Friday, February 21, 2014

Matthew Arnold contemplating Shakespeare

I wonder why it is that the high literary seriousness of the Victorians seems somewhat funny to us, even slightly fake? Victorianism has gotten itself various revisionist defenders over the decades and is not thought about in such black and white terms any more which is naturally mostly a healthy developement. I'm not totally persuaded though: any era will be a polyphony and have much value and high cultural achievements. Even my real bête noire, that awful short 18th century had some real worth amidst all the scented savagery and fake finery of carefully simulated emotion (now talk about unfair descriptions...) And when one reads Matthew Arnold or even Leslie Stephens, there is clearly much that it valuable there. The really awful things you can find in any cultural era, they will always be there. This note is about a certain flaw in strength.

The chasm is likely historical: the 19th century could have next to no idea of the following one - whose shell shocked, scattered survivors we are, frivolous and materialist, amnesic. The Victorians did not know a significant part what they were talking about - from our perspective they are innocents, attempting serious postures without a sense of real historical tragedy. This is of course unfair too, anachronistic, but all eras will aim for conversation with all others, with what has been, what is and what is to come. So, it's not only unfair - and to say this is not to absolve our own era which likely will go down in civilizational memory (should such be preserved) as much more abysmal than the mid- and late 19th century, and justifiably so.