Occasionally I come across an essay that’s useful in my personal project of rethinking the curriculum by rethinking the Canon–to the extent I can with my limited time and abilities. Such is Cicero Bruce’s review of Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation by Glenn C. Arbery.
Arbery makes the by now familiar arguments about the “decimation of the humanities in the culture wars,” and he links this to the undermining of the discipline of literary studies in the pursuit of reputation by modern professors. “Unless literature itself, not the academic industry around it, not the competition for tenured positions or endowed chairs, is the central concern, then perhaps the academy deserves to fall,” he says.
Often, he claims, the meaning of great works is distorted to make some point related to a professors’ own agenda.
That interests me, but only in passing. Perhaps the academy will fail–such are the passing affairs of the world. What interests me more is what Arbery says about The Illiad: “Of all the poems in the history of the West, actual Scripture aside, but including the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and all the devotional lyrics ever written, God loves the Iliad most.”
This did not seem like a strange claim to me. Bruce summarizes what this means:
That Homer’s epic would be pleasing to God is not surprising, at least not to Arbery. For it depicts “the broken world as it is, fallen and savage, but capable of noble formality and tender mercies; groaning ceaselessly for redemption but without undue self-pity; conscious of being kingly, masterful, and godlike, yet also mortally aware of being subject to every loss and humiliation, including the ultimate form, mortality itself.”
Finding nobility and tenderness amid mortality by achieving form. It’s something I learned, in part, from Keats’ “When I Have Fears.” Why would one compose a lament of absolute despair in an intricate sonnet form?
Literature functions as a mode of knowledge that finds its completion in the achievement of form. It follows that a story, poem, or play is excellent to the degree that it is well wrought. Yet, to infer from what Arbery posits between the lines, it should be said that the test of enduring literary merit begins and ends with abiding questions something like these: Does the given work look from the standpoint of eternity at material things and transitory wants? Does it function as a medium for apprehending unchanging truths? Does it plumb the depths of being “with an intelligence,” as Arbery puts it in his final paragraph, “that increases in power the more it explores the most unbearable dimensions of joy and suffering”?
Our “momentary stays against confusion” achieved by creating form are always metaphors–things of this world that give us glimpses of the transcendent, an order beyond us which we realize. Our despair has its origins in a world we know by sensing our lostness from it. The poem may be about despair, but the existence of the poem is an argument of hope. Great literature reveals to us more than it can say.