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Men have been writing for over five thousand years and have piled up a vast mass of imaginative literature. Some of it is just writing that happens to have lasted physically. There are, however, a small number of books that are something more. They are the basic documents in the history of the imagination; they overflow all definitions of classicism and, at the same time, share the most simply defined characteristics. It is usually said that they deal with the archetypes of human experience, with characters at once concrete and universal, and with events and relationships that are invariant in the lives of all men.

The archetypes of individual psychology are nodes, or foci, in the structure of each developing personality. Archetypes in this sense are characteristic of the greatest works of the human imagination as well. The unity of human experience is determined by the narrowness of the range of action and interaction of organisms and environments, for all men everywhere. Eskimos, Polynesians, Romans, Chicagoans — all men have the same kind of bodies and the same kind of brains and cope with an environment in ways that would seem more uniform than not to an observer from another planet.

This concentration on human individuals and their interrelationships distinguishes great literature from myth. Myths subjectivize the objective world. They put man into nature. The questions of man’s relationship to his environment are answered by dramatic tableaux that are embodied in ritual. The greatest works of imaginative literature are mirror-images of myth. They objectify the crucial history of the subjective life. They make reality, nature, out of man. Their dramas are real, not formal. That is, dramatic tension is inherent in their materials, their elements. It does not depend on an overlying structure. Therefore, dramatic intensity springs from the very fact of relationships, and it reveals the fundamental dynamism of human life in the way, for instance, in which the operation of a power plant reveals the laws of physics.

In contrast, the interrelationships in myth tend to grow static as they are resolved — for instance, the interrelationship of the Olympian gods in The Iliad and The Odyssey never rises above a kind of frozen busyness. The drama is in the relationships of men.

It might be imagined that the history of the greatest literature would be a history of the evolution of an ever-deepening process of individuation. Certainly throughout history the symbolic patterns of myth increase in efficiency by becoming etherealized. They encompass ever wider, more profound, more intense means. Myth in this way parallels science, of which in a sense it is the metaphorical vesture, or substitute. Man fills the gap between technology and environment with myth and ritual. Mystery is resolved by being embodied.

Notoriously, the great dramatic fictions of mankind have not progressed as has science or even religious insight. Art is not improved by technology. The bisons in the cave at Altamira are not inferior to the best paintings in the last Biennale — and so with literature. James Joyce’s Ulysses does not improve Homer. At one time it was believed that the mid-nineteenth century had witnessed a revolution of sensibility and insight. The poetry of Baudelaire, the novels of Dostoievsky were imagined to be different in kind from what had preceded them. Only the very young, and few of them, believe this any more. In fact, it would be easier today to muster cogent arguments on the other side.

The perils of the soul and its achievements are constant. From his earliest literary efforts man does not seem to have advanced in his comprehension of them, and may well have declined. Above all others, this is the area where novelty seems to be of no importance whatsoever, yet its lack never results in tedium. Quite the reverse: the contemporary novel that embodies paradigms of the great tragic commonplaces of human life seems precisely “novel,” fresh, and convincing, while literature that deals with contemporaneity on its own terms is hackneyed before it appears in print.

The fundamental relationships of man to man, man to his environment, man to himself do not have to be presented as especially grandiose. The murder of Agamemnon and the long-drawn-out resolution of vengeance are only one aspect of the human condition. There are quiet and idyllic classics, even inconspicuous ones.

The most obvious classics are tragic because life is tragic in its very structure. There are no optimistic classics that tell us all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and besides, everything is getting better and better. There are no classics that are untrue. But certainly there are many that are powerful, though, it may be, very quiet, affirmations of life. The human race endures because millions of people have gone on inconspicuously affirming their existence, including aspects too tragic for literature.

Life may not be optimistic, but it certainly is comic, and the greatest literature presents man wearing the two conventional masks: the grinning and the weeping faces that decorate theater prosceniums. What is the face behind the double mask? Just a human face — yours or mine. That is the irony of it all — the irony that distinguishes great literature: it is all so ordinary.


Introduction to Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited. Copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

[“Classics Revisited” essays]




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