On Essays and Letters
Recently, I wandered into Barnes & Noble on M Street in Georgetown intending to purchase the new Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine. They did not have it. To save money, if that is the purpose of life, I should have left at that moment. On the new releases shelf, however, for only eleven dollars, was J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a novel I had heard of and vaguely wanted to read. Thinking I could get it later, I proceeded to the upper floors where I found John Paul II’s second from last book, Memory and Identity, which I did purchase, a remarkable book. But in theprocess of looking, I came across Coetzee’s Stranger Shores: Literary Essays. Though I am generally a sucker for these sorts of books, what immediately prompted me to buy it was the first essay in the collection, “What Is a Classic: A Lecture.”
I will have to maintain that a lecture can become an essay when written down. In any case, the lecture was originally given in Graz, Austria, in 1991. I took the book home and read the essay right away.
Coetzee’s own South African background serves to provide the framework for this consideration on the famous question about the nature and character of a classic, be it in literature, music, or even games. Coetzee, now at the University of Chicago, begins his considerations by recalling T. S. Eliot’s famous essay, What Is a Classic, a lecture given to the Virgil Society in London in October, 1944. Coetzee notes that Eliot barely mentioned the war in his lecture, as if to say, as C. S. Lewis said in his famous essay Learning in War Time, that there are more important things than wars, even during wars, the chief of which are precisely classics, that is, reflections on beauty, truth, and what is. Without these, no one can know what he is fighting for.
Coetzee’s problem in this lecture/essay is to define what a classic is. He is not comfortable with the idea that a classic has no history. He points out that many classics are not recognized as classics until many decades or centuries after they are written. The burden of his lecture is to see if the history of a classic’s becoming a classic might itself be a factor in discovering what a classic is. Coetzee is not a debunker, though he takes some pains to examine Eliot’s own relation between his American background and his British and London literary and personal identity, wherein he (Eliot) could better associate himself with the great western classical tradition, particularly with Virgil.
But what interested me most about this essay was Coetzee’s description of how he arrived at the problem of what is a classic in the first place. It seems that Coetzee was a boy of fifteen, living in the suburbs of Cape Town in 1955. He was, as are many boys of his age, bored out of his mind, as he tells us, the main problem of existence in those days. Nothing much was going on. It was a Sunday afternoon (I think of Johnny Cash’s ballad Sunday Morning Coming Down). Young Coetzee had no reason that day to think that anything much would go on either.
However, suddenly, from the house next door, Coetzee tells us that he heard some music that he had never heard of before. He was not at the time at all musically inclined, and still the music suddenly made him alert. This is how he describes the moment:
As long as the music lasted, I was frozen. I dared not breathe. I was being spoken to by the music as music had never spoken to me before.
His neighbors seem to have been transient students. He never heard the piece again though he listened for it. The music was Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier played on a harpsichord, though he did not learn this title until later. “At the age of fifteen, I knew (it) only—in a somewhat suspicions and even hostile teenage manner—as ‘classical music.’ ”
It was from this experience that Coetzee later investigated Bach as a classic, only to find out that Bach was not especially recognized in his own time, and when he was later appreciated it was often for other reasons than his music—romanticism or German nationalism. Yet, it seems that there was always a tradition among musicians of playing and re-playing Bach. Indeed, music seems to have this requirement built into its very core, so that what is a classic is examined again and again down the ages.
Later in life, Coetzee examined himself often on this initial experience. Was he moved simply because that is what classics do to us if we read or hear them? Yet, all of us know people who listen to or read classics who are not moved by them at all.
About my response to Bach in 1955, I asked whether it was truly a response to some inherent quality in the music rather than a symbolic election on my part of European high culture as a way out of a social and historical dead end.
Thus, our love of Bach could be a sort of snobbishness. In the end, Coetzee thinks that it really was the music. But the very history of classics, the critique of them even, is part of what makes them classics. The interrogation of the classic, no matter how hostile, is part of the history of the classic, inevitable and even to be welcomed.
Yet, what interested me most in Coetzee’s essay/lecture was not so much his social science ruminations. It was the raw fact that a human being, even at fifteen—there are people who have fallen in love in every proper sense at more or less that age, I think of Dante—can see or hear something that simply changes his life and, perhaps, in changing his life, changes the world.
This Bach moment, as I now like to call it, reminds me of nothing so much as the memorable passage in The Confessions where, at nineteen, in an obscure also African city, Augustine chanced to read a dialogue of Cicero. Cicero was another man who knew about and wondered about what is a classic.
On putting the essay down, the young Augustine burned in his heart and wanted to become a philosopher, even though Plato said that nineteen is too young to be one. Moments that change lives and the world are like these experiences of two young African gentlemen who read or hear something that they never heard of, and are frozen by them.
In conclusion, there is one other young man whom I like to recall, a young man who, at a similar moment, did not listen. This is the Rich Young Man in the Gospels (Matthew 16: 19-22) about whom John Paul II, both in Veritatis Splendor and Memory and Identity, speaks with great earnestness. This young man wanted to know what he had to do to be perfect—a brave question indeed. He was told simply to keep the commandments. That he had no problem in doing. He is next told that if he really wanted to be perfect, he should go, sellwhat he has, give it to the poor, and follow the man discoursing with him. We are told the young man was rich.
At this defining moment in his life, unlike the men in Cape Town or in Tegaste, he rejected the call. He went away sad. We never hear of him again. This too is a classic scene, not perhaps of what is truly noble, but of what we are, people who can be presented with the highest things and not hear them, not see them, not understand them, or, more likely, not choose them.
Coetzee tells us, somewhat condescendingly perhaps, that ‘What Is a Classic?’ was not one of Eliot’s best pieces of criticism. Yet, when I read Coetzee’s essay/lecture from Graz, what most struck me about it was his depiction of T. S. Eliot lecturing in London, while bombs were falling, and complaining only that, under such unpleasant circumstances, it was difficult to get the books needed to prepare the said lecture. Somehow, I do think that that wartime moment was, in its own way, as riveting as Bach’s clavichord. I do not mean that to lessen the impact of a Bach or a Cicero either on Coetzee or myself. I simply want to recall moments that, in a brief instant, define the highest things and our response to them.
Whenever I put down the book containing Augustine’s desiring to be a philosopher, I know that moment changed the world. From now on, when I hear the Well-Tempered Clavier, I shall think of this fifteen year old in Cape Town frozen outside of himself. Whenever I think of Eliot lecturing to the Virgil Society in London in 1944, not about the war raging about him, but about the classics, what they are, I shall know moments that are, yes, themselves classic.
In the end, I shall hope, unlike the Rich Young Man, that, having seen, heard, and been called to these things that take us to the heart of what is, I shall not go away sad.
James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of government at Georgetown University.