It could be argued that in earlier centuries the sciences evolved no more quickly than other areas of thought. Until the Enlightenment was well under way, there were significant gains in understanding languages, classical literature, textual research, history, and other areas of the humanities, while in the sciences many old ideas persisted despite strong evidence to the contrary. Ptolemy's second-century view of the universe was revised by adding "cycles" and "epicycles" to planetary movement to justify the geocentric model for over fifteen hundred years. Systematic bloodletting was used for about three thousand years to cure physical ailments—well into the nineteenth century, even in the United States. Reading a popular medical book for background of a novel set in the late 1880s, I was surprised by how little was known about human biology even then, with over half of the cures and medicines described being irrelevant or even toxic.
The sciences obviously reached a turning point with Darwin, however, and by the early twentieth century they were moving at a vertiginous pace, with Einstein's new picture of the universe and relativity followed almost immediately by quantum theory's bizarre world of subatomic physics. Then came the Big Bang theory, predicted in 1948 and confirmed twenty years later by Bell Lab scientists: A protouniverse almost too tiny to describe suddenly "blows up" and begins expanding, producing a jumble of fundamental particles, until now, 13.7 billion years later, we infer a universe spread over a size that can only be guessed to be about seven trillion light years across. These kinds of colossal changes in both the physical and life sciences were added to in the past half century [End Page 6] by amazing strides in areas such as the geosciences, genetics, microbiology, and medicine.
Evolution in the creative arts is subtler than in the sciences and even in many other areas of the humanities, such as history. In the arts, there are of course changing methods of distribution and production, such as printing, movies, and the Internet, but the basic nature and subject matter of the arts may be less inclined to evolve categorically away from their past. This encourages me to keep several grains of salt on hand for the writer or critic who claims that an entirely new artistic approach is redefining literature.
Literature continues to deal with the same broad scope of human drama and collisions, suffering, treachery, villainy, and comedy that it long has addressed. Methods of storytelling are surprisingly resilient, too. Our oldest extant narratives, orally created two or three millennia ago—the Iliad and Odyssey and parts of the Old Testament—comprise elements still used today, including heroes and antiheroes, characterization, conflict, narrative progression and framing, plots, crises, themes, motifs, and rhetorical devices such as figures of speech and climactic structure. A talented young fiction writer whose novel I am currently reading uses epithets in his novel-in-the-making—not quite the "born from Zeus" or "swift footed" ones of the Iliad—but epithets, nevertheless. Redefining and discovering different trends, writers, groupings, and periods in the arts can be useful, if only to help understand and promote them, but it should be done with humility. A good production of Shakespeare can electrify you or me and be as powerful and relevant to us as it was to a citizen of London four hundred plus years ago in the original Globe Theatre, no textual changes necessary.
The aged King Lear is so self-satisfied and doting toward his three daughters that he divides his kingdom among them, causing a civil war that kills almost every major character in the play. The basic stories in much of our canon of literature are hardly subtle. Their power and wisdom come from the discoveries made about human nature and behavior through characters and their struggles. Beware of pride-bound, stubborn, pigheaded leaders—yes, and beware of the idea that the themes of classic literature are "irrelevant" today. The resiliency of literature comes also in the clear and perfect expression of the moments and moods of life through language, many examples of which cannot be forgotten—Hamlet with the skull of his...