The Myth of Dispassionate Consensus

Saturday , 10, June 2017 8 Comments

A “geoffrey” over at the ODD74 boards has this comment on the subject of Appendix N:

I think it takes about 200 years before a civilization can assuredly judge literature. During the century a book is written, it partakes of the nature of that century. The century after a book is written, the civilization is reacting against the assumptions of the books of the previous century. It is not until the century after that that men can look dispassionately upon the books written 200 years before.

I think, therefore, that the 20th century’s fantasy and science-fiction literature will not be finally sorted into either A) timeless or B) ephemeral until A. D. 2100. We will all be dead. At least most of our children will be dead. But many of our grandchildren will live to see the proper classification of 20th-century fantasy and science fiction. Of course, most of them will not care, being too busy arguing about the merits of the literature of the 21st and 22nd centuries.

No, I don’t think any harm is intended here. And this is a very common attitude that I’m sure you’ve heard in other contexts.

I’ll tell you why this is a bogus argument, though. In the first place it disqualifies every contemporary critic from being able to have a dispassionate opinion. It proposes that a sufficient passage of time is a prerequisite for developing a judgement that is independent of your times. But think about it. Right now, do you think you can go find a dispassionate assessment of the American Revolution? The Protestant Reformation? Columbus’s discovery of America? The crusades? The development of Islam? The birth of Christ? What really happened with Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac way back long and long ago…?

Ah, yes I’m talking history and not literature here. But even in the past hundred years fashions in criticism of, say, Shakespeare have undergone any number of permutations. Are any of these competing voices inherently objective merely because of the age of the material they contend with…? I don’t think so.

Notice especially that this the sort of argument that does not require any familiarity with literature or history or anything else in order to make. Of course, anyone that had looked into the matter for themselves would have any number of reference points and facts to back up what they were saying. The fact that someone would even make this sort of claim is in fact an indicator that they don’t have any of that sort of thing to buttress their opinions.

So it’s an argument from ignorance asserting that ignorance is the natural order. That’s pretty astonishing, really. Assuming that someone existed that did in fact know what the heck they were talking about, how should they answer this claim? I don’t know the answer to that, but I can tell you that no amount of evidence or analysis would satisfy this sort of person.

But just because this type of argument is inherently spurious, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t acknowledge a very real problem. People do tend to be swept up into the ideological fashions of not just their century, but also their decade. If you agreed that you would really like to step out of that and move toward a viewpoint that was noticeably more objective and dispassionate, how would one go about that?

Well, I’m not the first person to notice this, but… reading and discussing works from other eras would be a good start.

  • Vlad James says:

    Amusingly, I would argue the exact opposite of this commentator.

    It’s much harder to judge a work, and one necessarily loses something when doing so at a far later point in time.

    For instance, there is a lot of great Russian literature written during Soviet times where a lot of the ideas, interactions, and humor are dependent on a familiarity with daily life there. It’s a completely different book for anyone who didn’t grow up under communism during that era. Is someone 200 years later even capable of mildly appreciating those elements? Absolutely not.

    One suffers a similar problem with the religious iconography of Hieronymus Bosch’s work, or the Christian symbolism in Sebastian Brant’s “The Ship of Fools” or the earlier “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. Elements that would have been immediately familiar to the educated readers then are utterly inscrutable to the most learned person today.

    This effect might not be as severe with science fiction and fantasy, but it still exists to some degree.

  • JonM says:

    So we can’t dispassionately discuss the merits of anything written before 1817? That might be regressing a little too hard!

    That’s a bold statement, given that mass produced books aren’t much older than that to begin with. He’s basically lumping Frankenstein into the “wait and see” category with Harry Potter.

    It also ignores the all important fact that I’m right here, right now. If you I ask you what to read, and you answer, “Ask again in 175 years,” then why would I listen to you? You haven’t given me anything useful whatsoever!

    • Jeffro says:

      A living author asking people to substantiate demonstrably false claims being made about his work will evidently result in thread lock over there, so I guess that’s par for the course.

  • Dan Wolfgang says:

    And here I had people ask me why I bothered reviewing books as old as I, Robot because they were already considered classics.

  • Blume says:

    So I can offer a rebuttal or 2. Anybody wanna say Charles Dickens or Mark Twain weren’t lauded from their day to this one? I know they had their critics and detractors but even they acknowledged the 2 authors as great. And I can’t really point at anytime reacting against their ideas and themes either.

    • Vlad James says:

      There are definitely writers who never saw success during their lifetime, for one reason or another. Mikhail Bulgakov, Jaroslav Hasek, and Franz Kafka all come to mind.

      As for Dickens/Twain, they were well-regarded back then, yes. However, was Twain considered better than Bret Harte, Horatio Alger, or some now-obscure writer I’m not even familiar with? Not necessarily. There are a lot of tremendously famous writers back then that are almost unknown today.

      Sometimes very deservedly so (ever read Charlotte Brame?), and sometimes unjustly.

      • Blume says:

        The charge was no book could be judged in it’s time period. Nor in the hundred years after it was written. But only two hundred years after. I was giving examples that should refute that as all three time periods judged them the same. Yes people thought others were better but they were still judged great. And you will find people today who have their own favourites in those eras like you.

  • deuce says:

    Spraguey used the “200 years” thing way back in the 1970s.


    Will Murray: What’s your opinion of Robert E. Howard and his ultimate place in fantasy literature?

    L. Sprague de Camp: I think he will probably rate with a lot of the other action story writers like Harold Lamb and Jack London and such. I don’t think he’ll be put in the top grade by the people who make decisions in such cases. I’d personally put him ahead for more enjoyment. I put him above a lot of authors who, like Faulkner and such, who are much more highly regarded as by literary critics, but then that’s a matter of taste. You can’t really tell what’s great art until a couple of centuries have gone by and you see which of these fellows have been forgotten and which are still read, and that’s why we say Homer and Shakespeare and Praxiteles and Velazequez and Brahms and Shelley were great artists because their works have outlived their contemporaries and competitors. But we can’t sit down now and predict what’s going to happen to the works of art that we see coming out. It’s even conceivable that someone 500 years from now will consider Andy Warhol’s tomato juice can a work of art. But I’m not holding my breath until that happens–seems impossible.

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