I Am Posterity

There have been quite a few articles recently which have extolled once again the remarkable discernment of the mysterious spirit, posterity, when it comes to questions of literary worthiness (for instance, here is DJ Taylor today in The Guardian, who ironically attributes this observation to that once much lauded but now wholly overlooked literary titan, Martin Amis); but nobody, it seems, really knows much about this character or how he operates; – they are only certain that human-beings themselves, whether singly or in a mass, are incapable of literary judgement. For this is what the statement boils down to, an abnegation of responsibility or capacity on the part of mankind; an acknowledgement that, in reading a text, it is impossible to determine its worth unless that worth has already been predetermined by some external force, at which point it oddly becomes clearly recognisable. With writers still alive people will inevitably be swayed by fashion or reputation: any enjoyment one senses reading a book will not have come from the author’s vision of life or use of language, not even his plot or the human emotions he had inspired in you – these are just things you imagine, utter delusions; – it comes instead, like all your opinions, from your fundamental weakness of will in respect to the world surrounding you. You may read a new book one day and then the next a book already noted by posterity, and you may feel that they are both great – and that indeed they are both great because they share in precisely the same qualities of greatness – but this is not the case: no matter how difficult it is for you to accept, your judgement is only correct in the case of the latter; the former’s greatness is as yet undeterminable. There is literally not an argument you could put forward to justify your opinion. To take an example: if Borges – or even Bustos Domecq – were to read Cervantes’ Don Quixote and then to read Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote, he would be able only to recognise the greatness of Cervantes; of Pierre Menard’s work he could form no judgement whatever.

A confession, however, is in order. All this while I have been masquerading as Obooki, but the truth is that I am in fact this mysterious being, posterity. Not me alone, it has to be said; there are others. We are rather like a Portuguese Man of War, an entity created out of other entities, all feeding symbiotically off one another. The strangest thing perhaps is that we do not even have the same literary opinions; we do not need to; so long as some of us like a writer, that is enough. We are the mediums, the spiritualists, the outcasts who spend our lives communing with the dead. We have no worldly ties; fashion does not find us. We live in musty rooms full of old books, in garrets. When we search through bookshops, we are looking precisely for the writers we’ve never heard of. We are all of us Poggios, scouring our modern monasteries for the texts that have been lost to time. Isms mean nothing to us, for ours is a time-frame of millenia, in which nothing ever changes. On our own we are no one; but collectively we are those who have carried and cared for literature through the ages, and for the sake of this we have come to feel it our own rightful possession. Let them say every day X or Y’s new book is a masterpiece, or discuss Z’s genius; let them discuss the death of the novel and award their prizes – it has no bearing on literature itself; it does not even touch our world.

But if you want a clue from posterity as to which writers will survive, let me say this: it is clearer than you think. We are talking only of the very greatest writers here – for there will come a time when each millenium will only be marked by a few writers, as today each century is (save, as always, our own remarkable times) – but it is a curious case: almost always those writers who survive were those writers who were revered for their greatness in their own lifetimes. The obscure and misunderstood genius is a fabrication of these last few centuries. And let’s face it, today no one is revered and they will all go by the wayside.

Another few pointers:

  • Is it as good as Shakespeare [insert your own national writer here]? – Because if it’s not, it’ll probably be forgotten.
  • Use of language will win out over any other criterion, because that’s what really interests us

And if you’d read this carefully enough, you’ll realise there’s no point ever questioning my literary opinion either; because the truth is your own opinion is immaterial – even when it’s right.

3 thoughts on “I Am Posterity

  1. As to what will endure millennia from now, I think that only when it comes to modern ‘children’s books’ we have an off chance of guessing it right, because their survival doesn’t depend on quality or greatness, but on their ability to charm.

    Chuang Tzu’s butterfly dreams, Aesop’s talking animals, Somadeva and the Panchatantra, The Arabian Nights, Robin Hood and King Arthur’s cycle. Perrault’s Mother Goose, the Brothers Grimm’s Folk Tales and Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and Alice in Wonderland are all good examples of this (and maybe even Genesis, Homer, Dante, Pu Song Ling and Don Quixote!).

    So, if I had to take a guess, from the last Century I’d only bet on Lord of the Flies and Kafka’s short stories to survive posterity’s millennial judgement.

  2. “… now wholly overlooked … Martin Amis”

    Ah – if only!

    So it’s you and people like you who constitute posterity! And here I was thinking it was a bunch of villainous mustachio-twirling professors and academics and otherassorted pantomime villains meeting in secret cabals deciding what what is good and what isn’t, despite the desires and wishes of the public!

    I suppose it happens occasionally that a writer overlooked in his own time is laterrediscovered and acclaimed (Gerard Manley Hopkins comes to mind), but you’re right: such instances are rare. Those who will be read in the future are a subset of those who are read now. But of course, there can be, I guess, works of a very high quality that are unknown now and will remain unknown in the future. But as we all know, the tree that falls out of anyone’s hearing range makes no sond.

  3. I’m inclined to believe that nobody from the c20th will be read in the year 3000 – not Joyce or Proust or Beckett or Kafka. Why? Because the c20th is too obsessed with form and style, and with specific philosophical ideas – and other periods of writing (the Greek Alexandrians, Silver Latin) which have had similar inclinations have fallen by the wayside (survived by chance, read by specialists). Kafka, rather like Borges, I see drifting into a realm of curious esoterica.

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