T.J. Reed’s new book Genesis: The Making of Literary Works from Homer to Christa Wolf is a monumental study that seeks the roots of great literary works and the processes by which they arose. We thank Dr. Reed for taking the time to share some thoughts on the genesis of his own book in this piece for Proofed.
My book Genesis had its own genesis, which reaches back a long way. I’ve always approached works of literature as organic phenomena that can be better understood, sometimes only fully understood, if we trace their origins in the factors—personal, social, historical, and more—that shaped them. This has worked well with the authors I’ve spent most of my time on, Thomas Mann and Goethe; but the principle is inescapably universal, so I’ve long had it in mind to devote a whole book to these processes. Into my eighties, it was “If not now, when?”
Such a broad project has involved sticking my neck out by trespassing on other people’s territory—Homeric, Biblical, Early French, and Shakespearean scholarship. But is it really trespass? Rather, I extend the concept of the Common Reader, who Samuel Johnson declared was the ultimate judge of works of literature, to the notion of the Common Critic, who can legitimately respond to any part of our literary heritage, taking some account of each specialist scene but claiming the right to an independent opinion. In the later sections of the book, I am back at home in German studies, though even there it is impossible to be a specialist in every one of the authors I discuss. So in both areas I have to trust in the traditional tolerance of the humanities.
Powerful voices have argued that a work’s genesis is simply irrelevant. “To say whether a book is good or bad, what does it matter how it was made?” wrote Rousseau, though he did think it worthwhile to write Confessions laying open his whole creative economy for inspection. In any case, his argument too easily takes for granted—as theorists commonly do—that we are capable of getting everything essential out of a text when it is cut off from its full human context. That begs the question of how competent we are as readers and of how literary communication is most likely to get through to us. Where there are puzzles and problems, as there often are, not to take hints and clues from outside to help solve them is to spurn the obvious sources of fuller understanding.
And are they really “outside” anyway? No text is a discrete object, inert on the page, coming from nowhere, taking us nowhere. A poem is only the end-state of a movement whose originating energies continue to throb within it. Paul Valéry’s provocative statement that “A poem is never completed, only abandoned” captures that sense of literature as a still living substance. Tracing that movement and that substance to their origins can often bring clarity, and it can certainly broaden our view and deepen our enjoyment. That has been made movingly clear in this 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth by some fine radio and television broadcasts that have woven together the story of the life with the growth of the music.
Every work has its genesis, and it’s clearly impossible to explore them all fully. Yet gaining insight into just a few striking examples—my selection or any other—can already confirm our sense of the live process of literature. That then becomes an assumption that underlies all our reading.
Do I regret leaving out any particular one of the infinite possibilities? I was tempted by the classic case of Pascal’s Pensées, a project left at his death as a partly ordered mass of fragments on separate slips of paper. That would have followed on nicely from the chapter on Montaigne, whose insights Pascal both exploited and deplored, and that in turn could have led on to Voltaire’s brilliant polemic against Pascal. But it would probably have taken half a year, and “time’s wingèd chariot” was very audible.
So I take refuge, as Erich Auerbach did with his choice of motto for the case-studies of Mimesis, in Andrew Marvell’s wistful phrase “Had we but world enough and time…”
This guest blog was written by T.J. Reed, Taylor Professor of German Emeritus at Oxford University.