What Makes Literature Good?

by September 29, 2013

What makes literature good is its ability to stand the test of time, remaining relevant to future generations and a multitude of interpretations that allows each individual to find something of relevance to their own lives; it addresses a universal theme that reaches all human experience for all time. Literature bridges the gap between past and present human struggle in hopes of making sense of it all.

It seeks to answer the question: Why are we here, what is the meaning of life. Its nostalgic quality is more about learning from the past to better understand our present and future. It speaks of a people and place or event that is no longer accessible other than through the device of passing on the story through the generations. For this reason, time becomes the gauge for what is of value to each following generation of reader. As each reader encounters the work, they bring themselves and the present reality to bare witness on the past. It is this melding of the two, past and present, that create the chemistry necessary for good literature; if there is no connection between these two then the work will wither in the attic of bad interpretations of what it means to be human. These truths are what make the process possible. The universal element of human struggle, tragedy and drama are the glue that connect the past and present plot lines. Even if the characters and circumstances are very different than their modern equivalent, the themes are the same: the hero’s journey, the wanderer, etc. The English written word itself is still very young, where human experience is much older, more fluid and drenched in oral tradition that plays out these dramas of time and interpretation in good literature.

Storytelling is at the foundation of human evolution, allowing us to link evolving traditions and knowledge, making the transition between to worldviews more successful. The depth and breadth of these transitional stories will determine the success of future generations — many are only skimming the surface of what our literary tradition has to offer, which makes me wonder if we are loosing something vital to our own future. Essentially, it is the passing on of these stories and poems that determine the quality of the work, which I am calling the test of time. The Beowulf poet drew upon pagan sources in a time when Christianity was being embraced by the culture. He captures the spirit of a time in transition and sets out to use the hero’s adventure as model for the new Christian doctrine. Throughout the story, we are gradually brought to an understanding that before the Christian god, life was dark, beasts roomed the earth and nature was brutal, “That was their way, their heathen hope; deep in their hearts they remembered hell. The Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, … was unknown to them,” (line 178). He must have felt a separation from the past invading the society around him and he wanted to bring the pagan heroic ideal into direct contrast with a Christian doctrine of forgiveness. “I would rather not use a weapon if I knew another way to grapple with the dragon …” (line 2518) he writes, setting the tone of Beowulf, a man, a hero caught between two worlds. He struggles with the demons of the ancient world metaphorically frozen in a time when these beasts of the human subconscious must be brought under conscious submission in a then modern, evolving Christian world. The poem crosses the boundary of a changing worldview, linking the past and the present in a way that seeks to resolve how this new forgiving view will destroy the demons that lurk in the collective pagan unconscious. Once doomed, but now bathed in the promise of salvation, the characters of Beowulf struggle with that divide, “Inspired again by the thought of glory, the war-king threw his whole strength behind a sword …” (line 2679) only to fail, because the old way no longer worked; the war-king is doomed to fail, unless he gives up his pride in strength and worldly prowess for the divine intervention of a new Christian god. In Beowulf, Wiglaf wins the battle and gives thanks, “To the everlasting Lord of all, to the King of Glory …” (line 2782), not the king of war.

Yet, even the Christian worldview, although more firmly rooted in the 15th century, was being undone by human pride. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem about what it means to be a new kind of human, the noble beast. When greed and arrogance seek to reduce the ascending human spirit, the great Sir Gawain has a lesson to learn from what, in his time, has become a more forgiving supernatural foe, the Green Knight. Once again the pagan magic of the past serves as a teaching force, bringing human pride under subjection when the Green Knight sought out “He that on high sits,” (256) to challenge the most prideful to a game, “You will graciously grant the game that I ask” (273). The flesh continues to present an obstacle to those who have relinquished all to Christendom, “The faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse, how its tenderness entices the foul taint of sin …” (line 2435). Sir Gaiwain must confront a more formidable demon within; no more are the demons lurking in caves and dark places outside the human heart. The self has clearly become the new battleground. This universal truth lives on today and forever, a struggle with the self, from the greed and self-centeredness of an infant through the passage of time and the sharing of such tells, we grow into self-aware individuals. His newfound awareness is granted by the grace of God despite the “Wild ways in the world our worthy knight rides on Gringolet, that by grace had been granted his life,” (line 2479).

Julian of Norwich further exemplifies the true qualities of good literature by bringing into question our depth of interpretation. It asks the reader to question the essence of our understanding of our existence — a truly timeless question that Julian struggles with through her revelations. Again, our understanding of the evolving Christian world must go through a metamorphosis. Human suffering is the primary path to salvation. She writes about “all the pains that ever were or ever shall be” (361). Julian addresses the universal timeless theme of suffering, caused by sin, that makes us look at our inherent weakness, and forces us to seek comfort in Jesus: “And this pain is something … for the passion of our Lord is comfort to us against all this, and so is his blessed will” (361). The human spirit is ascending to a new level of understanding; correct interpretation of its ascent is becoming the new question in her time. The struggle with the flesh continues although the pagan world has faded, we require a new understanding of human suffering, which persists today. Good literature will always seek to resolve the most pressing and painful of human questions. Perhaps, once all human suffering is abolished, Julian’s revelations will cease to be important to us, but until that time comes, the timeless state of human despair will compel us to read Julian of Norwich. She posits, if suffering helps us to understand the power of God’s love, “and if we fell not, we should not so fulsomely know the marvelous love of our maker” (364). If we suffered not there would be no need for the comfort of Jesus because “when we fall, hastily he raiseth us by his sweet working, then we willfully choose him by his grace to be his servant” (364). I agree that pain can be a great catalyst for change and self-improvement. The Christ is a beacon of hope amidst despairing circumstances; through pain we are compelled to seek his healing influence. However, I must ask, is it God or Julian who brings us to a clear interpretation of God’s will. An aside, for women in the 15th century amidst rampant patriarchal Christendom, a woman’s literary voice would only be heard if she gave credit to the Father. Regardless of one’s belief, the theme is universal and the catharsis works the same. Julian of Norwich is a stepping-stone from one state of human awareness to a new, more individuated awareness that will become the popular theme of the 16th century.

Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia marks our fall from grace. No longer are we looking upward only for answers to the question of our existence, since good literature will always seek to evolve the human condition to higher states of being. Utopia tells us that we can shape our destiny and that we are not subjects of powers beyond our control. It marks the point in time when another transition is occurring. Transitions, bridges and psychological border crossings are all elements that the best literature has to offer. Again, I cannot imagine poem or prose surviving the test of time without these crucial themes. Where Chaucer made his mark on the evolution of language, I feel it is secondary to the underlying universal themes that seem to affect all humankind. The individual is emerging in Utopia, and the reasonable government. “Would a way of life so absolutely repellent to my spirit make me happier? … I live as I please,” (Utopia, pg. 509) said Raphael. To Moore, it was time to adjust to the conditions of the state. A theme was washing over the consciousness of many people. Utopia is becoming the new ideal state of being, as well as an actual commonwealth. Humankind can shape his own destiny, since Moore “described to you … the structure of that commonwealth [Utopia] … the only one that can rightfully claim that name,” (pg. 920, conclusion).

And then we arrive in Paradise, my favorite paradox, the place that no man can imagine, yet, he manages to loose. Milton summarizes the entire breadth of the Middle Ages to modern individuation in Paradise Lost. It seems the pinnacle of tragedy, to fall from a place that was never suited for humankind, and to lament, as we do, over what once was. Gone are the days of Julian’s revelations. The new modern man, in all his technological glory, exemplifies Paradise Lost, that place of innocence, the pagan world and the new found grace of God, all called into question by knowledge. We must say goodbye to Paradise, because we rely on an understanding of good and evil to survive. When Satan tells Eve “Why then this [the fruit] forbid? Why but to awe, why but to keep ye low and ignorant?” (9:703), all is lost, for such logic cannot be resisted by a reader who knows that hunger for understanding has lead him to this point. Although the story is about the beginning, Milton is dealing with his time. God, “omniscient … Hindered not Satan to attempt the mind of man, with strength entire, and free will armed,” (10:7). We have come of age, although ill equipped to answer grand question that only God knows. The poet continues his struggle to understand, forever looking inward, upward, perhaps to the Christ for the human element in God “and propitiation, all his works on me good or not good ingraft, my merit those, shall perfect, and for these my death shall pay,” (11, 34). At least Milton brings the Middle Ages to its final stage, where the individual must seek out the answer to that lingering question good literature tries to answer, “Why are we here?” By looking at the full body of literary work, it’s good literature, that will bring us closer to answering that question. The struggle of writers and poets is one we all share. Time and timeless interpretation of human experience, building upon the past to better see the present and predict the future is a human drama that will continue to mark literature as good and important to society.

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