“In our times we are blinded by subject because we have lost our sense of the true significance of art. If a novel is about the slave trade we automatically think it is significant, certainly more significant than one about a chap who drinks too much palm wine. Black and African history, with its tragedies, injustices and wars, has led, with some justification, to the writers being treated as spokespeople for such ills. This has made the literature more committed than others. It might also make the literature less varied, less enjoyable and, fatally, less enduring.
It is a mystery that Italy, with its Borgias, black deaths, inquisitions and violence, left as its lasting legacy the Mona Lisa, The School of Athens, the Sistine Chapel, Giorgione’s Tempesta, the Divina Commedia, the Decameron – works, on the whole, noted for their beauty, their constant universal appeal and influence. They leave us mainly with their beauty. The horror of their history is not visible in the work.
You could not guess at the difficult lives of the ordinary people from the works of Shakespeare. Nowhere in his plays would you learn that in his time they emptied their lavatory buckets outside their windows and that the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon reeked with rubbish. Yet the works endure. They continue to illuminate the human spirit and awaken us to the strangeness and magnificence of the human estate.
There is an interesting lesson here. Cervantes knew slavery, the expulsion of the Moors; he lost his arm in the battle of Lepanto, was not ignorant of Spain’s brutal history; and yet he could not have left us a more lasting legacy than Don Quixote, a novel about a man who chooses to live the adventures he has only read.
Homer tells of the fall of Troy through one man’s sulk. Sophocles tells of a king’s culpability, not the horrors of Greek history. Tolstoy had a great subject in War and Peace, but it is his insight and the writing that give the subject nobility. Pushkin was soaked in Russia’s grim and extraordinary history. He knew the violence of the Boyars, the long shadow of Ivan the Terrible, the crushing lives of the peasants. He knew exile. Yet his Eugene Onegin, a fountain of Russian literature, is about a bored aristocrat; and his short story The Queen of Spades, one of the best short stories ever written, is about a gambler.
Great literature is rarely about one thing. It transcends subject. The subject was always the least important element in works that have endured. Sometimes an important work has a significant subject, but it is usually its art, rather than its subject, that makes it constantly relevant to us. If the subject were the most important thing we would not need art, we would not need literature. History would be sufficient. We go to literature for that which speaks to us in time and outside time.”
Read the rest.
[“BLA & GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]