What do you do when you read words written 200 years ago that not only sound a “modern” note, but articulate “modern” notions more deeply and thoroughly than all the ones you thought were “modern” and even defined the “modern” for you? You vow to start reading old books and learn first-hand what the dead knew and wrote, instead of, as was your practice, reading mere fashion and breathing mere fashionable air.
What makes the large holes in America’s reading so tragic is that 1) they are there and 2) they don’t have to be.
One could lay out the chronology of world literature for the novice in an afternoon: Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Poe and you are pretty much all set; Greek and Latin forms a great part of English; there’s little to know, really, in terms of literature, before Homer, and there’s really not much great literature after 1900: “the lonely cab horse steams and stamps/And then the lighting of the lamps.” We can assume, anyway, the student is immersed in the so-called literature and culture of modernism and the present; but there’s nothing to see in 2011 and beyond, just as there’s nothing (or, next to nothing) to see as we wander backwards from Homer; quibble with this if you will—the point is, literary history is a single chunk and that chunk, to be understood, needs to be understood as one chunk, and not for any profound reason but that it is, indeed, one chunk; the good news is that as one chunk it can be learned, in its essentials, rather quickly; the shame is that young people do not read Homer or Plato or Aristotle, at least none of my 30 English Composition students raised their hands when I asked, “Who’s read Plato?” I was stunned, but so happy that I would get to be the one to enlighten them, to write the time-line on the board, to tell them about Homer, and Plato versus Aristotle; heavens, it would be me.
One doesn’t have to be a Christian to realize that great gaps in the learning of literary history exist today for the simple reason we no longer appreciate the pagan poets and philosophers existing before Christianity as pagans, since we have entered an era of study in which Christianity is now nothing more than a political embarrassment, an intellectual annoyance, and so no longer is any attention paid to the distinction between the pagan era and our own Christian one; as intellectuals we’re pagans again, and proud of it, and we don’t need to be reminded of any “old” pagan/Christian dichotomy.
The moderns are comfy living in an historical present that begins around 1900, and no other borders are necessary as long as the 1900 border, the Gate to Modernism, is tall and nearly insurmountable, is the only one that matters.
The date 1900 is flexible, of course; at times 1859 will do, or 1914; as long as there is a border, generally agreed upon, separating us, the enlightened moderns, from them, those goofy old Romantic folks who believe in harmony and beauty…
Take the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. Born in 1798, Leopardi is one of those writers we can safely ignore, being on the other side of the only great divide that matters.
How, then, is this Leopardi, who died in 1837, able to utter such things as:
As a poet my spirit has run the same course as the human spirit generally. At the beginning, Fancy was my strength: my poems were full of images, and I read poetry to feed my own imagination. I was already intensely aware of the life of feeling but didn’t know how to express it. I hadn’t reflected enough on things, of philosophy I had only the faintest grasp, and I lived constantly with the illusion we all create, that the world and life will always make an exception for us. I’ve always experienced misfortune, but back then it seemed especially intense, and it devastated me because it seemed (not to my rational faculty but to my very active imagination) that misfortune denied me the happiness others believed they possessed. My condition was in every way that of the ancients.
It’s quite true that even then, when I felt so pressed by misfortune and trouble, I was capable of certain effects in my poetry. The complete change in me, my passage from ancient to modern, happened within about a year, in 1819, when I lost the use of my sight and couldn’t pass the time reading, I felt my unhappiness darkening terribly, and I began to give up hope, to reflect deeply on things (in one year I filled twice the space in these daybooks as I had in a year and a half, and my thoughts were all centered on our nature, unlike previous entries that were nearly all about literature), to become a professional philosopher (instead of the poet I once was), to feel the world’s inevitable unhappiness instead of just acknowledging it, and this also because of a certain physical torpor that made me less like the ancients and more like men of my time. My imagination then became much feebler, and although my faculty of invention increased enormously and finally began to function, it took form in prose or sentimental poetry. And when I did try to versify, images came only with enormous effort, my imagination was almost dried up (even apart from poetry; I mean, in contemplating Nature’s beauty, etc., I was cold as stone), even though my lines gushed with feeling. So one could say that in the strictest terms only the ancients were poets, and now the true poets are children, or the very young, and moderns who pass themselves off as poets are in fact philosophers.
—Giacomo Leopardi 1820
How is it possible that 1820 gets us so beautifully?
Here’s another gem from Giacomo:
With the invention of gunpowder, the energy humankind once possessed is passed on to machines, and humans are turned into machines in a way that essentially alters mankind’s nature.
—Giacomo Leopardi 1821
But this is 1821! He can’t talk that way!
Isn’t the fact that babies and children remember so little—we infer this from the way our own memories of early life diminish, proportionally and gradually, the farther back we go—attributable at least in large part to a baby’s lack of language, and to the imperfect, impoverished language of very young children? Certainly human memory, like thinking and cognition, is powerless without the help of signs that fix ideas and reminiscences. Limited memory isn’t due to organic inadequacy, since we all know that we continuously remember—and remember more vividly as we mature—childhood impressions, even while forgetting things of the present and recent past. Our oldest reminiscences are the most alive and lasting. But they begin right at that point where the child has acquired sufficient language, they begin with those first ideas that we fused to signs and could fix in words. Like my own earliest memory, of some musk pears I saw and heard named in the same moment.
—Giacomo Leopardi 1821
This is lovely. But surely there must be a mistake. No way someone thought this in 1821!
A horse or dog in the habit of obeying a particular voice, of recognizing its master by a particular scent, can break these habits at any time, get used to new voices, new smells and commands from a new owner, etc. It can form new habits, learn new things. But other species and individuals less susceptible to habit (whether by nature or nurture) find it harder to break habits, precisely because they are so slow to form them in the first place. Isn’t the same true of our own species and its individuals?
—Giacomo Leopardi 1821
Hell. How can 1821 be so smart!
Uniformity is boredom, boredom uniformity. Uniformity comes in many forms. Endless variety produces uniformity, thus more noia…Constant pleasure, too, is uniformity, therefore boring, though its medium is pleasure. Certain foolish poets, realizing description gives pleasure, reduce poetry to nonstop description: they drain all pleasure from poetry and replace it with boredom.
—Giacomo Leopardi 1822
And 1822 nails the poets of 2010…
People cry out that poetry has to be contemporary, it has to adopt the language and ideas of our time, depict its mores and idiosyncrasies. And so readers condemn the use of ancient stories, events, practices, opinions. But I believe poetry is the one thing in our time that cannot be contemporary. How can a poet use the language and follow the ideas and conventions of a generation for whom glory is a pipe dream, when liberty, patria, love for patria, do not exist, when true love is childish folly and all illusions have vanished, when all passion—not only grand, noble, exquisite passion—is dead? How, I ask, can one be party to all this and still be a poet? A poet, a poetry, without illusions, without passion—do these logically go together? Can a poet, as poet, be entirely self-engrossed and private and still be a poet? Yet aren’t these the salient characteristics of our time? So how can a poet, as poet, be distinctively contemporary?
Remember that the ancients wrote poetry for the masses, or at least for people who mostly were not learned or philosophical. The moderns quite the contrary: today’s poets have only educated, cultured readers, so when it’s said that poets must be contemporary it’s meant that a poet must conform to the language and ideas of this narrow class of people, not the language and ideas of the masses (who know nothing really about poetry present or past and do not engage it in any way). Now, all learned, cultured men these days are inevitably self-engrossed and philosophical, stripped of meaningful illusions and barren of vital passions. Women the same. How can a poet be contemporary in act and spirit, how can he conform to such people, and still be a poet? What is poetic in them, in their language, thoughts, opinions, tastes, affections, customs, habits, deeds? What did or does or can poetry ever have in common with them?
Be forgiving, then, if a modern poet follows the old ways, if he takes up the style, manner, and language of earlier times, if he uses ancient stories and the like, if he seems to hew close to older ways of viewing reality, if he prefers older traditions, manners, events, if he stamps his work with the impress of another time. Be forgiving if the modern poet and modern poetry do not seem, or are not, contemporary to our century, because being contemporary means, or crucially entails, not being a poet, not being poetry. The poet cannot at the same time be and not be a poet, and it’s inappropriate for serious minds and a serious-thinking century to demand what’s by nature impossible, self-contradictory, a contradiction in terms.
—Giacomo Leopardi 1823
What kind of talk is this? Leopardi has shown his true colors. Now we can safely dismiss him! Go to hell, Leopardi! This is why you’ve been ignored by us moderns for so long.
Go back to your obscurity on the other side!
We can now truthfully say that, in Italy more than anywhere, writers outnumber readers (since most writers don’t read, or read less than they write). So how much glory can we expect from literature today? In Italy it’s safe to say that people read only so that they can write, so they’re thinking really only about themselves, etc.
—Giacomo Leopardi 1828
“Writers outnumber readers!” 1828 is describing 2010…
This is why we must take extreme care when we lay down borders of any kind, and why we should be highly suspicious of the notion that moderns are in any way advanced because of their place in time...