Reassessing The “Great Works” Of The Past

So on a whim I squeezed Rufus Fears’ collection of lectures, Books That Have Made History, onto my reading list of The 300.  I did so, for two reasons…

The first was that I have long been curious about this political philosopher called Lord Acton who gets referenced often for his quotation about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely, and I saw that Fears dedicated one lecture to Acton.

Turns out, Lord Acton never wrote a book or delivered a set of lectures or speeches, and that quotations attributed to him have been taken from the thousands and thousands of notes and annotations he made in preparing for the great book he never actually wrote. But that’s not what today’s post ends-up being about…

There was a second reason that convinced me to make way for Fears’ lectures in my Reading List, and this was that in the same collection of lectures were not one, but two, lectures by Fears on Goethe. I was hoping that Fears could help me to understand, so unfathomable to me, the Goethe phenomenon. I just don’t understand why this cat is so revered. Sure, like several of the great minds of his day, his studies ranged over a wide field, but his scientific theories have long been discredited, and the big novel he wrote (The Sorrows Of Young Werther) is barely readable today.

Of course, most people consider Goethe’s greatest artistic contribution to be the two basically unperformable plays he wrote about Faust. I’ve read them both (Faust Part One and Faust Part Two), but frankly I did not find the works all that spectacular. In fact, I found them quite boring and unsatisfying dramatically.

Yeah, yeah– I “get” it, or at least I think I get it– the character of Faust is appropos of Modernity, representing the modern scientific man who, attempting have his knowledge of the Universe and eat it too, loses his soul in the attempt– making, as it were, a disastrous deal with the devil. But the story of Faust had been around long before Goethe put his stamp on it. And as far as the quality of the two dramas… exactly how much slack are we spost to cut him and other old dead white guys simply because they came along previous to us in literary history?

This is the dilemma I keep running into when contemplating works of the past… Is a work truly worth our continued reverence even after it has been surpassed by posterity?

The question is biased of course… That is, it comes loaded with the assumption that, when it comes to artistic achievement, there exists some valid way to judge one work against another and to realize if one work “surpasses” another in excellence. But that doesn’t mean the question should be ignored…

One formulation of the question could be called The Stonehenge Problem… When I look at Stonehenge (in pictures; I’ve never actually been there), part of me thinks… What’s the big deal? Several immense slabs of stone stacked atop each other in a circle? It ain’t exactly the Notre Dame de Paris. On one level, I feel I can refute the significance of Stonehenge without even needing to go so far as bring up such marvels as later mankind’s visit to the moon or his carving of the Panama Canal or of his construction of Hoover Dam.

On the other hand, Stonehenge is not a very good analogy to use when it comes to comparing the artwork of one era to the artwork of another because technologies relevant to architecture have greatly advanced since the days of the Stonehengers (assuming they weren’t aliens– and hey, even then they may not have had Tang or concrete).

But when it comes to comparing works of literature, surely one cannot credit the word processor for the fact that a mediocre Hollywood script would easily be twice as enjoyable to watch performed as even the best parts of Faust (yeah, I know… Faust may not have been written to be performed– though I have to wonder if in Goethe’s heart of hearts, he did not hope his plays would make for boffo box office). And keep in mind– Chekhov and Beckett utilized a writing technology hardly different from what Goethe or Moliere would have used (the latter two being two playwrights who don’t much entertain me).

I don’t think you can merely wave this off as just another example of the changing tastes in changing cultures. I contend that many scripts written today are just downright BETTER than even the greatest plays of the 1700 or 1800s– by any of the typical measurements applied by critics to judge such works. There are probably numerous scripts rejected every year by movie producers that are better than anything that, say, Euripides wrote.

One could argue that at least the old timers had originality on their side, but please… you think THEIR works weren’t derivative? All the great playwrights of the past were rehashing well-worn tales!

And my problem with assessing works of the past concerns other areas of human endeavor as well… For instance, any high schooler knows more true science than Aristotle did, and thousands of modern physicists know more math than Newton as well as understanding the Solar System better than Galileo. And how much more interesting and thought-provoking the philosophy contained in the movie The Matrix than in the arguments of angels dancing on pinheads put forward by the “great” scholastics! And when it comes to national leaders– should we really more greatly respect murderers such as Alexander (“The Great”) than, say, Nelson Mandela? Consider: there’s more grand strategy used by a football coach today than by most all of the hero-worshipped butchers of the past!

Seems to me the reverence in which we hold these works of olden tymes is due predominantly to their precedence– and let’s be clear, I’m talking here about the level of achievement of their WORKS… The MEN, themselves, were of course great geniuses for accomplishing what they did with what they had to work with. But the works, the works, man…

Allow me to put it another way… Let us pretend there exists a race of aliens who know nothing of Earth-history, and let us further pretend that these aliens share, generally speaking, our own aesthetic tastes in art, and let us imagine these aliens were given two scripts without knowing the year the plays were written nor the reputations of the men who wrote them. Comparing the two plays objectively, would they really consider Faust a higher achievement than, say, Schindler’s List or Casablanca?

Avast the Great Works of the past!  Duly noted. Time to move on, to discover the great thinkers of the present, the great works of now.

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