Last night we were discussing the differences between “presentist” and “historicist” approaches to literature, especially in the classroom. I’m not entirely sure that this distinction is well put, though it echoes the recent discussion over at Long Sunday about “interpretation”.
A presentist approach to a text would treat it as though it spoke directly to our present circumstances. So we read Virgil on Empire, Chaucer on popular culture, Sarmiento on barbarism, because they like us are concerned with these issues. Shakespeare is our contemporary. And if Dylan is the new Keats, that’s because Keats was the old Dylan. Whether because of transcendent values (great works speak across the ages), transhistorical problems (the poor you always have with you), or tactical considerations (selling the classics to the kids), the point is to emphasize how familiar these texts are.
A historicist approach would say: no, we are not yet equipped to read the text. When we fancy we see our own concerns addressed in Chaucer or Keats, in fact we are imposing those concerns upon these authors. We need, rather, to read these texts as they were read in their time: and Empire meant something rather different to Virgil than it does to us; and Shakespeare’s plays only fully give up their sense once we see them as embedded in a whole series of cultural and political discourses very much of their own time (and place). So the point is to show the strangeness of these texts.
But this dichotomy is itself strange. On the one hand, the present is elusive: which present? Whose present? On the other hand, so is the past: and when precisely does a work become historical?
And a text in a class is unavoidably contemporary: we are all Pierre Menards; we cannot unlearn what we know and Cervantes did not. But it is also unavoidably strange: it comes from elsewhere, bearing the mark of the other. And so in reading we always run the risk of being moved or disturbed, or losing ourselves to some small extent. But isn’t that the attraction of literature, or indeed art in general? That it offers an unlearning: we are no longer quite so sure of who we are.
Or so, at least, one might hope…