Sunday, February 8, 2009
Contemporary 'Classics' in Literature
As the novel became commonplace only as late as the 19th Century in the English language, 19th century novels predominated in any official collection of 'Classics' throughout most of the 20th century.
It is only now, in the 21st century that many 20th Century novels have supplanted their 19th century counterparts as scholars and ordinary readers alike have judged some of the earlier 'Classics' as less worthy of the title than later works.
As a voracious reader, I consumed every 19th century and early 20th century novel before I reached my teens. I then went on to read every novel I could obtain by any means whatsoever, despite my mother's opinion that anything not designated as a 'Classic' was 'rubbish' or 'junk'. (Incidentally, my mother is NOT a reader and rather proud of the fact. She considers fiction for the most part to be a waste of time.)
I have seen some 21st century lists of 'required reading' in schools at pre-University levels and am rather shocked by some of the books that are included and some that are ignored. It appears to me that the lists are politically based rather than being based on excellence of style or non-political content. I find this deplorable but I suppose one should not be surprised. Schooling always has contained a shameful amount of propagandising in any culture and any period of history. The Jesuits always declared that, if they could supervise the schooling of any child from the age of six, he/she would be theirs 'for life'.
School lists of 'required reading' include an extraordinary number of books with themes of 'slavery' and 'the holocaust'. In my own view, the motivation here is political rather than any attempt to persuade students to become more 'sensitive' or to become 'superior beings'. After all, it is this same culture that invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq recently, utterly demolishing its society, and this same culture that allows the Palestinian people to be massacred regularly and supports the entity that bases its actual existence on the eradication of any Palestinian presence in its own homeland.
Putting politics to one side, what novels would I include on any list of 'Classics'?
Would one of the tests be whether or not I would be interested in reading a book a second time... or a third? That might be an indication of worthiness in one sense, but I do accept that there are undisputed 'Classics' that one wouldn't wish to read more than once perhaps.
As a child, I often felt that many of the Classics were books that one had to force oneself to read. Although I enjoyed some of them, there were others that I read as a sort of self-imposed duty. Sir Walter Scott, for example, elicited both a sense of dread and excitement. As a child, I did not realise how politicised and bias his view of history was but much of my early love of history was engendered by historical novels. Wading through 'dialect' always is a chore for me. I don't enjoy heavy dialect of any kind but I have to admit that I grimly do my best to prevent any considerations relating to dialect from deterring me from reading any book.
Labels are to be deprecated in any aspect of life, including literature. Even to categorise books as 'Classics' to some extent goes against my personal philosophy. There are too many people who would avoid a book by virtue of its official classification alone. For example, there are those who steer clear of 'fantasy' or 'science fiction' even when the actual book is one that would appeal to any intelligent audience if that audience were to come to it without any preconceptions.
Tolkien is one of my favourite writers. I believe him to be one of the greatest novelists of our culture for many different reasons. His work encapsulates our entire Northern heritage in terms of its detailed philological, mythological, historical and literary aspects but beyond that, as an extraordinary epic of good and evil, it must be considered a 'Classic' in every sense of the word. If a 'Classic' must deal with a subject of critical importance, certainly 'Lord of the Rings' qualifies.
This post was not prompted by any thoughts of Tolkien, however, but by the work of a contemporary writer whose novels are classified as 'fantasy' but who may go beyond that in his achievements in literary terms. Tad Williams is an extremely prolifice writer whose first novel, 'Tailchaser' won him renown in the late 1980s. This was followed almost immediately by the first book in a trilogy that almost rivals Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings'. In 'Memory, Sorrow and Thorn', Tad Williams displays much of the depth and versatility of Tolkien in his use of philology, mythology, comparative religion and Northern European history. When I first read 'The Dragonbone Chair', I was impressed but would not have compared him to the 'Master' by any means. Rereading it now, I begin to see how truly amazing this book is, both in its depth of exploration of comparative mythology and its sheer poetry. There is a lyrical quality in Tad Williams' prose that is extraordinary. He is a master of the 'prose poem' and yet, his books are plot-driven and show an attention to detail in terms of action and characterisation that ensure greatness for his novels apart from their lyricism.
As with any writer, some books are far better than others. I would place the trilogy of 'Memory, Sorrow and Thorn' at the top of the list but I would need to read 'Tailchaser's Song' again.
It is interesting to note that Tad Williams struggled with the completion of his great trilogy much in the same way that Tolkien struggled with the last book of 'Lord of the Rings'. He almost despaired at one point of ever finishing it. Fiction of great length generates a certain amazement even when the book is devoid of any intrinsic value. The fact that some one actually can commit such a quantity of words to paper and weave them into some sort of cohesive tapestry is an achievement of sorts irrespective of the success or failure of the book as a novel.
I really should not write about the trilogy, however, until I have finished reading all three books again.
Recently, I was reminded of another 'fantasy' favourite of mine in the form of the Sime-Gen series by Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Jean Lorrah. Here, however, it was the concept of that universe rather than the actual literary style of the novels that impressed me most. Once in awhile, an artist creates something unforgettable, a concept or a vision that actually can change the audience's psyche. The Sime-Gen novels changed mine.
The concept of the Sime-Gen universe was created by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, evidently while she was in her teens. The novels were written later. I think that the power of this universe for me was the fact that it explored a very basic element in human interactions, in terms of the dominant-submissive relationship.
Christianity is a religion that is founded upon the idea that total submission in terms of Sacrifice was the key to the salvation of the human race. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the dominant-submissive theme has powerful echoes throughout Western culture in different forms.
Ann Rice's Vampire novels explored the erotic components of dangerous dominance and the idea that Death can be clothed in an almost irresistably erotic form. She actually wrote some overtly dominant-submissive novels without any supernatural components under a nom-de-plume, making it clear that this was a part of the human psyche that held some fascination for her as an artist.
To me, dominant-submissive interactions are diminished by being associated with eroticism and sex. After all, these interactions are at the heart of most great spiritual myths and traditions.
In recent decades, the Vampire has become the centre of what could be considered a religion. Whether as the embodiment of Death or as the ultimate erotic role, Vampire novels and films proliferate. A host of teen Vampire novels and films have made it clear that adolescent fantasies have embraced the concept as enthusiastically as older audiences.
The Sime-Gen books are NOT Vampire novels, but there is some similarity between the Simes and traditional Vampires. The Sime-Gen mutations of the human race essentially divided humanity into two components: Dominant and Submissive but in the starkest, most fundamental sense, making one Predator and the other Prey. The Simes required the energy of the Gens to survive. In draining a Gen of energy, the Sime put an end to his/her life. Gens were considered sub-human, moreover and were raised as herds solely for their role in satisfying Sime needs.
This, however, is not the basis of the novels. The basic theme of the Sime-Gen novels is that voluntary sacrifice and submission leads to salvation and survival BOTH for the Sime and for the Gen. In making the ultimate gesture of sacrifice voluntarily, a Gen learned how to give energy without dying in the process. This made the Gen simultaneously both Submissive and Master/Mistress of the fate of the 'Dominant' Sime.
Fear is the enemy of survival for the Gen in the Sime-Gen Universe. Furthermore, a negative philosophy that defined the Gen as Prey and the Sime as Predator would lead inexorably to the annihilation of the human race in both of its mutations. The Simes effectively would exhaust their energy supply if the 'traditional' mode prevailed. As often in these situations, the traditional mode of existence was incorporated into a religion and thus any attempt to deviate and explore other avenues of existence was defined as heresy.
It is this heresy that is the basis of the Sime-Gen novels. I found the concept of this Universe as well as the novels themselves to be very powerful and indeed was so influenced by them as to adopt some of their colourful swear words and phrases into my own vocabulary.
The idea that voluntary sacrifice redirects power into the hands of the Sacrificed is extremely potent philosophically. It is the Sacrificial Victim ultimately in many myths who becomes a God, not the Executioner. The Executioner often is nothing more than the tool or means to an exalted end.
I believe that Dominant/Submissive interactions at their best contain the same elements. Rather than being a selfish form of personal sexual self-gratification as depicted by the media and indeed most of those who dabble in exotic sexuality, the core of the interaction is defined by nobility and sacrifice.
Perhaps the words 'Dominant' and 'Submissive' are not useful at all in this context. What is essential here is an assumption of a role where one individual places himself/herself completely at the mercy of another, with total trust and faith that the other will not abuse that power. That was one of the elements that was at the heart of the Sime-Gen 'heresy'. By trusting the 'Dominant' and accepting the role of victim, the Gen was able to give his/her life force and survive.
In mythological terms, the Victim usually is required to expend his/her entire life force and to perish but it is the voluntary aspect of the Sacrifice as well as essential trust and faith in the efficacy of the Ritual that ensures immortality.
Unfortunately, as is the case with many 'fantasy' novels, the Sime-Gen novels quickly became 'out-of-print' books. I only recently discovered that a small independent publisher had brought some of the novels back into circulation in the form of a single-volume trilogy.
This brings me back to my original theme, which was an attempt to define a 'Classic' in literature. 'Dracula' by Bram Stoker may not be the best-written book of its time but the themes it explored guaranteed that it would outlast its generation. In fact, it is the progenitor of almost everything that is associated with Vampires in contemporary culture. Likewise, 'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley cannot be considered an example of the most finely-crafted writing, although it is not poorly written by any means. It is rather its exploration of social concepts and philosophy that gave it the power to influence over a century of literature and art. Are 'Dracula' and 'Frankenstein' true 'Classics'? Does a book become a Classic because of its power to change human psyche or because of its intrinsic value in literary terms? Or, must it contain both components in order to be judged a true Classic?
Returning to an old preoccupation of mine, one wonders how many myths and religions actually are founded upon popular literature or concepts created more for entertainment than as serious spiritual works. Oral poems recited in ancient times probably were not defined by labels and served more than one purpose without ever being judged by any panel of critics. The great ancient epics combined philosophy, religion, history and literature and were passed from generation to generation. Yet, who knows if this indeed was the case or if they mutated and changed with each generation?
What is fantasy and what is fact? What is history and what is fiction? Tolkien's creations are as much part of the fabric of our vision of existence now as any dry recitation of battles or political upheavals in so-called 'history'. The 'Vampire' is as much a part of our psychic and emotional landscape as any hero or anti-hero from 'history' or any widely accepted 'God' or semi-divine creature such as an 'Angel'.
What defines 'reality'? If an individual acts upon a vision created of fiction, his/her acts may have real effects in more lives than his/her own. Wars have been fought for 'religious' dogma and anything that exists in the realm of the spiritual neither can be proven nor disproven.
In any case, the Sime-Gen Universe of Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Jean Lorrah definitely enriched the landscape of my own existence. Whether or not the books in the series can be considered 'Classics', I recommend them highly to readers of any age as I would recommend Tad Williams' trilogy of 'Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.'
Finally, if a 'Classic' can be defined by the number of individuals it influences and the duration of that influence in terms of decades of new readers, both 'Memory, Sorrow and Thorn' and the Sime-Gen books can be considered Classics in that sense.
The fact that both have a dedicated, long-term fan base is eloquent of their power.