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Why Read the Classics?

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Why Read the Classics?

We have been having an on and off conversation about "classic" art and I happened to run into a link to this essay by Italo Calvino: Why Read the Classics? It was published in the New York Review of Books way back in 1986. Do people still read Italo Calvino? In Europe they do. When I was on the train from Salzburg to Innsbruck last summer, the lady across from me was reading a book by Calvino, but I don't recall which.
Let us begin with a few suggested definitions.
1) The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading….”
This at least happens among those who consider themselves “very well read.” It does not hold good for young people at the age when they first encounter the world, and the classics as a part of that world.
The reiterative prefix before the verb “read” may be a small hypocrisy on the part of people ashamed to admit they have not read a famous book. To reassure them, we need only observe that, however vast any person’s basic reading may be, there still remain an enormous number of fundamental works that he has not read.
Hands up, anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and the whole of Thucydides! And Saint-Simon? And Cardinal de Retz? But even the great nineteenth-century cycles of novels are more often talked about than read. In France they begin to read Balzac in school, and judging by the number of copies in circulation, one may suppose that they go on reading him even after that, but if a Gallup poll were taken in Italy, I’m afraid that Balzac would come in practically last. Dickens fans in Italy form a tiny elite; as soon as its members meet, they begin to chatter about characters and episodes as if they were discussing people and things of their own acquaintance. Years ago, while teaching in America, Michel Butor got fed up with being asked about Emile Zola, whom he had never read, so he made up his mind to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle. He found it was completely different from what he had thought: a fabulous mythological and cosmogonical family tree, which he went on to describe in a wonderful essay.
I only got partway through Herodotus, but I did read Thucydides (but I need to read a new translation with lots of maps). I have read Livy and Suetonius, does that count? Oh, and Plato and Aristotle, of course. No Saint-Simon (though I know who he is) and just one book by Balzac (but I have read Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert). Dickens? Sure, as well as Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope.
The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.
Notice how Calvino doesn't feel any need to defend the very concept of a "classic."
The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through (or, more simply, on language and customs).
This almost seems why the classics now are to be condemned because those "traces" they contain are racist, colonial and oppressive. The interesting question is, what is left once you have eliminated all the classics? I think we know the answer to that! Here is a good point:
The reading of a classic ought to give us a surprise or two vis-à-vis the notion that we had of it. For this reason I can never sufficiently highly recommend the direct reading of the text itself, leaving aside the critical biography, commentaries, and interpretations as much as possible. Schools and universities ought to help us to understand that no book that talks about a book says more than the book in question, but instead they do their level best to make us think the opposite. There is a very widespread topsyturviness of values whereby the introduction, critical apparatus, and bibliography are used as a smoke screen to hide what the text has to say, and, indeed, can say only if left to speak for itself without intermediaries who claim to know more than the text does. 
This essay would not be printed today, not in the NYRB at least. The reason that the classics have to be banned or at the very least, censored or veiled with commentary and criticism is precisely because:
The classics are books that we find all the more new, fresh, and unexpected upon reading, the more we thought we knew them from hearing them talked about.
Naturally, this only happens when a classic really works as such—that is, when it establishes a personal rapport with the reader.
What makes the classics dangerous to ideologues is that they are an antidote to ideology. Instead of a predigested and ideologically pure version of history you get the real thing. Go ahead and read the whole thing.

Let's have a nice classic envoi today. This is a concert from the Elbphilharmonie (the new concert hall in Hamburg) that was streamed yesterday. The piece is the Symphony No. 9 by Mahler with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Myung-Whun Chung. The concert starts around the 7:30 mark.




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