Ever since reading Dante’s Inferno in Literature Humanities, I’ve had this fantasy: I’m sitting in a meadow, reading about Galehaut with a very strapping young man, when suddenly the allure of the words completely overtakes us, and we’re consumed by passion. I’m talking face-eating, incest-inducing, all-consuming passion—the sexy stuff.
And yes, OK, if we play this fantasy to the letter, we may end up in the second circle of hell (thank you, Dante). But that’s beside the point. The important thing here is the incredible power of books, and the power of words to arouse intense feeling. Dante’s not the only one to recognize it, either—Boccaccio, Cervantes, and even Homer knew how compelling storytelling can be.
In an era driven by technology and innovation, we often question why we study humanities, and why, sexy fantasies aside, we bother with antiquated literature at all. But as cool as it is to live in an age where we can precisely calculate how long it would take to drink an Olympic-sized pool with a straw, perhaps there is something to be said for engaging with literature.
Classic literature is classic precisely because of its ability to engage with unchanging human nature, and offer us insight into our condition. The information age is fascinating, certainly, but calculation has a tendency to dehumanize. Not only that, but by constantly seeking efficiency, technological progress relies on rendering old inventions obsolete. Think about it: We’ve moved from cassettes to CDs, CDs to mp3 downloads, mp3 downloads to Spotify, all in the span of 35 years. I know for a fact (a very painful, very costly fact) that in another year or two, my iPhone 6 will be completely passé.
Classic literature, on the other hand, is perennial—eternal, even. Take Shakespeare, for example. This year marks the 400th anniversary of his death, and even almost half a millennium later, he manages to remain terrifyingly relevant. His stories continue to be adapted into film and TV almost every year, and not just with questionable Julian Fellowes movie remakes of Romeo and Juliet. House of Cards, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, and even Empire are all driven by Shakespearean themes. Think about it, despite its many groundbreaking features, Empire is a King Lear rip-off. It features a music mogul who has a “kingdom” and three children in line to inherit it. This goes about as well for him as it does for Lear (read: not very).
Shakespeare remains relevant because Shakespeare—like Virgil, Dante, and most of the other greats we study—understood how to convey the unchanging intricacies of human nature.
Societal pressures are constantly changing; our ideas of glory have certainly shifted away from gutting a spear-thrower on the battlefield. But if we think that on a fundamental level that human nature changes, we are dead wrong. If anything, classic literature only proves that college binge drinking still doesn’t quite measure up to ancient Greek symposiums. (Come on, Greek life, you’ve got a name to live up to.) The way we approach love, especially, has barely changed at all.
We come to understand the world through the lenses we are given. Literature, especially classic literature that tackles the big and enduring aspects of the “Human Condition,” allows us to find empathy through the lives of others. The more we read, the more we understand about the world, precisely because of the different perspectives we acquire.
But perhaps it even goes beyond that. Arnold Weinstein recently wrote an article for the New York Times in defense of the humanities, and despite clearly being able to tell he majored in the unemployable, he makes a compelling point when describing a conversation he had with a friend: “‘How much do you know about Shakespeare,’ I once asked a friend who has committed much of her life to studying the Bard. She replied, ‘Not as much as he knows about me.’”
Classic literature is supposed to challenge you, and make you ask questions about the world. More importantly, it’s supposed to make you ask questions about yourself. It can be jarring to find that you relate to Raskolnikov, Achilles, or even Mrs. Ramsay. (I’m starting to reconsider my motherly tendencies.) But it can also provide you with answers you didn’t know you needed. Maybe we go to these books to understand our world, but we come away better understanding ourselves.
There’s no need to go on an eat-pray-love multi-country spirit quest. Just pick up a dusty copy of the Iliad, and start reading.
Hannah Barbosa Cesnik is a Columbia College first-year who is temporarily retiring from discourse. She can be found on Twitter at @HCesnik. Everything I need to know I learned in Lit Hum runs alternate Tuesdays.
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