Casting around the internet for something interesting to read I fell upon this blog, linked to by the ever-reliable blog_meridian. I thought I'd write something in response to the question posed there, namely: what makes a classic? So, OK, lets approach this question methodically.
The first criterion is as follows: a classsic is that which is esteemed by authors who themselves merit the title 'classic' in the eyes of Raminagrobis. Now, this may strike you as a clever diversionary tactic, a crafty tour de passe-passe, a begging of the question; or else a foolish bit of nonsense. But consider: Proust as a reader of Pascal; Pascal as a reader of Montaigne, Montaigne as a reader of Plutarch... This is the method of argumentation also known as the 'appeal to authority'. Well if Montaigne's the authority for the reading of Plutarch (his favourite author, I do believe, and the most frequently quoted in the Essais), then I'm sure as hell gonna read Plutarch. H. R. Jauss located the 'dialogue of great writers' at the highest level of his hierarchy of reading. Incidentally this procedure for determining a classic is by no means infallible: Borges, a writer whom I esteem, judged Swinburne the most noble and elegant of English poets, but I find his verse turgid and florid in equal measure; Baudelaire admired Edgar Allen Poe despite the glaring obviousness of Poe's enduring crapness; and almost everyone in the Renaissance, inexplicably, thought Lucan was one of the greats.
To define a classic as 'a work that never goes out print' or even 'a work for the ages' is clearly problematical, since there are a certain number of works today acknowledged as greats that had a less than enthusiastic reception for certain periods of their Nachleben. Cicero's letters were 'out of print' until Petrarch and Coluccio Salutati got their hands on them. Catullus was 'out of print' for roughly fourteen centuries; Sappho, for between sixteen and twenty-one. Of course, nothing was much 'in print' before the mid-fifteenth century, but you know what I mean. Equally, there is a huge body of work that was hugely successful in its time but has fallen out of favour since. The bulk of the works of Erasmus must fall into this category: the Adages are undeniably 'classic', to my mind, but you'd have a hell of a job finding a complete edition these days; ditto the Colloquia. It would have been much easier to get hold of a copy in the mid-sixteenth century, and Amazon didn't even exist then (apparently). I think I addressed this in one of my recent posts (q. v.).
One of the problems with the definition of a classic (and I'm about to go into a bit of rant here, so cover your ears if you're particularly faint-hearted or a fan of arguments that are rational or carefully considered), in English-speaking countries at least, is that it is so heavily weighted towards the nineteenth-century novel, as if populist dross like Dickens and clever-clever preciosity like Austen and sentimental toss like Hardy and all that crap were somehow the be-all and end-all of literature. The French have less of a problem in this regard, because on the one hand, they had Flaubert, and on the other, they have Flaubert. My problem is primarily with the teaching of English literature in schools (and even universities), which, from what I've observed, panders to the populist view that literature has always been about sentiment and not intellect, romanticism and not rationality, as if it's always been about *blech* making a connection and *baulk* speaking the universal truths of the human heart.
There was a thing in The Guardian the other week about War and Peace; it was basically a survey asking a load of trumped up media twats how many times they'd read the book and...that was it. As if the number of times you've read War and Peace were a reliable measure of your worth as a human being, as if the accumulation of readings of War and Peace were an accumulation of cultural capital. War and Peace for Christ's sake! I'm not even convinced that is a classic! Give me Dosteyevsky over Tolstoy, any day. Give me Woody Allen's Love and Death over Tolstoy! No, I do like Tolstoy, but...
OK, I'm breaking up here a bit, I admit it. Final word: the Classics are the Greco-Roman literary works you'll find in green and red volumes on a dozen or so library shelves; the classics are an arbitrarily chosen bunch of books, mostly novels, after the model of nineteeth-century realism, most of which are not worth reading; the classics, on the other hand, are books that Raminagrobis likes.