J M Coetzee describes listening to Bach as a boy, with no education in classical music, and feeling “I was being spoken to by the music as music had never spoken to me before.” Thinking how he can have come to have such a transcendant experience, Coetzee observes that in Bach’s music “nothing is obscure, no single step is so miraculous as to surpass imitation,” but in combination the notes represent “the incarnation of ideas of exposition, complication and resolution that are more general than music. Bach thinks in music. Music thinks itself in Bach.” I have also learnt to listen to Bach by listening to Bach. I was surprised by this anecdote all the same because it comes in the middle of an essay, “What is a Classic,” that is mostly about how a classic is defined by its own cultural status, and about how the emphasis of earlier writers like T S Eliot on some transcendant realm of literature is a way of justifying the propagation of an imperialist ideology.
Far more obviously than music, literature engages with ideas that are cultural, historical, political, ideological. Claiming any kind of “transcendant” or “universal” experience of literature is easily read as universalizing historical values, as if what you are claiming is that a classical standard of beauty or literary value is the correct standard against which all literature can be measured, and as if you are claiming values such as stoicness, perhaps, or fidelity, should be held to as universal values transcending politics and history. But if literature also “thinks itself” through the individual artwork, perhaps this can allow a universality of access that is independent of any universal agreement about the values, or concepts, involved, just as you don’t have to have any particular commitment to the note C sharp to appreciate its place in a Bach sonata?
What does happen if you put a concept, like empire, or loyalty, or friendship into the place of the note C sharp? Can we really understand a concept in purely formal terms? Even before we come to the question of allegiance, there is the question of comprehension: are we hearing anything so stable as a note on a musical scale? How do we know we are not reading the text off-key? Are we, to a certain extent, making up our own tune? This is when we turn to classical philology, to “roll back the years and reveal to us the original in all its gleaming, pristine purity,” as classicist Charles Martindale puts it, to emphasise the absurdity of such an enterprise, as if the original were ever “pristine,” outside of history and free of competing interpretations. For a reception theorist like Martindale, concepts are always multivalent, and the shifts in meaning and interpretation across time are a part of the rich multiplicity of readings that a text allows. A text is not a well wrought urn, as Cleanth Brooks has it, with the suggestion this also inevitably evokes (although only inevitably if you’ve read Keats) of the frozen figures on the urn, forever beautiful because forever still. If a text is made up of concepts, these are inextricable from the play of ideology and ideas outside the text, in the historical moment in which it was written and beyond.
Yet I hold three positions on this, all at the same time. With Martindale, I see a text as having meanings that extend beyond the text, that are culturally constructed, and therefore also always changing. At the same time, I also see a value in the work of the philologist and the historian to establish the significance of the terms and concepts at play in the texts, the work that allows us to hear C sharp as C sharp. But I also think the text itself demands we hear C sharp as C sharp. A philologist reads the word in relation to other textual uses of the word at the same historical period, but in each case the meaning of the word is defined too by its position within the system of values proposed by the work itself with its own “ideas of exposition, complication and resolution.” To a certain extent, our understanding of the concept of loyalty, or empire, or gratitude depends on what it must mean, aesthetically, for the work of literature to work as a piece of literature. (Just as we can determine the pronunciation of words in part by the demands of a rhyme scheme or the metre.) And I think this means that we can be free to love the place of the concept within the aesthetic order of the text, without having to have any allegiance to the concept outside the text. It is a suspension not of disbelief but of value. Just as we believe in the ghost haunting a ghost story without having to believe in ghosts outside the story, so we can be haunted by beliefs or values we do not hold, but can allow to run through us as we haunt, in our turn, the literature we read.