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Questioning the Classics

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1 Questioning the Classics on Wed Mar 16, 2011 2:10 pm

Omkar

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Alec Smart once said 'Classics are books to be appreciated but never to be read'. And yesterday I turned the last page of another classic muttering, "I don't get it." Somehow, almost always when I surf through an English literature defining work, the same words come back to haunt me. Then Wikipedia and Sparknotes come and rave about how the novel/novella/short story is one of the most 'seminal works of fiction', how the 'all-encompassing fluidity is scintillating' and the 'liberally used poetic license alleviates the story' and more cockmoonish pie.

These are always met with a straight faced 'Really?'

Literature students and old school believers will be quick in dismissing this post as rants of a half baked. Maybe I am indeed half baked. But riddle me this- how is talking about the scales of an insect sitting by the windowsill absolutely unrelated to the story add 'layers of breathtaking details' to the story?

Quoting from a Kafka story,
'As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was laying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.'

Where is the unexpected impact just before the period Kafka is so famous for? Why is it that this paragraph is dissected to fill reams of stationary?

Last year, I had a brief tryst with English Literature as a part of my curriculum. The most recurring question that came to me was, "Did they have underground PR agencies at work? Are these people hallucinating of an oasis?" More than once I have felt that these critiques are more intelligent than the work itself.

Illustrations:
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka: One day, a salesman wakes up and finds that he has turned into a Ungeziefer roughly translated as an insect from German. The novella goes on to talk about how the family rejects him eventually and waits for him to die.
Verdict: Stretched and sad. No storyline and exasperatingly unnecessary details.

Saki or H H Munro: I have read extensively of his works. My personal opinion is the guy makes a nice start and somehow always screws up with a vague, pointless end. His works are not ‘macabre’ as described and needs to be worked upon. A lot. One of the biggest disappointments is 'Tobermory'.

Catcher in the Rye by J D Saliger: You guys already know about it. I have eminently hated that one.

Nikolai Gogol: Yes, the one from where the famous quote 'We all come out of Gogol's overcoat' emerged. I always felt his personal life was more interesting than one of his supposed best works- The Overcoat.

The much celebrated Dickens: Whether it is 'The Tale of Two Cities' or 'Oliver Twist', Dickens strikes to be a disillusioned optimist writing in a bar two drinks down. These two novels reeked with whines and depression.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Catch 22 by Joseph Heller: Atrociously slow and dead read, both of them. There are only a handful of novels you pick up and can’t finish. These are two such kinds for me.

Due to such experiences, I have a reason to believe that I enjoyed Robinhood, The Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe, Great Expectations amongst others is I read the abridged versions. The shot-down list goes on with Frances Burnett (The Secret Garden) and Hemingway (Old Man and the Sea) amongst many many others. And the only reason that they are so celebrated is coz we were taught to praise them. Times change, people.

But then, I am not an anti classicist. I hold huge regards for Roald Dahl, Erich Segal, Shakespeare, 3 writers whose works are filled with genuine ingenuity. The list goes on to include R K Narayan, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Canon Doyle and the unforgettable P G Wodehouse. You see, all these writers had a USP. Dahl had that of creating delightful events and slick pace; Segal had a divine vocab with extremely witty dialogue; Narayan gave out the Indian rural fragrance and Twain had a knack of unforgettable relatable characters. P G and Shakespeare are world renowned for being good at what they are. And it is such uniqueness that made them palatable.

Maybe the fault lies with me. My list of classics is not very extensive- I'm still to read The Stranger, Frankenstein, Emma (if that comes to be the only book existing), Lolita, H G Wells (I read him in high school and don't remember much) and the modern ones like Khaled Hosseini and Salman Rushdie. Also, I'm a guy with more of contemporary tastes feeding on King, Palahniuk and graphic novels of late. Hence the obvious difference of opinion.

So maybe it is the difference of tastes. Or maybe I'm indeed not grown up enough to comprehend the 'underlying metaphors'. Whatever be it, I will be the most delighted person the day I 'get' such stuff. Till then, for me, many classics are abominably overrated.

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2 Re: Questioning the Classics on Wed Mar 16, 2011 6:46 pm

Kazuki

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Not to be a prick, but its Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J D Salinger. (Probably just accidents but no harm pointing them out)

They're called classics because of their themes that are able to inspire something in people. Frankly if you look deep enough (no, not really it's all in plain view) they're all moral stories of sorts that show bravery and forgiveness and the like. Nobody really understands these things when they're first introduced to them hence are goaded to show false appreciation for so called 'good' literature from a young age.

The dreadful truth to classics often lies in the fact that they are painfully overanalyzed, criticized, broken down, dissected down to pieces/shreds...(you're getting it aren't you...)
Perhaps the poor chaps really didn't mean to signify any actual 'deeper' meaning and now they're too 'dead' to explain themselves so they've got people from all around the world trying to find meanings that are honestly often viewed as brilliant and hidden emotions of the author when all they really seem is crazy. Then again there always is the possibility that said author really had slipped his own person into the book.

Dickens' work is depressing all the time but really, isn't every one of these authors? None of these stories are astonishingly happy even if most of them come off lightly like Roald Dahl whose stories usually start off with genuinely unhappy children (Charlie/Matilda/The twits/James and the giant peach etc.) or perhaps Mark Twain who's frustrations are 'subtlely' seen in Huck's pitiful life as an adventurer who turned out from being a drunkards son with a dead mom, who steals and smokes at 12. They do turn out happy endings (but what doesn't nowadays?) but that often just reaffirms my 'these-are-nothing-but-moral-stories' theory.

About detailing, you often find that the only way to turn these Aesop’s fables with a slightly more realistic and pessimistic outlook into actual novels is to go into excoriating detail. 'Classic' Romances have painfully detailed kisses or err...fornication. 'Classic' Adventure has whimsical portrayals of injury and fights. 'Classic' Tragedy shows disbelief and internal conflict people have and the list goes on.

Not to say I didn't enjoy my fair share of classics in Peter Pan or The three musketeers or Robinson Crusoe or Sherlock Holmes or Don Quixote. You see now this list also is painfully long...which dispels the 'Classic' feel of a set of books. There are just too bleeding many making them overrated indeed.

Moving to brighter shores they're actually good reads for little children who overlook 'deeper/more disappointing/sad' fine points and are just greatful for happy endings. Some of the books like perhaps Catch-22 and Erich Segal even George Orwell are 'older' reads which are more appreciated than others as classics. I've never read Kafka and I don't think I intend to either...so I can't comment on that.

Shakespeare... isn't even considered classic by most since he's his own brand of writing. Neither is Segal, or Narayan.

(By the way, have you read the picture of Dorian gray? I've heard good things about it.)

And...I haven't been here in so long and this is probably not a good way to 'be back' I’m afraid and forgive the sarcastic 'undertone'. For board exams we'll host my pity party.

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3 Re: Questioning the Classics on Wed Mar 16, 2011 7:58 pm

Omkar

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I can't help but agree with almost every point you make. +1 for that. Classics are something our fathers learnt to appreciate coz their fathers taught them to coz their fathers taught them to, forming an endless generation hand-it-downs.

Kazuki wrote:

Shakespeare... isn't even considered classic by most since he's his own brand of writing. Neither is Segal, or Narayan.

(By the way, have you read the picture of Dorian gray? I've heard good things about it.)

True, that. I just mentioned it as they are some of the other mandatories we are made to like. And nope, I haven't read that. Have an e-book though. Might just go through it some of these days.

Kazuki wrote:
And...I haven't been here in so long and this is probably not a good way to 'be back' I’m afraid and forgive the sarcastic 'undertone'. For board exams we'll host my pity party.

Hey, this is a superb way of making a comeback! Keep posting Very Happy

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4 Re: Questioning the Classics on Wed Mar 16, 2011 11:25 pm

Arr0wHeaD

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Whoa Whoa Whoa, back the #$$% up here.

Classics are those books that reflected their times. THE WORKS are a reflection of the TIMES they were made in.

Which is why, people always add a timeframe after describing a classic-

eg- Classic Artist of the Renaissance
or

Classic Author from the Victorian Era.

The idea is, that you have to look at it from the point of view of a person from that era.

Allow me to give an example or two-

Kafka? He wrote in a time just after Wars had crippled the economy and peoples collective outlook on life was incredibly grim
(Hey, you'd be grim too if you were doing clerical work and freezing your privates off in the Fatherland)


That insect he tried to describe? The insect on it's back, feeble and powerless to face the world, thats basically what people were feeling then in the shitty economy,

They felt like powerless insects forced to go and toil day after day. If they don't, they are rejected by society. I think that was a very real fear people had back then, a fear that was in everybody's mind but they didn't know how to describe it.
Kafka hit upon the perfect metaphor there. Thats why people consider him a classic, because he had a finger on the pulse of his generation.

He describes the scene to try and make you visualize it, to project an image into the readers head

(Problem is, readers of today have like, half the imagination and quarter the attention span of the readers of yesteryear. So we don't dig it as much as they might have)


Saki? He INVENTED the CONCEPT of the twist ending. If thats not Classic, what is? M. Night Shyamalan owes his whole career to it.

Dickens? He wrote during this little time called the INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION. A time when People were being replaced by machines for the first time, and the proletariats were no longer as necessary a fixture in society as they used to be.
Basically, the lower classes were feeling worse than ever, and were having a spectacularly shitty lifestyle.

Dickens stepped in with Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby to describe the lives of those who were hard up. To bring in the tales of gritty realism at a time when the upper classes were living squeaky clean because of the miracles of industrialism.

TL:DR? Dickens was the voice from the street, tellin' 'em white boys what life in the hood was like. Thats why he was classic.

You gotta take this stuff in context.


And Catch 22? YOu couldn't read Catch22?????
It's
-anti establishment
-anti government
-anti war
-Has a nihilist in a major role as a positive role model.

and Is basically required reading for anyone stuck under any kind of repression. It helps you make sense of how nonsensical things really are.

Also- It's got non linear storytelling. And it came out waaay before Tarantino.


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5 Re: Questioning the Classics on Thu Mar 17, 2011 12:31 am

Omkar

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Arr0wHeaD wrote:
Kafka? He wrote in a time just after Wars had crippled the economy and peoples collective outlook on life was incredibly grim
(Hey, you'd be grim too if you were doing clerical work and freezing your privates off in the Fatherland)


That insect he tried to describe? The insect on it's back, feeble and powerless to face the world, thats basically what people were feeling then in the shitty economy,

They felt like powerless insects forced to go and toil day after day. If they don't, they are rejected by society. I think that was a very real fear people had back then, a fear that was in everybody's mind but they didn't know how to describe it.
Kafka hit upon the perfect metaphor there. Thats why people consider him a classic, because he had a finger on the pulse of his generation.

Riiiight. Ahem, allow me to present you the intro paragraph of a story I impulsively wrote, inspired by Kafka and the existence of metaphor-getting readers like you.

They called it a warm sunny day. The sky was the cheery shade of black and breeze that wafted preluded the first spate of acid-less rain. Danny chewed the remnants of a bone he had luckily found. Pugs were no more a novelty than a victim of survival instincts. Danny was disappointed in it though.

'Old bones aren't like old wines,' he mused, as a Babel fish would translate it.


Now I want you to take a moment and think of this to be from an established writer with most of his hair gone but still dates cook show hosts. Someone has raved about him to you for the 'underlying metaphors' in his works and notes that you need to 'dissect his work' and 'read between the lines' to 'get it'. So now that your respect graph is already heightened, I want you to analyse the text and find meaning in it.

Did it? Good. Now open the spoiler.

Spoiler:
Here's what I intended-

Directly speaking, set in the post apocalyptic world, this talks about Danny the dog, one of the rare surviving lifeforms. (Ooh ooh, check out the 'cheery shade of black' part! Poetic, innit?) Today, as presented in the story, is a dog-eat-dog world. This dog is a metaphor for the humans who will be reduced to a dog's lifestyle after the apocalypse.
Babel fish is borrowed from Douglas Adams which shows that my work, though derivative, has 'innovative placements to suit context as a tribute to primary inspirations'.

I can go bloody on.

An alternative explanation here can be- This one is some trippy shit that is nothing but written for the sake of proving a point albeit in a lameass fashion.

^Now I hit upon your exact interpretation, didn't I?

The point I'm trying to make is true that we don't have the attention spans as did the readers then, but that doesn't mean our intellect has gone for a toss. There are better ways for a metaphor. A classic is called one for it's universal appeal. If it is context based, where is the appeal? This contradicts the very definition of 'classic' and sounds more like products of lobbying. How can excellence and class be relative? Besides, this feels so basic, so average.
Classics might have made impact once but today, they're only outdated.

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6 Re: Questioning the Classics on Thu Mar 17, 2011 9:04 am

Arr0wHeaD

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Duuude. You've mistaken the concept of a classic.

Classics are things that everyone agrees are pretty cool, but only a few people are really interested in.

CONTEMPORARY- is stuff that has universal appeal. And nothing can have universal appeal forever. For example, Wodehouse- Some people love it, some people hate it's slow pacing and flowery language. But at one point people raved about it.

A visual representation seems necessary now



Thats a Shelby Mustang GT. A Classic Car.



Audi R8, Contemporary car of our times.

The point is, both those cars did the same thing in their prime.
They looked good, they made men's knees weak, they drove fast and were status symbols.

But NOW. TODAY. The R8 will be appreciated more, unless you're talking to a person who appreciates the Classic Cars.

Why do people talk so much about the classics? Because if you know about those that came before you, that means you bothered to research them and study them.

i.e.- It means you're cultured.

Classics are good only if you see them from the point of view of the people of that era. Otherwise they usually fall flat.
There are exceptions, where characters and situations may be universal, but stories as a whole can seldom have 'universal appeal'. There's no such thing.

Can you name anything that'll appeal to everyone?I mean, check this



Look at this. Why is everyone in Michaelangelo pics a size XXXL? Wouldn't people see it today and call them a bunch of fatasses? There's a reason for why he painted them that way, that most people don't know.

Therefore, to appreciate the classics, you must first understand the way people thought.
If you put so much effort into understanding the people of that era, well that gives you an insight, and implies that you do more than just read;
You introspect, you ponder. You feel what the reader would have felt in those days and that's why people still go gaga over classics.


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7 Re: Questioning the Classics on Thu Mar 17, 2011 10:04 am

Omkar

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Arr0wHeaD wrote:

Classics are things that everyone agrees are pretty cool, but only a few people are really interested in.


Thank you! That is what I meant then I quoted the smartass who said 'Classics are meant to be praised but never read'.

You got a fine way of making the context point though. +1 for that.

BTW, is it just me or has the width of this page suddenly increased? Question

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