April 8, 2011


The Joy of Recovery (Anthony Esolen, 4/08/11, Inside Catholic)

Recently I had a short contretemps with someone who said that her teenage son had come to a wonderful and intelligent conclusion about Homer's Odyssey. He said that, when you stripped the beautiful language away, what you had left would make a good R-rated quest video game. She agreed with that assessment and grew angry when I suggested that, regardless of the young man's native intelligence, he was in this regard ignorant, and probably had been encouraged in that ignorance by his teacher, who had set out to undermine Homer by setting against him a sendup of the Odyssey by Margaret Atwood.

I could ask what is left of Margaret Atwood once you strip away the bigotry, but that's a pointless exercise. It would be far more satisfying, and more of an act of justice to Homer, to show the intricacy and the beauty of his verse, as well as the subtlety of his analysis of the human condition. That would involve a recovery of a method of reading that we have lost, not because we are foolish, but simply because literary and artistic traditions come and go. For instance, the epic poets and the dramatists of ancient Greece and Rome expected their readers, without direct authorial suggestion, to consider what one episode or one verse had to do with another, though unconnected by plot and separated by thousands of lines. So when we meet the Cyclops, the rough beast that lives a simple and brutish life and notably sees out of only one eye, we notice that Homer pauses to comment upon the fact that, besides their sowing no fields and forging no tools, the Cyclopses do not meet in assembly. Each Mr. Cyclops enacts a rough justice over each Mrs. Cyclops and their offspring, and -- what makes my students in contemporary America a little uneasy -- "every family ignores its neighbors." Hear that, and then remember that in Ithaca without Odysseus, the fatherly head of the household and chief of the polis, no assembly has been held for nearly 20 years, and the sons of the richest neighboring families, 108 of them, have descended upon Odysseus's home, slaying cattle, guzzling wine, and debauching the maidservants, while suing for the hand of Penelope in marriage.

My students are not used to reading so polyphonically, nor was I, when I was their age. But when my favorite professor at Princeton, Thomas Roche, showed me the coruscating language and plot devices of the plays of Shakespeare, glimmering and illumining one another in ways that a modern reader would find quite unexpected, I felt as if I'd been given far more than a new and useful tool: a new way of beholding the world of poetry. Of course, it was only new to me. I felt what I'll call the joy of recovery. It was perhaps something like what Donatello felt when he traveled to Rome literally to unearth the sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome. Or what C.S. Lewis felt when, with the eyes of faith, he returned to the pagan sagas of the northland that he had loved so well and saw them now as intimations of the truth.

So it is in the history of man. Dante returned to Virgil, Milton returned to Dante, Keats returned to Milton, Wallace Stevens returned to Keats. The work of Bach the elder -- Johann Sebastian, the one we all remember now -- lay forgotten for nearly a century, till Mendelsohn returned him to the world. Look at the vague brush strokes and the dramatic uncertainties of the late work of Titian, for instance in his last Scourging of Christ, painted when he was more than 90 years old, or that of Rembrandt in his own advanced years, and see if they do not anticipate, and perhaps surpass, the work of Monet and Degas and Pissarro, three hundred years later.

We do not forget forever. God will not allow it. And that leads to the immensely cheerful conclusion that no one will ever be able to tell the future, except to say that people will return to the past, as they have always done, for its seemingly inexhaustible font of wisdom.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at April 8, 2011 3:54 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus