- Platonism for the Iron Age: An Essay on the Literary Universal by Frederic Will
Professor Will’s unique work is called by him a document, text, book, blog, or screed. It is composed of fifty-one brief sections, highlighting a series of reflections, some autobiographical, some on language, and many on the meaning of the literary text. He also includes a consideration of several of his works (he has published over fifty books). The term “Age of Iron” is mentioned in the text only once. It is referenced earlier as “an age which the economics of raw self-interest has ploughed many of its profits into vulgar ‘media,’ little of which brings the human person to the level of dignity, discipline, and thought it deserves.”
Will adopts a “modified Platonism” positing the ideas as the substratum of a lived language, which reaches its apex in a “historical motion-sensitivity” of literary masterpieces, in which the activity of the artist is realized in an internal embodiment of a particular work as the complete realization of its ideal—the “literary universal.” The greatest literary works exhibit the ideal goal of their authors by achieving a paradigmatic integrated presentation of character and plot. Will’s primary examples are Homer’s Odyssey and lliad, in which the universal is written into the text. The author also considers certain eighteenth-century thinkers as Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, Johann Winckelmann, or Joshua Reynolds, [End Page 618] who used the notion of the universal as a concept in their thought to describe “that which is always and everywhere true.” Finally, Will touches on the complex dialectic that exists between the author and his readers, who are both engaged in puzzling through to the profound ideal humanity present in such major texts.
Such writing exhibits to the author, as well as the reader, the expression of the self of the author and the recognition by the readers that they too, in their literary understanding, are being included in the work. Both are held together as two poles of ideal humanity. Thus, humanity itself is the ideal object of the text and, when a work is written by the greatest of authors, such as Homer or Dickinson, there is also a perceived understanding by the readers that they are instantiated within the work in their most realized human form.
The author begins with his attempt to explain to a class of Chinese students the universality of some of Emily Dickinson’s poems, a task made difficult by his undeveloped understanding at that time as well as the profound cultural differences present in that situation. This experience led him to the series of musings that make up the current work.
While this book is full of insights about the significance of the literary text, those thoughts need to be developed in a more straightforward manner. Nevertheless, as a provocative text on literary matters, the present volume can be a source of future endeavors.