I admit I am one of these odd people who thinks we can learn a great deal not only from history but also from great literature. There are many, of course, who would deny that there is any such thing as “great” literature — just literature that some like and others do not. But I would argue that great literature is recognizable because it provides us with insights into the human condition in a way that makes us marvel at the power of words. I agree with Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he said that “quality” is one of those things no one can define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it.
For example, all sports fans recognize the great athlete. They are rare and stand out above the others. We may not know what it is that sets them apart, but they jump out at us. We might quibble about who was the greatest tennis player, football player, or basketball player. And the current series on ESPN that seeks to single out the “greatest athlete ever,” comparing such athletes as Roger Federer and Bo Jackson, is bogus. But those who know the sport know who the great ones were. Great literature is like that. It stands out and commands our attention. But if we don’t know anything about the sport involved, we cannot separate out the great players. Similarly, if we are not well read we cannot recognize the great books, those that exhibit exceptional writing and insight into the human condition.
I recently came upon a passage in E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey that helps me make my case. Forster is a poet in the true sense of that term: he creates with words. His creations happen to take the form of novels. This novel is one of those books that tells a story, but which also makes us stop and think. In that novel we find the following passage:
“the city [Salisbury] has strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.”
The stunner, of course, is in the final sentence. I’ve been to Salisbury and have seen precisely what Forster points out. He is pointing to the human tendency — which has grown stronger since he wrote his novels — to put itself in opposition to the earth, to ignore its “sentiments,” and demand that it satisfy human cravings.
Farmers sit in their twelve-wheel tractors polluting the air and ripping into the soil in the Fall of the year to expose the dark topsoil to the eroding Winter winds; miners tear apart the earth and leave it exposed as they look beneath its surface for spoils that will make them rich; deforestation in tropical regions leaves the earth bare and parched and unable to provide future growth; we take precious oil from deep beneath the earth and burn it up in our gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks; we topple trees and cover the exposed earth with concrete parking lots and malls so we can shop for goods we don’t really need; and so it goes. In so many ways we do, indeed, “neglect the poise of the earth.” If we ever knew what stewardship meant, we have forgotten it in our haste to beat the world into submission to our will, to meet our endless demands for creature comforts, and continue to meet the demands of growing human populations.
Forster’s passing remark strikes chords and makes us pause and reflect. That is a mark of great writing.