What do you know by heart?
I have always had a nightmare of a time with remembering things. It’s not that my memory doesn’t work. It works just fine in most ways. It’s about judgment. I can’t remember quotations because I automatically reword them in my head. I can think of a half dozen better ways to say something than the person who wrote it. I usually say whenever someone asks me to remember a line that I’ll learn to remember when the author learns to write better. I will start respecting literature in its original form when it improves to write better than I can.
Here’s the thing about poetry — and literature in general. It’s not that writers from the past were bad. Far from it. They were pushing the boundaries of what was possible, expected or accepted in the art of their time. But think about it from a medical perspective. There was a time when bleeding someone intentionally was the norm. It was a huge advance on the practices that preceded it. Then it was surpassed by rudimentary physical procedures in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, medical imaging, nanosurgical procedures, lasers and other bloodless surgical techniques and the skill of doctors that have been trained according to the best techniques developed over centuries, these have all surpassed those ancient techniques for curing people. We don’t think that reciting prayers over their sickbeds will cure people — thankfully, we’re not that stupid anymore. Sure, praying with someone is often a good practice to improve their mental state and I would suggest that anyone who is unwell, especially someone unwell enough to be hospitalized, contact their spiritual leader of choice. I know I do. But it’s not going to fix their broken heart or kidney to have an exorcism done there amid the beeping and buzzing of the medical gear. We’ve moved on.
Literature, though, at least the way we teach it in our schools, it hasn’t moved on at all. And that’s sad. Because not only are we teaching students this way but that is how our culture is learning to see books. Like Shakespeare and Milton and Dostoyevsky and Dickens are the best our languages collectively have to offer humanity. And it’s bullshit, plain and simple. If you think Shakespeare has the most advanced command of the English language, Dostoyevsky of Russian, Balzac of French or Goethe of German, you have been sadly misinformed. Their writing is stilted and arcane, their plots hopelessly simple and their staging lacking in subtlety or modernity. It’s not that these people didn’t know their craft and they were incredibly advanced for their society at the time — they were groundbreaking in many ways but not in others and we must remember they were humans writing as an art form, not technicians perfecting an objective research method.
But it’s not about judging them. It’s about building on their shoulders. If you are mistaken enough to believe that we haven’t improved on techniques in any are of our cultural existence in the past three, four, five hundred years, what exactly do you think our artists have been doing all this time? If writing techniques hadn’t become more advanced to the point that the most talented writers today weren’t leaps and bounds ahead of Shakespeare, what would be their reason to keep writing and why would anyone bother to read their work if they could just go back and read something that was already better? We look at historical literature because it’s where we came from and it’s important to understand how we got here. Humans love stories. We love knowing the past. Nobody cares that there’s a dog on the side of the road until they put it into context, that the dog ran away from home, wandered around and ended up on the side of the road. Putting humans on the moon is something most people don’t feel particularly emotional about until they trace the pathway of just how difficult it was to get them there. The story is everything.
The story of progress in writing is one that has been sadly neglected. Building on the shoulders of great giants of literature is something that is one of the highest ideals and successes of human society in the past five thousand years and, unlike medicine, industry and technology, this is a story that is generally ignored both by educational institutions and society at large.
The other piece of this that confuses me, though, is the question of knowing something by heart. Two times two is four. It’s always four. It’s objectively true. It’s not a human perception issue. If an alien civilization came to visit us from another galaxy (yes, I know how difficult that would be given physical limitations but work with me on this thought experiment), they would agree that two times two is four. They wouldn’t necessarily have any appreciation for our art or music or even understand how our thought processes worked enough to communicate with us. But their mathematics would be, if not identical, close enough for all practical purposes. Actually, I’m fairly certain that the basis of a fairly recent science fiction movie was using mathematics as a way to construct a working language to communicate with an alien life form. I can’t remember what the movie was called or anything else about it — but given that it was a Hollywood production and they never really make the basis of a movie about systemic failure, I suspect they succeeded in communicating through the beauty of numbers.
But “to be or not to be” isn’t either a coherent way of communicating that thought or the best way of phrasing it. Shakespeare wrote the way he did for a reason. It’s not because it’s beautiful. It’s not because it’s the best way of writing. It’s because he had a team of actors who needed to learn their lines. Pattern-based verse is exceptionally easy to learn and to memorize for stage performance. There’s another section to that logic, too. It’s far easier to teach something by rote if it has a predictable rhythmic form, often if it has a predictable rhyme scheme to know where it’s going. That’s a mental cue that can’t be overlooked and given that in the western world at that time literacy was about as low as the desire for intelligence and thought is now, teaching these parts to illiterate players for performance in a very short timeframe meant that if Shakespeare and his compatriots wrote prose or anything particularly advanced from a language perspective, it would have been impossible to put on in a reasonable amount of time. You also have to keep in mind that Shakespeare’s audience, to continue to use him as the obvious example, wasn’t nobility or the educated elite. They’d show up, certainly, but the overwhelming majority of the audience at the Globe would have been the great unwashed (and I mean this just as literally about that time period as I do about today’s mass of population). The “cheap seats” were the ones that would have been prepared to riot had they not enjoyed the play and that means he had to write in language that would have been easily comprehensible to the least educated and tell stories that would have been appreciated by a group of rowdy, drunken idiots. This is not the stuff of excellence. This is the stuff of mediocrity and it is stunning that he was able to create such amazing work given the circumstances. But by today’s standards it has only interest from the perspective of historical development. You can like it, sure, but it’s liking it in the way that we like old buildings or traditional art — it’s not because it’s the best technology or technique that we can imagine. It’s just impressive within the context of its time. Writing a play of Shakespeare’s quality is something that can be accomplished by any undergraduate student with a desire to do so just as building a bridge that surpasses Roman standards is within the abilities of a mediocre undergrad engineering student or designing something in the style and technical limitations of the Parthenon or St Peter’s Basilica is in reach of any architect worth continuing their program long before graduation.
A whole other question, though, is what do I know in my heart. But that’s a question for another day.