Originally asked by T.S. Eliot in his presidential address delivered to the Virgil Society in 1944, this question was resurrected at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival at a panel discussion moderated by the US-based academic, Homi Bhabha.
Speaking towards the end of World War II, Eliot had not merely tried to make a case for the intrinsic genius of some literary works that have enjoyed a glorious afterlife, but also meditating on what other factors — national, political, religious — have been responsible for the persistence of these works in human memory. These were important concerns for Eliot in the mid-1940s, when he and his fellow writers like Ezra Pound were struggling to get access to books during the difficult war years. As a result, for many of these great men of letters, memory became the most important library, and so, the staying power of canonical works was tested more than ever during this time of turmoil.
At the JLF, the panelists — Christopher Ricks, Elif Batuman, Tom Holland and Ashok Vajpeyi (artist Anish Kapoor could not attend, unfortunately) — almost unanimously agreed on the problem of defining a classic as a work of art (broadly including the fine arts, music and literature) that exists beyond the purview of personal taste. “The first classic I was foisted on was Alice in Wonderland, which I found unreadable,” confessed Holland, who is a novelist and historian. “The great unspoken truth about most children’s classics,” he added, “is that a lot of them are best enjoyed in adulthood. It was only after I got to the Beatles and John Lennon and ‘I am the Walrus’ that I really started to understand Alice in Wonderland.” Of course, as a father, he subjected his 14-year-old daughter to the same ordeal when he made her read Tennyson’s ‘Tears, idle tears’. Having initially despised the poem, his daughter thanked him later, after her best friend from school moved to another city and she rediscovered the poem in a different light. The classic, therefore, is a creature that settles down in our heads as we collide and collude with life.
The great classic that Holland discovered for himself was Herodotus’ Histories, in which the ancient Greek writer writes about India, among many other things. Although Holland was drawn to it because he wanted to read about wars and warriors, he found he was reading “an enormous shaggy dog story”. “Herodotus tells us in great detail how kings were cuckolded by their body guards or what the Egyptians did with their cats, and I realized, over time, that actually these were the things I was also interested in. So, maybe, a classic is a text that grows on you over the years.”
For essayist Elif Batuman, it was not Alice in Wonderland but Treasure Island that was foisted on her. Some classics, it is true, are imposed from the above, said Batuman, “but there is also an evolutionary view — be it a Darwinian or a market-place view — of how classics evolve because they have certain formal features or because they appeal to the market in a certain way.” Poet and critic Ashok Vajpeyi added that, “Sometimes a classic may epitomize a culture; at other times, it may radically question that culture.” So a classic can be a radical one as well. Literary critic Christopher Ricks extended this argument with his contention that enduring greatness often stems from the reconciliation of opposites. He quoted Samuel Taylor Coleridge on imagination, in which the English Romantic poet speaks of the coming together of enthusiasm and discipline as one of the key features of poetry.
Holland stressed that a classic does not only play a radical subversive role but is also an appurtenance of a great civilization. When Caesar Augustus decided that the Romans, too, should have their great epic like the Greeks, he told Virgil to write one, and amazingly, he wrote one too. “But what’s interesting,” Holland pointed out, “is that in spite of being the single-most influence on a great tradition of Western writing, the Aeneid did not generate a worldwide interest, nor did it migrate across civilizations.” In the end, the panel left the audience with more questions to ponder than answers and assurances to take home with them. This quality of uncertainty, the way it shakes humanity out of its comfort zone and makes people reach out for it to seek clues as to how to live a better life, is perhaps the one overarching characteristic of any classic.
• Tom Holland—Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
• Christopher Ricks—the works of Samuel Beckett
• Ashok Vajpeyi—the music of Mallikarjun Mansur and Kumar Gandharva, Hindustani classical vocalists
• Homi Bhabha—The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.