Sunday, September 08, 2013

Great expectations

There once was, I solemnly believe, a moment when literary culture, serious literary discussion, was self-confident, confident in some sense of better things to come, or, more accurately, of the possibility of better things, of a real civilization. Or even, at bleakest, there at least was a belief in serious literary discussion, civilizational-ethical conversation, bone to bone, within a living awareness of a very liberal, very robust tradition. I have located this moment, half-seriously, to a point near mid-20th century in an obscurish essay by Edmund Wilson. But actually these were the last years about which one could even claim something like this. A brief moment, and now so much ground is being lost and serious literature is becoming an odd minority interest, and pretty much not even attempted any more. Yes, there are good writers and good books, but no wide scopes, no cultural self-confidence any longer. By and large we are rehearsing comedies and tragedies of manners with no attempts to George Eliotian or Conradian reach. No passages to India these days.

This nostalgia certainly is partly that: grumpy complaints about the times and mores that has always been going on. But I think in this particular matter, something has qualitatively changed, ground has shifted and new landscapes, bleak landscapes are opening before this generation's eyes.

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