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Friday, November 30, 2012

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi?

"Fallen Statue of Ramses" © Jim Henderson

In "Rocket and Lightship," Adam Kirsch points out that our words will certainly be transitory. Some of the great poets praised by the Greeks and Romans are now know only for the discussion by others of their works, or by one or two poems, or even fragments of poems, that survived only by the most outlandish coincidence.

Does pure chance determine what survives?  From this it follows, he says, that eventually "every work will lose its gamble and be forgotten."  Or, he asks, is every worthy work "registered in the eye of God the way books are registered for copyright"?  And, if so, then isn't its material fate irrelevant?  Does it matter if it's even published?  If it's even written at all?

He continues:

Literature claims to be a record of human existence through time; it is the only way we have to understand what people used to be like. But this is a basic mistake, if not a fraud, since in fact it only reflects the experience of writers—and writers are innately unrepresentative, precisely because they see life through and for writing. Literature tells us nothing really about what most people’s lives are like or have ever been like. If it has a memorial purpose, it is more like that of an altar at which priests continue to light a fire, generation after generation, even though it gives no heat and very little light.

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The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau