Monday 27 May 2024

A Literary Imbalance

Lydia Davis, Essays Two (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), p. 94:

What had been bothering me, as an incongruity, an imbalance, was that whereas artwork of the eighteenth century and further back, to the beginning of discovered painting, is readily available, at least in reproduction, and enjoyed by the general public, not just scholars or specialists, and likewise the music of the eighteenth century and earlier—though as one goes back through the centuries, the numbers of listeners does drop off—the great works of literature before, say, Jane Austen, are mostly unread, even by writers. Here, too, of course, the further back in time we go, the smaller the readership becomes. There are shelves and shelves full of fresh and surprising language and convivial company that are ignored by writers and completely unknown to most of the same people who may crowd New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and who then, on their way out of town, may hear a little Vivaldi from the loudspeakers of the Port Authority Bus Terminal or Penn Station. The language of earlier writing is certainly a barrier, and yet some adventurers learn Arabic, Hebrew, and Swahili, and many more learn French, German, and Spanish. But those avid language-learners don’t as readily try to cross the barrier to James Boswell’s English, or John Donne’s, or further back to Chaucer’s or Beowulf’s (at which point the English is admittedly a more or less foreign language). But maybe the barrier is something other than the language; maybe it is the sensibility or the worldview that changes too much, as we travel back in time, for us to understand it, or, if we understand it, to feel any sympathy for it. But if the language