Re: RARA-AVIS: definition of literature

Date: 05 Nov 2007

not fair slanting your position by stating it so eloquently, Frederick

John Lau

In a message dated 11/5/07 2:33:38 PM, writes:

> Let me add a couple pennies to the pile.
> My definition of literature is it has compassion. Literary writing has this
> "virtue" missing as much as pulp fiction.
> Aristotle in his "Poetics" said the audience should feel fear and pity for
> the inevitable plight of the tragic hero. We should feel pity because we can
> see ourselves in his shoes. We should feel fear because we can see ourselves
> in his shoes.
> There but for the grace of God . . .
> That's compassion. Compassion isn't sentimentality, either. It's not a
> Hallmark card, or a Kodak moment. It's not namby-pamby, or loaded with
> saccharine. It's cold and remorseless and detached, like a wife-beater or
> the freeway. It knows the world for what it is. Its eyes are wide-open like
> an owl's at midnight, and it knows what it's watching is brutally pragmatic,
> and it sees its own face and features staring back at it.
> Compassion soaks all of literature, yes, even noir.
> When I read Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," for instance, I see Marlowe
> suddenly sharing a soda cracker with a starving black man. It's a tiny act
> of compassion, a single sentence, but it's also the only act of compassion
> in the entire novella. To me, that's the horror within the story, not Kurtz'
> dying. Kurtz is a buffoon. Fuck Kurtz.
> I feel for Cora and Frank in the Postman, as much as I think they're stupid
> people. Cain, while he may be slumming, does let their hearts get shown.
> I see compassion in Voltaire's ferocious writings, when Candide and his
> companion are leaving Eldorado and meet a handless, legless black man in the
> dust in the road, and he tells them that he (and all the other slaves he
> represents) is the reason behind the price of sugar in Europe.
> Ebenezer Scrooge looks out his window at the end of Chapter One. Outside the
> air is filled by hordes of bankers' ghosts, all neatly tied in chains to
> their ledgers and account books. (Fuck bankers, too, by the way.) The one
> closest to Ebenezer and me is plaintively trying to capture the attention of
> the homeless woman with her child in the doorway. He so desperately wants to
> help her, that Madonna of the Streets.
> Ulysses is horrified in Hades, when his mother steps forward out of the mist
> to drink the blood he has poured in the trough. The greatest hero in Western
> literature didn't know his mother had died while he was forced to wander the
> wine-dark sea for all those years. She hung herself, she tells him, out of
> grief for him. What mother doesn't worry about her children?
> Kafka said a book was an axe to chop the ice from our hearts. And Gregor
> Samsa died from a lack of compassion from his own family.
> When Spade says, "All of me wants to ...." that's compassion.  Does he see
> himself in her shoes?  Does he feel the same fear and pity?  I think so.
> I read the Alexandrian poet Cavafy's "Athena's Vote." In it, Pallas Athena,
> the gray-eyed goddess, tells the Athenians at the trial of Orestes that the
> gods always vote for compassion, even for the accursed.
> Noir means "screwed." But, when I read it, do I feel fear and pity? To me,
> that's the key.
> Best wishes....and back to grading 120 quizzes on The Maltese Falcon.
> Frederick Zackel
> "We do not measure the classics. They, rather, measure us." ~ Arnold Bennett

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