Thursday, June 13, 2019

whose posterity is it?

My new article at Willetts

There’s a popular literary game, which consists of predicting which writers will “endure”. Whenever the waters of clickbait grow still and old, some webzine site will stir it up by playing this old game, asking what names among today’s writers will be counted in a hundred years. Heated arguments will break out: the question of whether the works of Stephan King will be recognized one hundred years from now as the greatest American fiction of our time will elicit heated comments, and there will surely be much knocking of the elites.
Nobody seems to predict that a writer that they don’t like will be recognized in one hundred years. Nor does anybody ask about the institutions that preserve for posterity the reputation of a writer. Instead, these predictions rely on a sort of amorphous popular will, with powers beyond any dreamt up by Rousseau. The general will will judge the quick and the dead. That’s the sense.
There are two issues here, actually. One is that the posterity of a work is a form of credentialling – that time awards a good quality seal to the lucky genius. Auden, beautifully, captures this, in my opinion, specious idea:
Time, that is intolerant
of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week,
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
Auden, In Memory of W.B.Yeats
Auden wrote that in 1939, and part of him knew that time and the Nazis were definitely not pardoning those who lived by language, but condemning them: hence the aborted careers of scores of poets, novelists, dramatists, essayists and the lot. Time may well condemn to very long, or even perpetual, obscurity those writings that have not stuck, in some way, to the usual institutions, or that emanated from condemned ethnicities or genders.
The other issue is projecting one’s own taste and time on the future. Here, we do have historical evidence, although it is never used by any of those who play the game. It is as if posterity hasn’t been there before us. But it has.
So, how should one go about making predictions about the endurance of written work?
Over the long term, my feeling is that the chance of a prediction being fulfilled, at least for the reasons one says it will be fulfilled, is vanishingly small. Remember, for the medievals, the important Latin poet after Virgil was Statius. Statius. Who even recognizes the name? Ovid, Lucretius, or Catullus just weren’t in the running. Lucretius did not have a very great posterity in the Roman world, and only came into European culture, really, when a manuscript of the Nature of Things was discovered in 1417 in Florence, according to Stephan Greenblatt. So over time, posterity is swallowed up in such unexpected events that we can’t guess. We need a more manageable time sequence to answer the question – we need relatively short term posterity. There needs to be at least certain structures that are generally continuous, as, for instance, an economic structure that is generally the same over time, and a structure of religious belief that is also coherent over time. Even so, there are unpredictable contingencies. The Library of Alexandria burned; Franz Kafka’s manuscripts didn’t, despite his dying request. So it goes. Statius, when all is said and done, had a good run – as good as Shakespeare’s. He’s gone now: even the Loeb Classical library is not all that enthusiastic about The Thebiad.
Given these conditions, we can still see patterns in, say, the last three hundred years. Starting in the 18th century, the literary nexus of publishers, the writers, and the audience started to take a modern shape. Writers could come from anywhere, but readers, and publishers, came mostly from the middle class. There was certainly room for the working class and the upper class, but writers that appealed to a working class audience had to eventually appeal to a middle class audience to endure. Aleida Assmann wrote an essay about this for Representations in 1996: Texts, Traces, Trash: The Changing Media of Cultural Memory . She points out that the mythology of glory, which Burckhardt traces to Dante, and the city state culture of Italy in the fourteenth century, was, for the writer, shaped by the idea of a group who would preserve it, and upon this group was projected contemporary attitudes: true posterity would consist of people like the friends of the poet, gentle people, highborn, with swift minds. It was an almost tactile sense of posterity, posterity with a face. The posterity of the poem was the posterity of the people who read and understood the poem, the educated audience. But in the eighteenth century, the semantic markers shifted. Assman quotes Swift’s preface to the Tale of the Tub to show that the circle was replaced by the seller — the face by the invisible hand, to be slightly anachronistic about it.
One new factor in the manufacture of posterity, in the twentieth century, has been the rise of educational institutions as transmitters of literature in the vulgar tongue. One has to take that into account, as well as the relatively rapid changes that tend to traverse the academy, which is very much a product of capitalism and has been, for the most part, absorbed in the mechanism of vocationalisation. That mechanism, of course, makes sense once we factor in the costs of higher education. In the Anglophone world, the bright Ph.D in English or Comparative Lit might owe as much as 100,000 dollars in student debt, and faces an absolutely pitiless job market. It is no exaggeration to say that the humanities in the U.S. were assassinated by the regime of tuition hikes and the withdrawal of public financing. Education for its own sake, culture for its own sake, it is fair to say, is no longer the major part of the academic mission, and when it is, its teachers feel a nagging guilt. This is because they are betraying their best students – and they know it.

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