Definition of classic

daphneOn another blog, there was a conversation that broke out on the meaning of the word “classic”. I gave my initial response, but decided eventually to look in the dictionary. The editors of dictionaries put a lot of work into them, so it’s only fair that we make use of them. I started, however, with my Latin dictionary, where “classicus” meant “belonging to the first class, of the highest class”, usually in reference to some segment of the Roman people. If this is where the English word “classic” originates, then it gives us some idea of what it will mean. Moving on to the Oxford Dictionary, I think every definition stated on that blog post is contained here in one way or another.

“Classic” as an adjective has two definitions. First, “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind”. This definition combines the time criterion that showed up in many comments with the criterion of being the best of its kind, again where the fact it has lasted a long time seems more an indication of the worth, which is the more important factor. The second definition of the adjective is similar but distinct, “very typical of its kind”. Typical in the sense of “having the distinctive qualities of a particular type of person or thing” (Oxford). In this sense, the Iliad and the Odyssey are classic epics, Moby Dick is a classic American novel, and Hamlet is a classic tragedy. This definition accounts for why certain books are called classics of a genre or region, but are not unqualified literary classics.

“Classic” as a noun has two relevant definitions. The first is related to the adjective just described, “a work of art of recognized and established value”. The second is limited but related, “a subject at school or university which involves the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature, philosophy, and history”. I think there’s a way in which the Greek and Latin cultures laid the groundwork for Western notions of excellence in art, so there’s a reason why the name “classic” is attributed to them in a special sense.

golf ballThe third sense of the noun does not apply to this conversation, but is worth reporting for the sake of completion: “a major sports tournament or competition, especially in golf or tennis”. This name probably comes from the event being regular and traditional in its own fashion.

As for the word “classical“, this adjective primarily means “relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature, art, or culture”, and secondarily “representing an exemplary standard within a traditional and long-established form or style”, such as classical music and classical dance.

Now while all the respondents on the original post recognized some aspect of one of the definitions above, there were also questions about how to determine if a work is a classic. One response said, “the question is unanswerable, unless we are willing to elect some governing body the supreme keeper of literature”, indicating the difficulty of knowing who can determine the excellence of a work. Another response placed this responsibility in the reader: “I’d say we as humans determine individually what is classic to US. That’s sort of what we’re doing here in the club, I think — hunting down our own classics.”

audenThis reader is, nevertheless, guided by others. I’m reminded of Aristotle’s Topics, where he talks about how to attain knowledge by dialectical reasoning (rather than certain demonstrative reasoning), and he says you must start with opinions held “by all, or by the majority, or by the most notable and illustrious of them” (Topics, I.1). For this reason, we who read classics often look at lists of books put together by either a wide survey of readers, or by a group of notable intellectuals, or perhaps by one individual in particular who we believe to be particularly insightful.

As I was considering the role of the reader in determining which works to consider classics, I was reminded of a few quotes from W.H. Auden (that I once read on another literary blog) on the intersection of judgment and taste. These reflections indicate how a work could be a classic without necessarily being a book one enjoys.

“My taste tells me what, in fact, I enjoy reading; my judgement tells me what I must admire. There are always a number of poems that one must admire but that, by reasons of one’s temperament, one cannot enjoy. The converse is not necessarily true. I don’t think I like any poem that I do not also admire, but I have to remind myself that in some other fields–tear-jerking movies, for example–I revel in what my judgment tells me is trash.” (W.H. Auden, 19th Century British Minor Poets)

“As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like. For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.” (W.H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book)

Journal: Andrić, Zweig, Julianus Pomerius

It feels like a very long time since I’ve written anything on here, and nearly as long of a time since I even finished reading a book. Perhaps it is because I am in my first year out of school, but it’s been difficult to set aside the time for reading that I once did. Whether it is because I’m actually busy or because reading doesn’t seem appealing when time finally opens up, all of the excuses are gone now. Everything is cancelled. Meetings, appointments, school visits, and so on. So now it is time to read again.

As I often find it difficult to remember all the poignant details of books after reading them, this time I think I’ll do something more like a journal. Instead of waiting until I finish a book, I will periodically talk about what I’m reading. This sort of update will also encourage me to continue reading when the interest ebbs and wanes.

Image result for omer pasha latasI decided to start with a shorter book on the shelf, and picked out Omer Pasha Latas: Marshal to the Sultan by Ivo Andrić. Andrić is the only Southern Slav to win the Nobel Prize in literature, writing in Serbo-Croatian. His most famous work is The Bridge on the Drina, which is a novel that takes place over 300 years where the only consistent figure throughout is the bridge in the title. So far, Omer Pasha Latas resembles The Bridge on the Drina in many respects: it is set in the region of Bosnia, the timeline is extensive, there is a clash of cultures Eastern and Western, and a vying for dominance between the imperial and the local. Though both of the books are composed, more or less, from vignettes about different personalities here and there, the stories in Omer Pasha Latas all revolve in some way around the title character, much as The Bridge on the Drina revolves around the life of that bridge. Omer Pasha was an Austrian who abandoned his faith and consequently worked his way up through the ranks of the Turkish empire. Although he externally takes on the appearance of Turk, he is considered an outsider in everywhere to the Bosnian subjects he attempts to put in order.

Image result for stefan zweig world of yesterdayIn addition to this novel, I decided to give Audible a try and began listening to the memoirs of Stefan Zweig in The World of Yesterday. I’ve only just started it and I only listen to it as I drive, so it may take awhile to get through the 17-hour listening time, but already he explains why his perspective makes a good story: he has witnessed two world wars, and the secure order he grew up in during the late 19th century is unimaginable to those growing up in his own time. He talks about the beauty of Vienna, with its multiculturalism and artistic talent, and the Jewish genius, which prizes the intellectual life above all things. Though I never wrote a post about it, one of the last books I finished was a collection of novellas by Stefan Zweig. Each novella put in deep relief some particular movement of the human heart. I expect his own memoirs to do as well in expressing his own feelings at seeing the world turned upside-down.

Image result for bartholomew of the martyrsThe last book I want to mention is called The Contemplative Life by Julianus Pomerius, a 5th century African writer. How I discovered this work: I was reading about the recently canonized St. Bartholomew of the Martyrs, a Portuguese Dominican friar who became a bishop and assisted with the reform of the clergy around the time of the Council of Trent. I discovered that he wrote a manual for bishops, called the Stimulus Pastorum, which became one of the favorite books of St. Charles Borromeo. This work had never been translated into English, but my curiosity led me to a Latin version of the work. Whereas the second half of the work reads like a manual for bishops, the first half of the work is composed entirely from other works: On the Priesthood by St. John Chrysostom, The Pastoral Rule of St. Gregory the Great, On consideration by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and several other well-known works and authors. One extensively quoted work that I did not recognize was De vita contemplativa by Julianus Pomerius, a work I had never heard of, but which was available in English. So I obtained an English copy and began reading. So far, it’s an excellent work of eschatology. judgment angelicoApparently, the author was responsible for bringing the thought of St. Augustine from North Africa up to Gaul, where he was ordained and served as a teacher. Whereas St. Augustine sometimes sounds silly in the City of God, as he ponders and proposes about the nature of the next life and the resurrection of the body, the work of Pomerius trims down these doctrines to their essential points and presents them in a manner useful for meditation. For example, he usefully proposes that the active life is to the contemplative life as the contemplative life is to the life of the blessed in heaven. With this proportion in place, every description of the coming beatitude and resurrection of the body helps to illustrate the life to which contemplatives are called, while at the same time highlighting the perfection that remains for the next world. If someone was unfamiliar with the Christian doctrines of the beatific vision, the resurrection of the body, the last judgment, or the superiority of the contemplative life, I would certainly recommend this book as a level and clear explanation. The second half of the book will give counsel for those caught up in the active life, something I hope to find very useful.

Adam Bede, my last major Eliot novel

Hetty Sorrel and Captain Donnithorne in Mrs Poyser's dairyWithout unveiling anything that happens in the course of the book, I will say it becomes a page-turner only about halfway through. Early on, whenever someone asked me what I was reading, the only descriptions I could give made it sound like a simple love story with little else to offer. But it picks up. Once I hit the middle point, I soon read through the rest before anyone else had a chance to ask me about it.

To sum up a moral for the story, it is how one brief bit of carelessness can lead to evils untold, for others and for oneself; consequences that can last far longer than the original act that set them in motion and can endure even to death, and even more. Of course, what does it matter if one is careless, so long as no one finds out? Again, this book demonstrates how great are the repercussions that follow on the smallest revelation—how much more when all things are revealed? Then it will only be those who have no secrets that will be at ease and without shame. Continue reading