Monday, November 23, 2009

A story far older than its years

There's been a good discussion in one of the posts below about what makes a great writer and great writing, and whether writers can transcend the barriers of their history and society to achieve an element of universality. Shakespeare wrote in Elizabethan times, in Elizabethan language, presenting an Elizabethan worldview, but still he speaks to us today, because his themes are universal. We've had some debate as to whether that is truly the case, or whether an artist must always be circumscribed by his or her environment.

My own view is that there is something timeless about great literature. To that end, I was struck by this, from the foreword of The Magic Mountain, which I am just embarking on at Donigan's suggestion:

[This story] is far older than its years; its age may not be measured by length of days, nor the weight of time on its head reckoned by the rising or setting of suns. In a word, the degree of its antiquity has noways to do with the passage of time...

This is the universality of great fiction. It exists in a time and is defined by that time, but it also, simultaneously, exists outside of time, in the mind of the reader, drawing on our human history and human hopes, backwards and forwards through time. The Modernists were motivated in large part by the destruction of the First World War. We cannot really understand that now, not from their particular point of view, but their works still speak of the pity of it and we still respond.


Andrew Gerald Hales said...

very good. I liked this.

Mark said...

Well okay that part about existing in the mind of the reader is pretty good.

I do believe there's a universality to human nature and so everything in that sense is timeless. And I absolutely believe that great literature is permanent and attests to permanent things. But I believe that everything is unavoidably historical, and that this is not limiting and does not circumscribe. On the contrary, understanding your history--historical consciousness--can allow for greatness.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks Andrew.

Yes, I think I probably agree with you Mark, that understanding your history is essential. Understand it, accommodate it, and develop from it.