When I think of literature that is worthy of an award that holds the sort of esteem the Nobel Prize does, I think of Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot. As I approached this novel with these great Nobel laureates in mind, I was setting myself up for disappointment. Beloved is not a bad novel, but it nowhere approaches the greatness of The Old Man and the Sea or Murder in the Cathedral.
I am not only disappointed with the novel itself, however, I am more disappointed that I must be so disappointed. Literature is primarily the study of the universal human condition and experience through the particular experiences of humans. It is the ability of a great author to grant insight into the universal through the particular that makes great authors great.
The African-American experience is a unique one in the history of mankind. While those who have been a part of this experience have produced several great works of literature, these are, unfortunately, few and far between. Most African-American literature eschews the universal features which can be extracted from the African-American experience in favor of a particularity that borders on insularity. It does not allow one who has not partaken of this experience to enter into it and understand it, nor does it grant such a person any insight into the universal human condition which can be re-particularized by forming that person’s worldview and experience.
This is, unfortunately, the case with Beloved. No matter how much I tried, I found it difficult to feel a sympathy, much less an identity, with any of the characters. Most of the characters are too simple and one-sided to be confused with persons; nearly all of them behave in bizarre and irrational ways that makes it difficult to understand their feelings, desires, and motivations. Always lurking in the background, though rarely visible, is the consistently ominous presence of the “whiteman,” who is evil embodied.
All of this makes the novel difficult to read and leaves the reader ultimately unfulfilled.
Yeats is, as the back of this particular edition of his best works says, probably “the greatest twentieth-century poet to write in English.” Of course, the attentive reader will note the careful wording here that separates Yeats as much as possible from that word “English,” as, although he wrote in English, he is a definitively Irish poet. His poetry, soaked with references to the history, mythology, and landscape of Ireland and exhibiting an uniquely Irish character, is an embodiment of Irishness, if such a thing exists. In particular, it embodies the tenuous state of Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century, a nation both young and old simultaneously, worn out and vigorous at once.
In addition to embodying the Irish national character, however, Yeats is also a poet for all modern people. His obsessive fear of age and death, a theme that runs throughout the poems here, is very much a modern ailment. So, too, is the desire for meaning and mysticism even in a world grown decidedly meaningless and flat. In all of this and more, Yeats is the poet of modernity.
This particular edition is a nearly perfect collection of the very best of Yeats. Rosenthal’s introduction and notes are not overwhelming, as scholarly editions and collected works so often are. Instead, the editor provides just the right amount of commentary to allow the reader who is new to the work of Yeats to approach with understanding. I recommend this edition to anyone who wants an excellent introduction to the works of the great poet of the twentieth-century.
His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?’
Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?
All his happier dreams came true–
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
Poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘what then?’
‘The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in nought,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’
W.B. Yeats (1937)
Zarathustra is not Nietzsche’s greatest work, but it is one of his most interesting. In a departure from his other works, Nietzsche abandons his aphoristic style (with some exceptions) and instead embraces an approach that consists of more narrative and poetry. This is both its great strength and its great weakness.
It is a great strength in that it allows Nietzsche to explore his unique ideas (especially the eternal recurrence, the Higher Man, and the death of God) with more depth than in nearly any of his other works. Nietzsche adopts a negative approach to philosophy in most of his other works, gleefully smashing his way through the idols of the marketplace. Here, in Zarathustra, he comes his closest to formulating a positive philosophy.
This philosophy is one that presents a challenge to any perceptive reader. The Christian, for example, will be challenged by Nietzsche’s razor-sharp criticisms of Christian beliefs; Nietzsche’s critique is not to be lightly dismissed. The atheist, on the other hand, if he is an attentive and sympathetic reader, will be challenged by Nietzsche’s own exuberant, even mystical, atheism, a far cry from the dry scientism that predominates in atheist circles today.
The style and content of Zarathustra also represent a weakness of the work in that one must be familiar with other works of Nietzsche in order to understand and appreciate it as well as one should. To this end, I particularly recommend reading Beyond Good and Evil, Human, All Too Human, and The Gay Science before one plunges into Thus Spoke Zarathustra. So properly prepared, a mindful reader of any particular philosophical persuasion will inevitably benefit from the monumental genius that was Friedrich Nietzsche.
I have found when reading Aristotle with young people that his emphasis on virtue is one of the most difficult things for them to understand. Perhaps most difficult for them to fathom is the idea that virtue and happiness are intimately linked. They have in large part been so thoroughly trained in some form of “enlightened self-interest,” so to speak, that they are unable to comprehend the idea there is are eternal and immutable truths about goodness and about human nature. Happiness is most readily identified today with intense but momentary physical pleasures of various sorts.
This has perhaps been the understanding of happiness among the majority of the youth of any generation, including, no doubt, that of Aristotle. Yet, it is an understanding that is supposed to pass away with age and wisdom. The cult of youth which predominates in modern popular culture, however, prevents the notion from passing. Rather, the aging cling to it with a perverted tenacity that defies reason.
Aristotle is certainly a philosopher from whom the modern age has much to learn.
Every time that I have read The Republic I have found myself secretly hoping that Plato will change his mind and admit Homer. I am, as readers of this blog probably know, an ardent admirer of Homer. I have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey several times. I began my journey of learning Greek last summer by starting with Homer’s works. That Plato, whom I also admire a great deal, excludes him from his ideal state is more than a bit disturbing to me.
Yet, I do see Plato’s point. His argument could, I think, be used in a modified way to debate many of the texts that are used in America’s public schools. If we admit Aristotle’s point in the Poetics that even tragedy and seeing people and gods do bad has the effect of producing virtue in the viewer, I think we can reorient Plato’s argument to one about good and bad literature rather than good and bad in literature.
My most basic educational principle is that children should be exposed to the best that has ever been thought and said. Homer undoubtedly should be so classed. A good chunk of what children are reading in schools today should not be so classed. At the end of the day, I would rather that a high school student reads about Odysseus’s self-absorption or Achilles’s rage than that he reads the nonsense that is Dreaming Cuban or the anti-Western polemic “Take the Tortillas Out of Your Poetry,” both of which are recommended in the Common Core State Standards. The former at least has something to teach us about what it means to be a human being, which is, I believe, the ultimate purpose of all literature.
What do you think?