- In Search of the Classic
“In search of” in the title of a book is often a code warning of lukewarm conviction or academic disingenuousness. In Shankman’s title, however, the phrase is literally appropriate because he forthrightly argues that the classic is, of its nature, something that always exists in quest and tension. The classic is not to be located merely in classical antiquity or in the tastes of a privileged class. Though Shankman grants that these often are associated with the literary classic, he finds the nature of the classic rather in the nature of literature as a state of metaxis or “in-betweenness.” His examinations of classical, neo-classical, and modern works define various aspects of this “in-betweenness,” the state of tension that exists in the truly classic at any point in the history of literature.
Although Shankman dismisses Derrida, Foucault, de Man, and others for having mistaken their own destruction of Enlightenment rationalism for a demonstration that rationality is impossible, he is not wildly original. He uses Habermas’s notion of classic literature as enduring and independent of time and Vogelin’s concept of metaxis as foundational for his sprawling, yet lucid, inquiry into the idea of the classic in Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Pindar, Virgil, Dryden, Defoe, Swift, Valery, and others, and in the traditions of the epic, ode, pastoral, and lyric.
Fundamental is the view that classic literature has the greatest power to represent human experience. To avoid the hermeneutical conundrum of the subject-object dilemma, Shankman asserts literature to be in “a middle place” from Plato and Aristotle on. He sees a basic agreement between them on how literature stands between the One and the Many. Put negatively, literature is not sparks from the One or compilations of the Many. Rather it is a mediator between these polarities: classic literature accommodates the propositional purity of philosophy to the indeterminacy of thing-reality. Literature is neither an abstract kernelization of truth nor an anthology of the things of experience [End Page 256] but an analogical conjunction of the two extremes—therefore tension, therefore continual quest.
Using Plato, especially the Cratylus and the Symposium, and Aristotle, especially the Metaphysics and the Poetics, Shankman describes a rationality that exists in literature that is clearly identified in his chapter on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels by emphasizing the idea of man as an animal capax rationis. This in itself places man’s literary enterprise in a middle place and Shankman explores its various implications in a variety of works. From this perspective, it is argued that literature must be about something that matters; that pure poetry or reflexive poetry cannot achieve the ambiguity of analogy as the central core that the classic requires. Thus, Plato never rejected poetry—only the debasement of poetry into either the fantastical or literal (or the confusion of the two.)
The true classic walks a line between ignorance and knowledge, rhetoric and philosophy, literalism and fantasy, “thing-reality” and “the ideal.” The Aeneid makes a good test case. It is at once a piece of propaganda and a statement of an ideal that is complicated by the duplicity of Aeneas’ abandonment of Dido, the brutality of his killing of Turnus, and his emergence in Book VI from the underworld by the Gate of Ivory (false dreams). Such tension is exemplary of what Shankman sinuously argues is at the heart of “the classic” in a variety of other works.
The argument is persuasive and attractive, even if not compelling, in a world where many critics would have us believe that all of literature, canonical or not, is disappearing into nontext. That about half of the chapters are adaptations of previously published articles risks a discontinuity that is largely avoided by recapitulations of where we are in the exposition of our struggle in a continuing and intrinsic state of rational metaxis. I like the idea, but I must reserve judgment on a thesis that attends to the poetry of Yvor Winters and E. V. Cunningham...