How do I start reading classics

Commentary - Why You Should Read Classics of Literature - A Plea

Why you should read literature classics - a plea

There is nothing like Goethe, Schiller and Kleist. An essay on reading the literary classics.

Why should one read the classics? Anyone who seriously asks this question should urgently read a classic again. Probably he or she hasn't done it in too long. Shakespeare's dramas, Flaubert's novels, Rilke's poems: the classics of literature are their greatest treasures and their reading is the highest, most intense of emotions! And everyone can own them, they can be had for a few francs in their own bookshelf or free of charge from the lending library.

It's much more difficult in the fine arts: owning a Cézanne is unaffordable, the Louvre is not always just around the corner, and photographic reproductions are just an unsatisfactory copy. In the case of a literary classic, everyone can get the original directly for free. All you have to do is read it and the greatest works of art in human history will unfold their splendor.

The canon gives the answer

Reading classics is fun, but not for all readers. Forced reading, for example, is less enjoyable than voluntary reading. Some can confirm that with a view to their school days. And so the basic question in the educational environment is: What exactly do you have to read - or, even better, have already read? The answer is in the canon.

The canon is a guideline, a criterion for what goes in the potty and what goes in the croup. For a long time the literary pope Marcel Reich-Ranicki was responsible for authoritative literary judgments claiming objectivity. At the beginning of the noughties he announced a large canon of German literature and subsequently published the corresponding works in a multi-part anthology.

Reich-Ranicki did not want his canon to be understood as a regulation, but as a guide. "Arguing about what the canon should look like can be very useful," said Reich-Ranicki. When asked whether a canon was needed at all, however, he was completely incomprehensible.

A sermon to the converts

Rüdiger Safranski, on the other hand, the biographer of "classics" such as Goethe, Schiller, E. T. A. Hoffmann and, most recently, Hölderlin, likes to get to the point of why a canon of classics is needed. In the volume "Classic!" (see box) he does not allow his former publisher Michael Krüger and the essayist Martin Meyer to ask him twice to spread his arguments in favor of it.

The canon is a "collection of works that have proven themselves through history, in the displacement competition of cultural evolution". He creates order by listing only the works of the very highest "rank". The canon distinguishes works of indisputable value and thus helps to overcome the inadequacy of one's own taste or that of the general public. "The rank awards a spiritual content, a spiritual originality, a really new way to feel in the world, to look into the world, to rethink the problem of life, it stands for linguistic and stylistic success."

In conversation with his fellow writers, Safranski preaches to converts. But overall, the willingness to orientate oneself on the guidelines of given cannons has been steadily decreasing for a long time. The 1968 movement in particular attacked the classic canon - not entirely wrongly - as bourgeois-authoritarian and its content as aesthetic and politically useless.

Even 50 years later, the effects of this movement on society and education can still be felt. A classic consciousness only exists in one level of decline. The appreciation of the aesthetic has only partially been regained. Since then, the demand for a morally and politically serviceable literature has been a permanent issue.

Enliven critical discussions

In addition to the dwindling importance of literature in society in general, there is an expectation of literature to make as tangible a contribution as possible to solving the problems of the immediate present and preferably also of the future. The first thing that is highlighted in the books that are now on the shortlists for book prices is how well they fit into the current discourse, whether it concerns climate change, the refugee crisis or ideas of masculinity. In addition, non-literary aspects are playing an increasingly important role: Are all language regions on the selection lists, and are both, or preferably more than two genders, adequately taken into account?

These are all important things, but that thinking comes with a price tag. The politicization, moralization and democratization of literature is not to be had for free. The compromises and considerations are at the expense of the pure, literary quality and linguistic and stylistic innovation. Their price is their aesthetic value, which has long since only been a quiet advocate. The occasional memory of the canon of the classics could act as a corrective here and liven up the critical discussion about contemporary literature a little and put it in perspective.

Anyone who thinks that the universities could take care of the classics in their ivory towers should be reminded that they too have long since begun to tackle the canon. Right now it's an American trend - which means it will come our way, no matter how stupid it is: students resist having to deal with literature that could upset their delicate minds. They perceive it as an encroachment to be confronted with anti-Semitism in the “Merchant of Venice”, with the pedophilia in “Lolita”, or with the suicidal thoughts in “Mrs. Dalloway ».

Reading means rereading

Perhaps now is the last good time to break a lance again for the classics before the censorship tsunami of hypersensitivity claps over the canon. There would still be time for a final reflection on what makes a classic and why it might be worth reading or rereading it - which is almost the same when you look at it.

As Italo Calvino noted, classics are the books that you say you are reading again and never, you are finally reading. Because the idea of ​​the classics contains the idea that you already know them all. This although it is clear that at most isolated oddities like Coleridge or Borges could have read their way through the literatures of antiquity, the Middle Ages, modern times and the present. The canon is too big to be mastered.

The good news is that, according to Calvino, it doesn't matter whether we reread the classics or read them for the first time. Because basically we can only read it again. They are sedimented in the cultural memory, in the cultural subconscious, and there is nothing left for us to do but make them aware through individual reading. When reading Homer's “Odyssey” we stumble from one familiar motif to the next: homecoming, temptation, farewell, revenge, recognition, reconciliation. Here everything has congealed into a work of art for the first time.

The classics remain classics whether we read them or not. There is no “winged word” without Homer's epics, no encounter with the spirit of the father without “Hamlet”, no hot “Lolita” without Nabokov's book of the same name, no Bildungsroman without Goethe's “Wilhelm Meister”, and so on. Reading classics is a literary anamnesis. Anyone reading a classic reads the blueprint of a comprehensive, inescapable cultural pattern in an exemplary aesthetic form. It's useless, but exhilarating.

The elite speaks: Rüdiger Safranski in conversation

"Elitist" has not yet reached these three gentlemen as a swear word. «The more democratic the uneducated, perhaps one can also say: the stupidity, the more elitist the connoisseurs are allowed to appear. What we're doing here ... ", says Martin Meyer, the former NZZ feature editor, and Rüdiger Safranski agrees:" We don't have to be afraid to shame people either. "

These and a few other marginal notes in this conversation, which was also attended by the former Hanser publishing director and poet Michael Krüger, will not arouse the need in all readers to belong to such circles. But the book is not just a testimony to a self-proclaimed intellectual aristocracy. As a meticulous and easy-to-read biographer of giants in the history of philosophy such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger and literary classics such as Goethe, Schiller, E. T. A. Hoffmann and, more recently, Friedrich Hölderlin, Safranski has earned the approval of a broad, interested reading public.

In an interview, the 74-year-old talks about his early days as a student and Maoist, and how he went from a young academic to a biographer and essayist. Krüger and Meyer pass the learned balls to Safranski so that he can present not only his classics, but also his own life and work in a sublime, glistening light - until it finally becomes clear that the title is probably also an acclamation to the successful author of the Hanser family is to be understood. (fb)

Rüdiger Safranski
"Classic! A conversation about literature and life »
Munich, 2019
160 pages
Will be released on October 21, 2019.