New Lamps for Old

If Marcus Tullius Cicero had known that he was to become ‘Tully’ in one of the most prestigious works of literary criticism ever, would he have laughed? Or would he have waxed apoplectic at this most noble Apologie? For my part, I shall never manage to think of Mr Chips’s ‘Kikero’ now, without remembering the Blackfish of Riverrun …

Sidney’s An Apologie for Poetrie – we read it with admiration and respect and much enjoyment, for Sidney has a delightfully waspish turn of phrase one comes to relish. Nonetheless, if someone wrote this now, they would have to apologise for it, belike. Imagine a scholar today pronouncing as a defence of poetry in the hallowed halls of the academia, “Poetry is the companion of camps”! or that poetry is better than history, not so much because of the rather neatly reasoned argument given, but because ‘see here, Aristotle says so too! Aristotle himself!’ No, come to think of it, the second case probably would still be politically correct. It’s Aristotle after all. Aristotle of the Poetics. The Aristotle. Now who shall dare argue with him?

Aristotle never argues. He never tries to prove himself right. Perhaps because the existence of a dissenting view never seems to occur to him? He issues a series of statements, he condescends to elaborate, he derives therefrom a decree. Is that why so many accepted everything he said as truer than gospel for so long? Because he did not doubt himself, did he effectively take away from his readers the ability to doubt him? T.S. Eliot pulls off the same kind of exploit with his ‘Tradition and The Individual Talent’. It has the same absolute certainty about it, and one may say, more than a degree of the same insularity… In his emphasis on the tradition of ‘Europe and his own country’ did Eliot leave the rest of the world out of it because he simply never thought about it, or because it did not matter enough to be considered?

When it comes to most texts of philosophy or criticism – texts that tell you what you should be doing – it is well to keep something of Hawkeye’s distrust of the written word always within one. For the reader, layman or scholar, is the most vulnerable of all creatures when he opens a book of renowned wisdom. He will absorb and applaud the most woeful of inanities, provided they be deemed ‘wise’, and even if a doubt should creep in – who shall say that the Emperor has nothing on? Especially as these emperors do have clothes, albeit with gaping holes in them.

Aristotle does have one quality, moreover, for which the not-so-erudite reader is inexpressibly grateful to him: he is nearly always clear, which is more than one can say of his modern brethren – and sistern too. Does modern literary criticism have to be worded so very peculiarly? As a rule I would be the last person to object to words being spun every which way, but when words become nearly insuperable hindrances to the communication of important ideas, we need to recognise that we have a problem.

How is this to be resolved? I have not the foggiest notion. I would paraphrase the ‘guilty’ texts more simply, I suppose, if I could figure them out, but so many have done that already, and I am not sure how that helps anyway, since everyone must return sooner or later to the convoluted originals. Me, I’m poking warily at the edges with the ten-foot pole of legend, wondering what the deuce I am going to do about them. So – a request to the academe: take a leaf out of Mr Micawber’s book. Expound upon aught ye please in the most pontifical periods, but then render the sense thereof in the tongue of the commons – in short, once you are done with the unintelligible terminology, please do tell us what you are trying to say in words fit for us mere mortals.

On the other hand, it may well be that the clarity of Aristotle can be attained only at the price of one’s ability to doubt, to torment oneself with what-ifs that open up new branches at every step upon the path. I say ‘the clarity of Aristotle’ but perhaps it is to the translator that I owe this, and not to him at all? But then, every word of Aristotle, Goethe, Tolstoy or Ibsen that I read, I owe to a translator. Even if I learnt to read the original, it could never mean as much to me as a text in English. Yet, I will never know the translator. Even if I run into his or her name somewhere, I just won’t care enough to find out more. We substitute whichever translation we happen to pick up first for the original, and there’s an end to the matter, even if the Princess Anna Arkadievna Karenina is reduced to ‘Mrs. Anna Karenin’ thereby, and Yermolai Alexeievitch transformed to ‘Alexander’ Lopakhin. The horror! The horror!

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