Thursday, May 31, 2007

Historical Fictions

As I sat at my computer last night waiting for Windows to set up, I browsed an essay by Hugh Kenner in his book of essays on literature, Historical Fictions. How excited I was to find the sentence, "The Bible in the same way was edifying if you knew how to go about not believing it."

Uh, what was that? Come again? Well, the sentence appears in a chapter titled "Ezra Pound and Homer":
...[W]e aren't even sure what the Homeric poems are; something more than bronze-age entertainments, surely? Our efforts to assure ourselves that we know what we're valuing have constituted much of the history of our thought. At one time the Iliad and Odyssey were esteemed as a comprehensive curriculum in grammar, rhetoric, history, geography, navigation, strategy, even medicine. But by the mid-nineteenth century A.D. they no longer seemed to contain real information of any kind at all. Had there ever been a Trojan War? Scholars inclined to think not. much as connoisseurs of the West's other main book were doubting that there had been a Garden of Eden with an apple tree, or that planks of an Ark might have rotted atop Mount Ararat. Both books got rescued by identical stratagems; the Bible was turned into Literature, and so was Homer. That entailed redefining Literature, as something that's good for us however unfactual. That in turn meant Nobility, and also Style. It also required Longinus to supplant Aristotle as the prince of ancient critics, and Matthew Arnold to become the Longinus of Christian England. He said that Homer was rapid and plain and noble: by Longinian standards, Sublime*. Those were the qualities a translator should reach for, in part to sweep us past mere awkward nonfact. The Bible in the same way was edifying if you knew how to go about not believing it. [italics mine] [p. 13]
Finding the concluding sentence seemed to me to be the same sort of discovery as the little scrap of paper marking my "definitive stop" quotation from Changing Places, a sign "designedly dropped," as Whitman wrote, a sign that despite my skepticism about books of revelation, there are revelations. Or is that but my wish-to-believe...or my overactive imagination?
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* According to my indispensable copy of The Oxford Companion to English Literature:
Longinus, the name bestowed by a scribe's error on the author of the Greek critical treatise Περὶ ὕψους (On the Sublime) written probably in the 1st cent. AD. It locates the sources of poetic excellence in the profundity of the writer's emotions and the seriousness of his thought....

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