What is a classic? A classic might be a book, a film, a poem or a song that belongs to the class of the very best. And although, it is the literary classics that are the subject of the question, the others are not wholly different. So what are literary classics (referred to as just ‘classics’, henceforth) and why one should read them? It is by no means a new question. It is one of those age-old dilemmas that invoke a different reaction from almost everybody.
Clearly, the classics are really a diverse lot. Why is it so that they are placed in the same category, regardless? What is it that they have in common? If many iconic personalities throughout history have addressed the question, then why has this question been in existence for so long and still continues to be without a solid answer? How can we differentiate a work or a writer that is a classic from one that is not? Why do people pretend to understand classics? (And most importantly, why are they so vital to all of humanity?) These are very fundamental as well as important questions that just ask to be answered but it is only so that our own literature limits us. By saying so, I do not comment on literature as a whole but to the capacity of our own minds to comprehend literature of the sort.
A classic is originally used to refer to the poets, writers or the works that belong to the class of the very best. But the word has had a plethora of meanings throughout history and continues still to have a multiplicity of meanings. It is not what the word refers to but the legacy that has given it its current form. The answer to this question is not a place to be arrived at but a task only to be attempted, more often than not adding to it only a bit more than we already know.
I, therefore, make yet another attempt to add whatever little that I may to the answer that is yet to be wholly formed and also to impart to the readers the knowledge that they may need to attempt a similar feat, themselves.
In the past, the school of Greek scholars, consisting of many of the likes of Plato and Aristotle, in order to classify a work as classical, created a mesh of rules and regulations that were to be followed by everyone. These rules created a fixed form, a template that those before them (especially the Latin, Greek and the Roman poets and writers) had followed in order to give form to their own works that were now considered classical. It is just as T. S. Eliot puts it in his essay, What is a Classic (1957), “The condition of Rome and of Latin was that it could expect a certain kind of uniqueness that would make a poet classical.” (Rome, the place where most classics of old resided; and Latin, was the language of the old classics.) A poet, if he could give shape to his unique perspective or an idea to fit the template, he would be termed as a classic.
There has been no proper definition of the word ‘classic’ that encompasses all of the meanings that the word might convey. But there have been numerous attempts by many critics in the past to define some, if not all, of its aspects of the classics.
Eliot states, “The word has and will continue to have several meanings in several contexts.” He holds that a “universal classic” is the result of a certain balance between the maturity of the mind, manners and the age (language and common style).
But in the modern times, the word is ‘used to signify a work about the status of which there is general agreement, often unenthusiastic’, as the Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms states. Also, now the term (when used with a much narrower perspective) usually refers to the canons of western literature or European literature.
This points to yet another question that is, what makes a classic what it is?
Italo Calvino, in his short essay, Why Read the Classics (1986) states, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” That means such a text is something that can be reinterpreted and is seemingly renewed in the interests of generations of readers succeeding its creation. Hence, it keeps a reader coming back to it and each reading paints a different picture. This re-readability is what helps a classic establish a permanent existence.
The re-readability of a text results in permanence when it spans generations, making it successfully stand the trials of time and giving it that general agreement and the status of a classic. And that, as a result, creates a sense of history that comes with a classic. For this very reason, Eliot says that the classic status of a text can only be determined by having the luxury of a historical perspective. Another advantage of the historical perspective for classics is that they appeal to us just as history does and for almost the same reasons i.e., we find something of then in the now or vice versa, and to us, humans, change has always been troublesome. We find the comfort we crave in the classics.
Finally, coming to the last and most important aspect of such a book, one that enables it to carry with it the thoughts and emotions of all those who have read it through the years. It is the characteristic of comprehensiveness. “The classic must, within its formal limitations, express the maximum possible of the whole range of feeling which represents the character of the people who speak that language,” elaborated Eliot. The richness of a text is what makes the readers understand and relate to the text in the first place, fulfilling its primary purpose. That fullness comes from the confluence of the form, the relevance of a story, the characters and the conflicts that they are put through.
Having said all that, if it has not been very clear, we have yet to arrive at an answer to our question, what is a classic? Aptly quoting Calvino verbatim, “Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.”
A classic, still having a host of meanings, ultimately becomes what a reader considers it to be.
Having read the best of literature in school for academic purposes have made the classics appear as something that is far from anything delightful for most of us today and only those who dare to pick them up yet again in maturity may appreciate and relate to what the texts convey.
What you may consider a classic might not be the other’s choice and might even not be the choice of the market (I plan to talk about this in one of my further articles) but it still remains a classic nonetheless.
And in any case, should you feel the need for any motivation in order to enable you to pick up a classic I will attach a copy of Italo Calvino’s Why Read the Classics below. He has left no reasons unaddressed, save the academic needs, which I feel that I have already addressed here.
If you feel that you have something to add or if you have anything that you might want to discuss, feel free to use the comments section. I would be happy to be made aware of your thoughts.