Classic Literature: Coming to Know Ourselves

“There is a very good reason for every Catholic to know the great works of literature — and that is because the great works of literature help us to know ourselves.” This wonderful insight serves as the opening line of a recent book by Joseph Pearce, Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (published by Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute). In recent years, there has been somewhat of a resurgence in interest in the great works of literature, and Pearce has been one of the great promoters of this cause.

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“The great works of literature show us the folly of homo superbus as well as the wisdom of homo viator by contrasting the viciousness of the prideful villain with the virtuous humility and humanity of the noble hero,” Pearce writes. “They show us that the good man is inspired in all that he does by the desire to serve his God and his neighbour, while the bad man is inspired by his desire to please himself. They show us that man is always oscillating between the two poles of his very nature. He is either falling into the folly of the idolatrous love of himself above all others, or he is edified by his selfless love for the other.”

Many of the great works of literature can be hard nuts to crack, so to speak. Just about anyone with a high school education or higher can read William Shakespeare, for example — but how many of us can understand or grasp Shakespeare without a good deal of assistance? The bard is said to have invented hundreds of words, either by changing their part of speech (using “elbow” as a verb, for example), adding prefixes or suffixes (as in “dauntless” or “admirable”), or combining words (as in “bloodstained” or “cruelhearted”).

Understanding Shakespeare goes far beyond knowing what his words mean. The themes of his plays, the context in which they were written and which shades every stroke of his pen, the necessary knowledge of history or mythology for a given play — there are few who can fully grasp the import of these great works on a first reading with no assistance!

It is the same for any great work of literature. The works of Shakespeare are a terrific example, but the same can be said for the works of Jane Austen and Mark Twain; for Frankenstein and Dracula; for Wuthering Heights and Augustine’s Confessions; for Moby Dick or A Tale of Two Cities. Certainly these works can be enjoyed when taken at face value. They are incomparable works of literary genius, crafted by artists with insights into how we can “know ourselves”. But when studied in depth, they can tell us much about the human condition, about our place in God’s creation, and more. But in many cases, the assistance of the experts can be of incomparable value in digging deeply into these wonderful works.

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In this vein, there is a series published here at Ignatius Press called the Ignatius Critical Editions (www.ignatiuscriticaleditions.com). At this time, the series has produced 27 volumes, with two more on the way next year. Each volume features the full, unabridged text of the given classic, as well as several critical essays written by experts. The essays are academic, but without the stain of modernism or secularism that is rampant in academe today. As a matter of fact, the textual abuse that is par for the course in academic circles today is what prompted Ignatius Press and Joseph Pearce to launch this series in the first place. Mr. Pearce details this story in a recent article for the National Catholic Register.

The classics are deemed so because they have stood the test of time. Something about a particular work is recognized as worthy of study, and has something to say to every generation. It doesn’t need to be relatable, we don’t all need to be “represented.” Dracula is seen as one of the great works of 19th century fiction, but I doubt many of us can relate to Jonathan Harker or Count Dracula. Pearce writes, “The great works of literature are works of enchantment which have the power to re-enchant the most weary of souls. They are the inheritance of all of us, all of us who want them. …[G]reat literature is manna for the mind and food for the soul.”