Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

IX. Steady Admiration in an Expanding Present: On Our New Relationship to Classics

Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

IX. Steady Admiration in an Expanding Present: On Our New Relationship to Classics

Article excerpt

While our relationship to classics has so far become neither a typical subject for exam questions nor for literary supplements, many observations, some seemingly trivial, suggest that this relationship has altered; altered in the way it is experienced by educated readers, not as it is reflected in institutions, which are slower to respond to change. As of yet we have no vocabulary to describe the shift; it has no name, no agenda - but it is certainly not restricted to the culture of any one particular nation. It is, indeed, the very difluseness of this new relationship to classics that both reveals and obscures this novel dynamic.

Wherever developments of this nature have been perceived in the last three hundred years, two contrasting reactions have ensued with reflexive predictability. There have always been voices that celebrated a 'return to the classics' as the inevitable triumph of absolute quality in a literal sense - something to be welcomed, as if the present were correcting itself, albeit too late. Yet others, with a slight sense of insecurity, have asked if the retreat to classics is a symptom of the diminished vitality, even decadence, of the age.

We professional students of literature and the arts should have relegated such trite responses to the arena of dinner party repartee long ago, since they are no more than arbitrary postures, adopted uncritically. Indeed, we have an obligation to do so to those who finance us.

The point is not to celebrate the latest development regarding the classics or to react with a frown. My alternative, in many respects more challenging, is to argue first and foremost that our new relationship to classics, still operating diffusely, has grown out of a change in our construction of time (I shall employ the word 'chronotope' as a synonym here, though I am well aware that this usage does not convey all the nuances that students of Mikhail Bakhtin, the originator of this term, would insist upon). Time-forms, as we know from Edmund Husserl, shape the stage upon which we enact experience, including the context in which we read texts we have inherited on the pretext of their inherent merit.

My thesis requires attention because the transformation of our chronotope - which explains why our altered relationship to classics is so all-pervading - has escaped the notice of the humanities. Those admirably complex terms 'historical time' and 'history' still - as, most prominently, Michel Foucault (1966, 1969) and Reinhart Koselleck (1959, 2002) have shown from such various points of departure - carry a range of reference that crystallized in the early nineteenth century. I argue that this range of reference no longer accurately characterizes the manner in which our experience is shaped in the present day. The transformation has caught us unawares, caught, indeed, everyone in the humanities unawares. So our new relationship to classics is in fact an important symptom of this new chronotope. Indeed, it is becoming clear that our relationship to authority, and not solely to cultural authority, has undergone a transformation in tandem with our prevailing construction of time. For our new relationship to classics seems more productive than it ever was in the era of historicism.

I will lay out my argument in five stages. First, I shall give some, as already stated, diffuse examples that tell of a new relationship to classics in our present. A brief reflection on the change in the meanings of the terms 'classic' and 'canon' from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries will follow. This leads on to the third part of my argument, in which I compare the emergence of historicism after 1 800 (and its implications for the terms 'classic' and 'canon') with some of the reasons for its obsolescence in the third-quarter of the twentieth century. Against this background it is possible to illuminate a new relationship with classics, not just - as I am arguing - in diffuse instances, but, first and foremost, in a new way of reading. …

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