View Full Version : What Factors Cause the Ebb and Flow of a Nation's Literary Tradition?


Fifty
Feb 28, 2010, 10:30 AM
If we look at canonical works throughout history, we see that some nations will have many canonical works during a certain period, but very few canonical works during other periods.

Take, for example, Greece. We know that ancient Greece, obviously, had many of the greatest literary works in history. But modern Greece has produced few (maybe 6 tops) works that have a reasonable chance to prove enduring or canonical. 6 may seem like a decent number but keep in mind that these are works that just have a CHANCE to become canonical. Compare the USA, which has produced at least 10 times that many great works in the same time period. While the USA is a wealthier country, surely it isn't SO MUCH more wealthy as to justify such a great discrepancy. So what gives?

Lets try to keep the discussion as general as possible... I was just using Greece and USA as an illustration.

My own theory is that perhaps it is a combination of social and economic factors, and perhaps a sort of centering force provided by a central figure. So a nation gets lucky in getting an author of fantastic literary merit, and that author's influence over the literary culture creates even more authors, who are perhaps not as great as the central figure but good nonetheless.

~Fifty

Mirc
Feb 28, 2010, 11:18 AM
I would tend to agree with the "theory" you proposed.

Actually, I agree so much that I don't think it's only appliable to literature, I think it can easily work for any art. And moreover, if that wasn't enough, I think it could maybe even work for anything that can be seen as a competitive activity with participants originating in different parts of the world (including sport, scientific achievements, among others).

Sometimes it might just be the influence of one great man/woman starting it all off, while some other times, by pure chance, a group of more than just one very good man/woman, whose members happen to live close to each other in approximately the same time, will make unprecedented advances in their field and thereby kick off a "school of thought", sometimes a tradition, which will influence the other artists around them.

By "around them", I mean "related in some way with them" - geographical proximity, shared language, shared political stances - in literature, this is most visible when it comes to nationality, since all literature is by definition dependent on language, and most nationalities share one and only one language (with obvious exceptions, clearly).

As I mentioned above, I'm pretty sure this works with more than just literature, and more than just art, for that matter. There's a whole process starting from one or more great personalities inside one nation or group of people somehow related to each other. The demands of the society become higher, more price is put on the matter, as such more opportunities arise for those that would like to make a career in such a field of activity, and in time, one witnesses the creation of much better schools and schooling possibilities, which in turn do their part in training the new generations of artists/whatever they are. How these things happen... I would say it's mostly random from an "aerial look" over the world - the great men/women at the beginning are the ones to "blame" for such a situation - it is however impossible to control where and when those persons of importance and influence will happen to arise.

I repeat, for the second time, that I'm quite confident that this can and does happen in all fields where there's international competition, not just literature, and not just art. Sport is a perfect example of another branch of activity where such an effect is visible.

There's also, obviously, an effect of sheer randomness involved; just like you mentioned in your OP, Fifty. I made up a little thing that I like to call "the parable of the lighter" in order to explain this to one of my friends, a few wees ago. I don't have time to write it right now, but I will come back to this thread and include it at some point later.

Yared
Feb 28, 2010, 12:37 PM
The term "golden age" seems very fitting here.

JollyRoger
Feb 28, 2010, 10:06 PM
Maybe the Greeks, to take your example, have written many works recently that have the merit to be canonical, but those works have not gotten the proper attention. I think the canon may get unduly influenced by who has the most influence in other spheres at the time of a writing.

holy king
Mar 01, 2010, 12:20 AM
greece is 2500 years past its prime, tradition alone does not make for good literary output.

Yared
Mar 01, 2010, 01:40 AM
There's also the fact that English is the most spoken language atm.

azzaman333
Mar 01, 2010, 01:52 AM
Sexual tension.

Japanrocks12
Mar 01, 2010, 02:50 AM
There are a few factors I can think of, I guess. Patronage by wealthy personages is what kept all of the Renaissance writers afloat. Add to that the fact that they all subscribed to the popular humanistic ideas of the time.

Nationalism is another. If you consider the example of Italian literature for a second, you will find that there are a lot of 16th century works written under the auspices of the sectarian Italian city-states and wealthy families, and then a revival begins around the turn of the 19th century, where the Italian unification movement is beginning to coalesce. The most widely read novel in the country at this time, called The Betrothed, was written by Alessandro Manzoni as an allegory of the unrest and excitement of the Risorgimento movement to unify the country. A similar thing was going on with Germany, although its literature peaked around half of a century earlier and was part of the overall Romantic movement that swept the country.

And now, in the 21st century, accessibility is pretty key, because there are no geographical borders of any kind that impede the bulk of readers. Nowadays, it's pretty conceivable that a nation like Greece, whose writer Kazantzakis actually did obtain widespread popularity in the rest of the Western World, may strike again with another popular writer who captures the heart and soul of the international community. It's sure happening with India, China, Japan, Brazil, Afghanistan, and several other countries whose peak literary traditions are things of the past.

Plotinus
Mar 01, 2010, 03:40 AM
But modern Greece has produced few (maybe 6 tops) works that have a reasonable chance to prove enduring or canonical. 6 may seem like a decent number but keep in mind that these are works that just have a CHANCE to become canonical. Compare the USA, which has produced at least 10 times that many great works in the same time period. While the USA is a wealthier country, surely it isn't SO MUCH more wealthy as to justify such a great discrepancy. So what gives?

The US has a lot more than ten times the population of Greece, so on those figures, the Greeks are doing better than the Americans.

Surely a lot of this has to do with differing tastes about what counts as "enduring" or "canonical". One of the reasons we regard the Iliad and suchlike as "canonical" is that this attitude has been central to the development of our culture. If someone wrote it today I'm not so sure that it would be so highly regarded. Who here has read "Ossian", for example, or rates it so highly? I would say that if a particular period or culture is thought to have produced a higher than average quantity of "enduring" works, then that must be, at least partly, because there was something about the values or attitudes of that culture which resonate either with our culture now (so that we look back on those works and think them especially good) or with subsequent cultures (which rated those works so highly that they entered the "canon" permanently, irrespective of whether later societies liked them so much). A good example of this process is Shakespeare. Shakespeare was just one playwright among many others in his day and for the century or two which followed. It was really in the eighteenth century that he began to be regarded as somehow especially great, and that was because his work and person fitted in very well with the beginnings of the Romantic movement and the reaction to the Enlightenment. Not only did Shakespeare's works eschew the traditional forms of theatre, such as the Three Unities, and mix tragedy and comedy (of a sort) with romance and other elements in unexpected ways, but he himself was a supposedly largely uneducated peasant who somehow showed greater genius than the far more sophisticated authors of his time. This fitted in perfectly with the Romantic notion of art and inspiration and explains why in the nineteenth century, above all, Shakespeare became apotheosised as the greatest writer of all time, especially by the German Romantics. So his status came about not merely because of the intrinsic merit of his work but because it suited the fashions and tastes of that time; it suited them so well that he retains his position even after fashions and tastes have changed. I should think something similar would explain why a lot of "canonical" literature is so regarded.

BCLG100
Mar 01, 2010, 10:18 AM
The US has a lot more than ten times the population of Greece, so on those figures, the Greeks are doing better than the Americans.

Surely a lot of this has to do with differing tastes about what counts as "enduring" or "canonical". One of the reasons we regard the Iliad and suchlike as "canonical" is that this attitude has been central to the development of our culture. If someone wrote it today I'm not so sure that it would be so highly regarded. Who here has read "Ossian", for example, or rates it so highly?

I'm not sure, the Iliad is still a fantastic read and has just about everything you could want in a story. I think it may not get the same literary regard today simply because of the differing other avenues avaliable (tv etc). I do agree with the remainder of what you said, that the reason we hold so much in such high regard is a consequence of the culture which we live in.

shortguy
Mar 01, 2010, 02:46 PM
I'm not sure, the Iliad is still a fantastic read and has just about everything you could want in a story.

I hear a surprising number of people say this. Frankly, I don't think the Iliad qua work of art really holds up that well. There are some poignant moments, to be sure, but I'd like to see someone try to pull over the catalogue of ships, the formulaic combats that introduce innumerable insignificant characters just to off them in 5 lines, or the various buzzkill divine interventions on a modern editor.

Valka D'Ur
Mar 02, 2010, 03:36 AM
I hear a surprising number of people say this. Frankly, I don't think the Iliad qua work of art really holds up that well. There are some poignant moments, to be sure, but I'd like to see someone try to pull over the catalogue of ships, the formulaic combats that introduce innumerable insignificant characters just to off them in 5 lines, or the various buzzkill divine interventions on a modern editor.
Have you ever read any of the nuDune novels by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert? You've just described them, especially the Butlerian Jihad trilogy and Sandworms of Dune. :shake: