A Classic Conundrum

What makes a piece of literature a classic? For Saket Suryesh, the work must be introspective:

We, as readers, are able to find our own feelings in such words despite the distances between us and the time and space they were originally composed in because those emotions are universal. The world which surrounds these feelings may change, but the emotions themselves do not. Consider, from Heart of Darkness, the lines: “She carried her sorrowful head as though she were proud of that sorrow, as though she would say, I — I alone know how to mourn for him as he deserves.” Simple words but an ache rises from the heart of even the modern reader, for who wouldn’t want to be loved thus?

Eric Williams, though, refuses to accept that a classic work can exist outside of time and space. He argues, “‘The Classics’ are a fluid and dynamic category, changing with times and tastes and history, and not something transmitted to us across the aesthetic ether”:

The danger of the numinous label of “The Classics” is that it kills texts. It becomes holy writ, studied for its intrinsic rightness, ahistorical and timeless. Nothing is more dangerous. Books are discrete historical objects, written by specific individuals at specific times, and their subsequent histories reflect how people envisioned literature, artistic merit and important ideas in the larger context of their times and culture. By all means, read them for their beautiful language and interesting imagery, and interpret them based on your own private and individual history and perspectives. But at the same time, read them as historical documents, fully aware of the baggage that comes with them and fully cognizant that someone somewhere decided that the book in your hands had more value than other books. Echoing Suryesh, read the classics voraciously — but, I would add, always thoughtfully, critically and historically.