In the last couple weeks, a debate of sorts has been taking place in the university newspaper I write for, The Sheaf. Doug Goldie fearlessly and ignorantly attacked the study of classic literature, saying that the mores and sensibilities of Homer and his Iliad were so outmoded and so detached from our postmodern way of life as to be pointless. What value, he asked, can there be in a document that contains such fierce violence, such prejudiced hierarchy, and such obviously chauvinistic views of women? The article both angered and depressed me, filling me a sense of creeping dread. Thankfully, however, it also sparked an outcry and in the following issue an article by Brennan Richardson appeared, denouncing and rebuking Goldie for his short-sighted and narrow article.
While postmodernity may not be all bad, as I sometimes think, it certainly is not all good and Goldie's article contained many of the alarming symptoms of postmodernity that frighten me, symptoms which threaten not only to destroy our sense of greatness and worth but also to unhinge our society and kick it loose from its foundations. The past, its accomplishments, its failures and its literature - especially its literature! - is the foundation of our minds. Whether we like what our heritage offers to us or not, whether we agree with it philosophically or morally, our heritage must be acknowledged; if we ignore it or, worse, alter it to fit our own preferences, we lie to ourselves, we deceive ourselves and the truth will never be found within us. We may stand on the mountain's top but we do so only because there is a mountain standing below us which we did not make. If we step off the mountain, we fall and we die.
In Milton's great poem Paradise Lost, Satan, filled with hate and arrogance, boldly declares to the angel Abdiel,
"That we were formed then, say'st thou? And the work
Of secondary hands, by task transferred
From Father to his Son? Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt. Who saw
When this creation was? Remember'st thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power, when fatal course
Had circled his full orb, the birth mature
Of this our native heav'n, ethereal sons." (Paradise Lost, V.853-863)
Milton was not familiar with postmodernity but was nevertheless familiar with its impulse, its desire to cut itself off from its own creation, to cut off the very branch upon which it sits. We are not self-made, as Milton's Satan claimed of himself; we are not of "birth mature." We are who we are and what we are because of a long history of human success and failure. In Paradise Lost, Satan, because of his deliberate refusal to acknowledge his own debt of creation, to acknowledge that he is dependent on something outside himself, was confronted with the vengeance of a justifiably wrathful God; the sight of that flaming chariot was so horrible and so revelatory that, instead of engaging it in impossible battle, he instantly leaped into the horror of chaos and eventually landed in hell. It may seem like too outrageous an analogy, but it seems to me that postmodern man runs the risk of facing a similar sort of judgment when he rejects or ignores that which created him, be it a God, an empire or simply a heritage. The past is immovable; it remains; it guides us, shapes us and, when we ignore it, punishes us.
The great literature of the past is the record of human accomplishment; it is our document of lineage; the proof that we can create great things, that we as a species can rise above the mud and accomplish more than merely war and death. I don't care that The Iliad hurt Doug Goldie's feelings. The Iliad has survived and been revered for thousands of years. It is, quite frankly, more important than Doug Goldie and his narrow opinions. If you cannot gain insight into the human condition from the man Matthew Arnold called "the clearest-souled of men," the fault is not with Homer but with you. The problem with classic literature is not that it contradicts what we'd like to think; the problem is that not enough of us are listening to what it has to say.