Reflected glory

It can be so depressing to pick up a classic. When you open Fitzgerald, Proust, Morrison, Goethe, Austen, Tolstoy, Woolf, you are not only faced with a work of profound beauty you find yourself staring into a mirror of your own inadequacies, and the glare of it all is harsh to say the least. John the Baptizer claimed that he was not even worthy to undo the sandal of the one who would come after him; he was not even good enough to qualify for that most minimal of the services that on the surface of things seemingly anyone could offer. Surely many of us who write are struck by similar feelings whenever we encounter one of the truly greats. What can I possibly do that would stack up to that?

Yet our times are awash in new works. There is no shortage of books coming out every year, every month, to say nothing of the essays, articles, shorts, and – yes – posts to literary websites. (Ahem.) There are of course a number of reasons for this trend. One is the near universal rates of literacy that the developed nations of the world now enjoy (and hopefully soon too the developing nations can achieve such levels). Another is the lengthy period of education that has become the norm, far beyond what our parents or grandparents typically underwent a mere one or two generations ago. Another still is the idea of democracy (even if not its practice) and the notion that each individual has, and should make known, their own views. Above all though is the advent of the internet and the vast changes that it has brought to communicative methods and publishing practices. Clicking open a browser we are daily greeted by a clamor of voices, a cacophony of published works. But despite it all we find ourselves returning to the classics again and again, those works forged in the fires of times when market forces were not so transparently behind the production of bestsellers and reading was an activity that you bent your will to and not just your head. Saying all this is not meant as an elitist critique of our contemporary situation – far from it – but instead simply as an appreciation for those writers and those works which, for whatever reason or reasons, have come to transcend time. What marked them? Daring certainly, the creative and innovative styles of expression they employed, the pure individuality of their poetry, their prose. The poetry, even, I think it’s safe to say, that dances within their prose. We read them and are awed.

That admiration, however, is no reason to sigh and click “trash” on your work in progress. The more we are exposed to what has been done, to what experiments and studies have gone before, the more we realize that everything has been done. There is nothing new under the sun, as Qohelet recognized nearly two and a half millennia ago – but he still wrote his book and what a beauty it is. I would like to suggest that we who write do not stand in the shadows of the greats but rather in their lineage. We are them now and who knows what our works will become? It may be puerilely optimistic to think that someone in ten, twenty, fifty, or one hundred years may find value in something that we’ve written today but the world is filled with far stranger facts than that and the experience of being human, after all, is not something that changes so abruptly nor so completely. And so what? And so we write, we give, we labor and we struggle and we leave all judgments of the adequacy or inadequacy of our own works to others. We do not write to be loved, we write to be; to be ourselves in this time and this place with these feelings and these thoughts and these reactions to the realities that now confront us. We speak out of our own era because historically we must, and we speak out of our own hearts because our honesty and integrity demand it. We who write become fully ourselves only through our writing; surely any of the luminaries listed above would agree with that.

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