Saturday, July 26, 2014


Homesick for the Present

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), "Contemporaneousness," Complete Essays, Vol. I: 1920-1925 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), pp. 329-331 (at 329-330):
Theoretically, it should make no difference to our enjoyment of it whether a work of art is new or old. There are standards of goodness and badness by which every work of whatever period may be judged. If it is good, then we admire it whether it was created this morning or three thousand years ago; if it is found to be bad, then we don't like it—and there is, or at any rate there should be, the end of the matter.

But this is true only in theory. When it comes to practice we find that this sublime disregard of time and space is not the obvious and easy thing we supposed it to be. Even when we are familiar and at home with every style and convention of art, we find that the period at which any given work was created does condition our appreciation of it. Literary scholars, and all those who for some reason have ever had to shut themselves up for any length of time in a library of nothing but ancient books, know what it is to be homesick from out of the past for the present. After a few weeks of unintermitted reading in the sixteenth century, what a blissful sensation it is to open a contemporary novel—even if it happens to be not a very good one, and even if our ancient reading has been of the choicest! At moments like these we infinitely prefer H.G. Wells to Shakespeare. He is contemporary, he breathes the same atmosphere as ourselves, his problems are our problems, and though his works may prove, in the words of the old poet, "damnably moldy a hundred years hence," when King Lear will still serenely remain what it is and always has been; though we know very well that, judged by any standard, they compare, to say the least of it, poorly with those of Shakespeare; we are ready, after too long a sojourn in the past, to turn to him with passionate avidity.

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