Saturday, December 22, 2007

Particular vs. Eternal

I've been reading, off on and on during the year, The Literary Discipline by John Erskine. I "discovered" John Erskine, who was well enough known during his lifetime, through Jacques Barzun, who probably heard him in person, or at least studied under men who had studied under Erskine.

The Literary Discipline is a collection of five articles or essays that discuss what is required of literature in order that it may be truly art, enduring and appealing for many ages, rather than mere "reporting" or "information." I have agreed with pretty much everything he has written, including the fact that timely, rather than timeless, books may still be well worth reading, even if they do not qualify as "art."

I decided to finish up the final chapter so this book could go on my "books completed in 2007" list instead of my "books in progress but not finished in 2007" list. The final chapter is called "Proper Characters," and since character-based books are my very favorite, I've enjoyed reading what he has to say very much.

His primary premise (in which he agrees with Aristotle) is that the characters in art must be better than we are--show us the ideal character for which we "ought" to strive. That's his word--"ought"--and I can't help feeling that we are even further from the "ideal" in 2007 than we were in 1923, when this book was published. Our whole society shies away from the very idea that one "ought" to do anything, choosing instead to embrace the much lower principle that anything one wants to do--anytime, anywhere, should be accepted. No, celebrated. Unless, of course, what you are doing is suggesting that there are higher ideals for which we ought to strive, and then that's not so okay.

But I digress. John Erskine is wonderful to read.

Here's a long quote to give you a sample:

To ask what characters are proper to literature as an art, and to point out that the character better than life will express our ideals, and that the character worse than life will invite our satire, is only to raise in another way the old problems of the universal as against the particular in art, of the contemporary as against the eternal. To be strictly personal is in the end to be contemporary, and to be strictly contemporary is to give, whether or not we intend it, the effect of satire. If our picture of life is to appeal to the reader, and to many readers, as their own world, not simply as their neighbors' private house into which they are prying, it must have general human truth beyond what is strictly personal; and if it is to be read with that sense of proprietorship by many people over a stretch of time, it must not limit itself to the peculiarities of any one moment.

I enjoy as much as anyone an abstract discussion of universal principles, but I do like a concrete example, and John Erskine is short on them--or he refers to contemporary (for him) authors such as Edith Wharton and F.Scott Fitzgerald whom I cannot view in the same way he views them (assuming I'm familiar with their works at all). So, I tried to think of an example of a book that has stood the test of time--been widely appealing to many generations and not circumscribed by its own time, so as to render it inaccessible to future readers.

The first book that came to my mind was Anne of Green Gables. I have never, ever met someone who read that book and didn't like it. It is a favorite of many, and has withstood reading after rereading (another factor that separates literature that is art from literature that is not). So, I invite my readers (as if I had so many!) to suggest reasons why Anne as a character is universally appealing. Does she stand up to the test of being a character "better than we are"--a more ideal person whom we might strive to emulate? And if so, why?

Because, although Anne and Prince Edward Island are almost universally loved and remembered, read alike by girls and women (maybe not so many men), I am not sure I could bring myself to call the "Anne" books art. What do you think?


At 4:57 PM , Blogger Bonnie said...


So wonderful to find your blog
and to find Erskine's book online!
What a treasure. I have always
believed in reading and writing as
an ART, so much like what Arthur
Quiller-Couch writes about in his
books The Art of Reading and The Art of Writing.

We love Anne because she is real.
She is not so ideal but lives out
her passions and shows her weaknesses. Truly the Gospel works in her life. That's how Austen's books are too. Anne is not better than we, but she goes through repentance just like me! That's what makes it last through the test of time.

Merry Christmas to you
from the States!
Bonnie Buckingham

At 7:20 PM , Blogger Phyllis said...

I know this is a really old post, but I have wanted to comment on it since you wrote it. I think Anne is so loved, not because she's ideal, but because she's bigger than life. Everything about her is exaggerated a little. She lived life to the fullest. (See, even though I know that she's a fictional character, in my mind she's alive.) I think that's why everyone loves her. And maybe we all see something of ourselves somewhere in her?


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home