Aug 14 2020

This Monotony of Literature

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

In light of having recently finished Václav Benda (1946-1999)’s essays, with its theories of a parallel polis, and amid my preparing to soon read some published works from NewPopLit and Screamin’ Skull Press–both recent and independent publishing endeavors which seem in line with at least some of Benda’s thinking regarding such a parallel polis and culture–I came across this poignant passage from Benjamin Jowett (1817–1893):

After about a hundred, or at most two hundred years if we exclude Homer, the genius of Hellas had ceased to flower or blossom. The dreary waste which follows, beginning with the Alexandrian writers and even before them in the platitudes of Isocrates and his school, spreads over much more than a thousand years. And from this decline the Greek language and literature, unlike the Latin, which has come to life in new forms and been developed into the great European languages, never recovered.

This monotony of literature, without merit, without genius and without character, is a phenomenon which deserves more attention than it has hitherto received; it is a phenomenon unique in the literary history of the world. How could there have been so much cultivation, so much diligence in writing, and so little mind or real creative power? Why did a thousand years invent nothing better than Sibylline books, Orphic poems, Byzantine imitations of classical histories, Christian reproductions of Greek plays, novels like the silly and obscene romances of Longus and Heliodorus, innumerable forged epistles, a great many epigrams, biographies of the meanest and most meagre description, a sham philosophy which was the bastard progeny of the union between Hellas and the East? Only in Plutarch, in Lucian, in Longinus, in the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Julian, in some of the Christian fathers are there any traces of good sense or originality, or any power of arousing the interest of later ages. And when new books ceased to be written, why did hosts of grammarians and interpreters flock in, who never attain to any sound notion either of grammar or interpretation? Why did the physical sciences never arrive at any true knowledge or make any real progress? Why did poetry droop and languish? Why did history degenerate into fable? Why did words lose their power of expression? Why were ages of external greatness and magnificence attended by all the signs of decay in the human mind which are possible?

Benjamin Jowett, “Introduction to Phaedrus,” The Dialogues of Plato in Five Volumes, Vol. I, trans. Jowett, (Oxford University Press, 1892; third edition revised and corrected) pp. 425–26.