Papyrus 61

The literature of a language is all the fixed texts in that language.

Fixity is vital to the most fundamental of all texts - the curses, prayers, omens, and ancestral chants, which are prominent in both written and oral cultures. Their magic is in their precision: if they were not exactly repeated, they would be unable to invoke a higher power; they could neither save nor destroy. Among the ancient Christian prayers is the one-word invocation Maranatha, Come, Lord." Such fixed texts, often reinforced by rhyme, are common in the repertoires of children. In the omen category, we have, from the recent past:

Step on a line, break your mother's spine
Step on a crack, break your mother's back

and woe to the thoughtful child in a neighborhood of cracked sidewalks! Attesting the anal propensities of children, there is this widespread but also unwritten piece:

Gene, Gene, made a machine,
Joe, Joe, made it go;
Art, Art, let a fart, and blew it all apart.

There is much industrial wisdom in this (it recognizes that the original inventor is not always the one who brings a new device to the stage of marketability), and much poetic artistry (notice the internal rhymes in the first two lines (both of 4 beats), and also in the longer last line (7 beats, such variations in meter being a standard device of formal closure). A poem like this would not be written down, nor recited in the hearing of a teacher. It belongs to a covert literature of resistance, the hidden recesses of the tradition.

The failure of Wolf (1795) to recognize that a text need not be written to be fixed has crippled Homeric studies ever since. Wolf was good with texts. We owe him much (not least for his insistence, when entering the University of Göttingen in 1777, that there was such a department as "philology"). But Wolf had no sense of performance; of how much musicians can internalize and retain verbatim; and at the same time, how freely musicians can improvise. The Homeric texts, if they are anything, are extended examples of performance literature.

Unfixity. Nor are fixed texts, even sacred ones, unable to change. A Polynesian ancestor chant may evolve by appropriating, as their own ancestors, the kings of some recently conquered tribe. A Gospel may evolve (and everyone so far known, does evolve) by additions which keep it up to date theologically. The Story of The Exodus is endlessly retold, and the retellings endlessly modified, within the confines of what is now the Pentateuch. At any moment in their evolution, these texts are sacred, and thus recitable from memory, by those who hold them sacred. We thus have a mixture of the static and the dynamic, which is not comprehended in Heraclitus' metaphor of the river.

The story of David and Goliath, in the Book of Samuel, is told not once, but twice - once in an elite version, and once in a popular version,. The two versions are now intertwined together; somebody's way of putting two incommensurable things together. Which only shows the ongoing vitality of both.

Forms often recur, sometimes in different literatures. The sonnet, originally Italian, is now international. "Mencius," in MC 2A7, demolishes step by step the objections of the King of Chi, and then, in a consecutive concluding argument, explains how he should better govern his people. Modern law schools (though they have no name for it) teach exactly this method of procedure: first deal with the specifics and the precedents, and then begin your concluding argument, Here is a rhetorical procedure that occurs identically in more than one language, and in more than one millennium.

Range. In a century not our own, and in certain University which it is not here necessary to identify, the only allowable fields for PhD candidates in English were Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer. The poverty of this is self-refuting: What about Boccaccio, Dante, the commedia dell' arte? Within one country, the Poohbahs of Academe would restrict literature to works of high art, and exclude such petty things as yesterday's shopping list. Such exclusions are liable to boomerang. Here is a sonnet by Edna St Vincent Millay, which the Poohiest of Poohbahs would admit to the category of high art. It was published, and endlessly republished. It rhymes; it is even in sonnet form; what more can one ask?

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said. But now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.

I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And vows were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far, —
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.

This very same Edna St Vincent Millay once left a note, the slightest imaginable bit of writing, for a neighbor who was helping with the housework, and was due to arrive next day. There never was a next day; Millay died that night. And as the last item in her published letters, that note has gained a poignancy and an eloquence which it always had, but which are now unmistakably revealed.

Dear Lena:

This iron is set too high. Don't put it on where it says "Linen" - or it will scorch the linen. Try it on "Rayon" - and then, perhaps on "Woollen." And be careful not to burn your fingers when you shift it from one heat to another.

It is 5:30, and I have been working all night. I am going to bed.

Goodmorning -

E. St.V.M.

With that last "Goodmorning" - and its so characteristic dash - the poet now greets, not any more her friend, but you, and me, and all the rest of her posterity.

And so, Alas, a last Alas, for the Poohbahs. Millay, in her least literary moment, has easily, has radiantly, outlived them all.

To approach any literature without a wider awareness is like poking out one eye. As will presently be said of History, the only valid study of literature is comparative in nature. Comparative both among, and within, nations. All is literature. All of it helps to understand any part of it. And if not for understanding, what is our excuse for doing all this?

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