Reading Without History

I went to St. John’s College, where we read many of the “Great Books of the Western World.” The way we read them is significantly different from what I’ve seen in other classroom settings. We encounter the books directly, reading them without being told what to think about them, and without reading secondary sources or commentary. The professors at St. John’s (called tutors) then asked us probing questions about the books, that forced us to take their ideas seriously and engage with them in a difficult and challenging way. My husband and I are both St. John’s alums, and we often get drawn into “the history conversation” in social settings.

The history conversation happens when someone is appalled that our college didn’t get us engaged with the historical context of the work. We always try to explain that, while we’re sure that’s valuable, too, there’s something incredible about reading these books with the idea that they might speak to us as we are today, without needing a lot of intermediary texts and commentary. It’s all too easy to dismiss an idea as outdated when it’s too caught up in historical context. It’s easy to say that Plato’s thoughts on gender don’t mean anything because they happened before the advent of feminism in recent decades. On the other hand, it’s more rewarding to see what I get from facing them head on.

I recently finished Slavoj Žižek’s Violence. I enjoyed reading it, though I felt I had to be wary with him (he’s a slick and charismatic writer, and I felt suspicious sometimes of where he led). But there was one passage that addressed this history question well. I was glad to read it:

Surely Marx already pointed out how the true problem with Homer was not to explain the roots of his epics in early Greek society, but to account for the fact that, although clearly rooted in their historical context, they were able to transcend their historical origin and speak to all epochs. Perhaps the most elementary hermeneutic test of the greatness of a work of art is its ability to survive being torn from its original context. In the case of truly great art, each epoch reinvents and rediscovers it. There is a romantic Shakespeare and a realist Shakespeare.

Richard Wagner’s operas provide another example. Recent historical work tries to bring out the contextual “true meaning” of various Wagnerian characters and topics. … The first problem with such readings is that even if accurate, the insights garnered do not contribute much to a pertinent understanding of the work. Indeed, historicist commonplaces can blur our contact with art. In order properly to grasp Parsifal, one needs to abstract from such historical trivia, decontextualise the work, tear it out of the context in which it was originally embedded. There is more truth in Parsifal’s formal structure, which allows for different historical contextualisations, than in its original content.

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