Looking At The Old Classics

October 8, 2012

- See all 164 of my articles

No Comments

One of the oldest classic literary works is Oedipus. This three part play has been studies by academics and high school students for generations. As with last week’s article, I am taking inspiration from my son’s classics course assignment. This week, his class is finishing up reading and analyzing Oedipus. They are to choose a character and find an equivalent in another work. Beyond that equivalence, they are to create imagery of their own to show that they actually understand and can defend the characteristics they have chosen to analyze.

My son chose Oedipus as his character and the biblical Job as the equivalent. Neither character had personally done anything that would lead to punishment, yet both were punished by the gods. In the case of Oedipus, it was jealousy between gods and the crimes of his ancestors, both conditions that he was unaware of, that caused his suffering. In the case of Job, it is a rather odd bet between God and Lucifer, again without any knowledge or provocation from the victim. Both characters whine and complain about their fate, but neither actually blames the gods or God. They are both led through the trials and tribulations without any choices except the choice to honor the gods or not.

The imagery that my son chose was that of sheep. Sheep follow their herder both out of habit and necessity. The habit is the association with the herder from birth and not knowing any other life. The necessity is the herder leading the sheep to food, protecting them from predators and searching for them when they are lost or separated from the flock. In fact, domesticated sheep would not survive without the direct and constant intervention of the herders.

Many classic Greeks and modern religious people believe that the direct and constant shepherding is essential to their lives. Others live their lives either hoping that such attention is not needed or convinced that it is not provided. Regardless of your individual belief system, the story in Oedipus allows a certain amount of soul searching, as does the story of Job. If the shepherd purposely allows harm even if it is not fatal, is the shepherd actually doing his job? One could say that the Judeo-Christian God is better since Job gets some of what he lost back in the end, but in both cases the suffering does not help the victim at all. In the case of the Oedipus, the moral is “don’t upset the gods” and “the gods will punish you even if you have no clue why”. In the Job story, the moral seems to be “bad things happen, but if you believe in God, it will not be all bad”.

Building on the question from last week of what makes a classic a classic, consider the implications of a moral or teaching within a story. Most religious texts, fables and myths include morals and teaching. Any story has to have a point and many of the classics depend on moral imperatives to make that point.


What Makes A Book A Classic?

October 1, 2012

- See all 164 of my articles

1 Comment

My son is in high school and taking a classics course. He posed the question “what makes a classic a classic?” This is a difficult question to answer. Everyone has there own opinion. There have been many times I was told to read something because it was a classic, yet it seemed to be basically pulp fiction. To me, a classic has certain elements. First, the story must cross the boundaries of time. Although both are considered classics, it is far easier to understand the motives and characters in The Odyssey they those in The Great Gatsby. The reason for this is that The Odyssey was written assuming that the audience did not understand the motives and therefore they are explained in great detail. The Great Gatsby is written only to the audience of the time. What is obvious to the characters and writer are lost on the current audience.

Most people assume that what is popular during their lifetime will be popular for ever. The fact is that only a small portion of the art of a period moves into the future, the far greater proportion drops into obscurity. In music, for the 1700s, many people could identify Mozart, Bach, and Wagner, but few but experts would even know who Buxtehude was (he was Bach’s teacher). In more modern times, who from the 1960’s would have thought that Pink Floyd would still be selling out live performances in the 2010s but find it almost impossible to get a copy of a Guess Who song other than in an compilation.

With the visual arts the same is true. There were literally hundreds of portrait painters in the 1600s, but he Mona Lisa is still the most famous. True, some masterpieces have been lost due to left, natural disaster, war and the temporary nature of the medium. Today, visual classics could be in the work of the commercial advertiser, but we cannot know for sure until a significant about of time has passed.

The same timelessness is the driver for all forms of art, music, visual and literature. Style changes, what is popular changes, but when something can be shared across generations or even centuries, then it becomes a classic. The works of J. R. R. Tolkien could also be considered classics. They are the basic story of good versus evil with a small hero overcoming immense odds. All of this was born in the nightmare that was the trenches of World War I. It has the forms of a classic, not just because it is a favorite among the anachronistic communities, but because the work itself drew upon earlier classics. Tolkien was a professor of classics specializing in Nordic and ancient Anglo-Saxon literature. He wove a tale that included the details required to allow the reader to understand the circumstances of the characters, even after history had moved well beyond the period he was writing in.

The 19th century novelists also went to great lengths to give background information, thus allowing Jane Austin’s works to last as well. Similarly, Shakespeare wrote with the same push for completeness of story. In many of his works, specifically the histories, his audience was rather ignorant of the topic. Schooling was not what it is today, and some of his effort was to educate his audience as well as entertain. Some works are studied in classics courses more for the fame of the author than the durability of the work. Earnest Hemmingway is studied at length, but as time goes on, many of his works fail the test. They are specific to his time and generation. What is famous today may well fall to the wayside. For example, the Harry Potter novels are very popular and even have the classic good versus evil story line, but they will never stand the test of time. The same goes for the Twighlight series and other popular works. These are all good books, as can be seen by their current popularity, sales and movie deals. The bigger test will be if the next generation even hears about them.

So what makes a classic a classic? Only time will tell.