isn’t.  And neither I nor my friends are living in existential bad faith.  We’re just living our lives.  Authentically.  There may be some philosophical currents that claim life is dark.  The Borg in Star Trek were created because viewers wanted a darker story.  Why?  What’s so great about darkness?  I think that people who crave dark stories are living in bad faith because I’m guessing that their lives aren’t all that dark, either.

Then I thought about really great art.  Many of Shakespeare’s plays are tragic.  They dramatize the lust for power, prejudice, the lust for revenge, hatred, anger, death, and other themes that are hard to watch.  And Sophocles not only wrote about murder, he wrote about incest.

Yet I enjoy Shakespeare.  And the darkness in it doesn’t put me off.  I think that the difference with Shakespeare is that there is nobility in it, too.  Of course I need not even mention the beauty of the language–the perfect marriage of sound and sense.  Shakespeare tears one’s heart open.  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri just bored me with the incessant rage and petty revenge.  It wasn’t even all that true to life, as people, generally, don’t burn down police stations.

Plato had a real problem with well-done evil.  The Greek word kala means good and beautiful.  So it was a real question how you could have a beautiful ugliness.  Shakespeare isn’t wholly ugly in its beauty, with the noble impulses motivating his characters.  There is no nobility in Three Billboards, Manchester by the Sea, or Moonlight.  There is only base and unlovely humanity.

The Bee Gees are considered a great band by some.  And Boogie-oogie-oogie, the disco song, won a Grammy.  But when I had to live through the disco period, I turned exclusively to Classical Music until better pop music came back.  Looks like I’m going to have to do that with Hollywood, now.  Hope it won’t take too long.

Sonnet: Carol and the Limits of Language

When Shakespeare sought to praise his love

He found that words and language failed

No metaphor or symbol was enough

Every comparison simply paled

 

If no one used our language better

And the words of our best poet wouldn’t do

How could I arrange line, word, and letter

And begin to rightly praise you?

 

Only with the language of my heart

And only with the truth that’s in my eyes

Can I begin to hope to try a start

To rightly tell the beauty that in you lies

 

The limitations of the written word

Will never speak as loving hearts when heard.