I guess you could sum it up as, “keep an open mind”

My friend and erstwhile co-blogger Raffi Magarik has written a post on literary criticism of Beowulf and the Bible. He points out the novelty of J.R.R. Tolkein’s 1936 essay urging scholars to examine the Anglo-Saxon poem on its own literary terms rather than unflatteringly measuring it by contemporary standards or else focusing solely on its historical value. Raffi notes that the parallel to Robert Alter’s biblical criticism is strong–both Tolkein and Alter contend, essentially, that the most fruitful study is the most open-minded.

Surely that perspective is now more commonplace in academia, with the flowering of comparative literature and ethnography and other postmodern disciplines. It’s also apparent in an essay that, as anyone who’s talked with me about it knows, I consider to be the paragon of cultural and literary criticism: Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force“, published just a few years after Tolkein’s Beowulf essay. Of course, unlike Tolkein, Weil doesn’t have to defend the literary value of the historical poem. Instead she reinterprets it as a psychological guide to contemporary politics (specifically, the fall of France). Surely that’s where the greatest value of historical literary criticism lies–not in parsing works as historical artifacts but in scouring them for wisdom (or, in the lovely allegory of Tolkein’s that Raffi quotes, climbing them to see the ocean).

I recently visited the Byzantium and Islam exhibition at the Met, an extensive collection which exists largely because of early 20th-century archaeologists’ zealous fascination with (and consequent desire to uncover) the historical truth of Christianity. I was lucky enough to be guided through the exhibit by its organizer, Dr. Helen Evans. It seemed that she found those archaeologists’ efforts quaint and curious. What Christian insights would a bunch of historians from Yale and the British Museum possibly have thought to gain by mapping the trade routes of Galilee? What they ultimately discovered–countless artifacts and ruins–proved to be of tremendous historical and cultural value. But despite the excavators’ desperate hopes, they revealed no fresh understanding of Christianity or the Bible.

It’s not that literature is independent of historical context. Just the opposite: historical context helps reveal the intelligence of the authors. In her essay, Weil refers to Aeschylus, Pythagoras, and Plato, alongside Priam, Hector, and Achilles. She does so in order to emphasize the universality of literary themes, not their limitations. Historical investigation should create potential for literary insight instead of restricting our imagination.

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