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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, August 21, 2008

free, classless, urbane

Rain falls through the cool air. In the night, when I removed one of my earplugs, I heard the drumbeat of drops falling on a plastic fitting of the downspout system outside.

It was another wakeful night after 2:25. I reckon I need to return to my sometime practice of getting up to read. I might as well use the time to push my project ahead in some small way.

As it was, my mind was busy in the dark, zipping over wide terrain, not all of it negative. My thoughts had an excited, energetic quality, which made me sure that sleep was not to be forthcoming.

When I got up, I made coffee and read a couple of pages more of Livy's History of Rome (a downloaded public-domain version translated by D. Spillan and published in 1879). Then, unsure what notes I wanted to type, I got an intuitive desire to fetch Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism from my bookshelf. I'm working at learning to trust these hunches, so I got the book and flipped to its conclusion, where I had last left off typing a couple of months ago. I was thrilled with what I found waiting for me there.

One thing that struck me was this quotation from Matthew Arnold:

Culture seeks to do away with classes.

Needless to say, this is no Marxist sentiment. Frye followed it with this gloss:

The ethical purpose of a liberal education is to liberate, which can only mean to make one capable of conceiving society as free, classless, and urbane.

I relived my feeling of amazement when I first read that sentence. It could easily form the thesis of a book or a series of books--or the basis of a lifetime of contemplation.

I don't think I can even say much about it. I will only note that I regard Frye, along with Joseph Campbell, as a key inspiration for me in affirming the value of the arts and of artists. Many people value art and artists, but these men have been among the most articulate, for me, in accounting for exactly why art is so important to the human enterprise, and therefore why artists matter.

For much of our lives, we are not too different from chickens in a laboratory, pecking at the green triangle or the yellow star to make corn drop into a trough. Our emancipation from that condition depends, first and foremost, on artists. In that spirit, I press on.


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