Lewis’s Wilder?: On Literary Masterpieces

In 1939, Thornton Wilder penned a brief essay called “Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex.” It’s not my favorite essay on the play–that is reserved for E.R. Dodds’s “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex,” according to whose framework Wilder would have had, in fact, some misunderstandings–but it remains very much worth reading, and I recently did so with a group of students at a retreat at The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Mich.

Towards the end of the essay, Wilder makes one of the greatest statements I’ve ever encountered about what literary masterpieces do, and how pedantic scholarship can help us to avoid allowing them to do what they are designed to do.

Scholarship has its role to play, obviously; but Wilder’s point is that we quite frequently use it as a camouflaging defense mechanism so that we do not have to face directly the difficult questions raised by the supreme works of the human mind; so that we can remain comfortable; so that we can shirk the difficult burden of thinking; of introspection. He says it like this in speculating about why Sophocles’s play (really, the trilogy from which it came) won second place rather than first:

During the years following the appearance of [masterpieces] the public has the opportunity of adjusting itself to them; other works are composed under their influence by less original hands, and finally a body of critical commentary collects about them to facilitate their understanding. But the difficulty is eternally there, and as it is not essentially a difficulty of style or manner but of a relation to life, it is our duty to insist on rediscovering it and wrestling with it. The aids to masterpieces are often nothing but means to avoid their fundamental power and reduce to matters of “taste'” and “interest” what should be a perpetually renewed conflict.

I quote from the Library of America edition, pp. 717-18.

A student at the retreat pointed out a connection to C.S. Lewis’s famous essay “On the Reading of Old Books.” (I have mentioned this in print before in connection with William Hazlitt’s “On Reading Old Books.”)

Interestingly, Wilder’s and Lewis’s essays were both originally used as introductions to old books: Wilder’s to a translation of Sophocles’s play and Lewis’s to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. And both consider the works they are introducing to be masterpieces.

But the similarities do not end there. The aforementioned student noted that Wilder’s essay reminded him of Lewis’s remark about reading Plato, viz., that reading Plato is easier and more beneficial than reading Plato’s commentators, who can become a barrier to understanding Plato himself. Lewis remarks on this at the very beginning of the essay when he says:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.

The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.

The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

What Wilder and Lewis are arguing is not the same: Wilder suggests that scholarship can obscure how hard masterpieces are, while Lewis suggests that it can obscure how easy masterpieces are. But their views can be harmonized, because they are not speaking of the same thing. For Wilder, masterpieces are hard because they deal with hard questions we’d rather not face: questions, for example, about confusion, human error, suffering, death. For Lewis, masterpieces are easy because they are the lucid products of human genius.

Both can be true. For in each instance, in the end it isn’t the case that the words as such are the problem–that if we only knew the exact semantic range of a Greek verb at a particular moment in time, all our difficulties would vanish.[1] We do know (Lewis) what the words mean, more or less, and that itself constitutes our difficulty: our difficulty is that we don’t want to know (Wilder).

To conclude: By all means, use all the tools available to help you understanding something someone said a long time ago in what you assume to be a galaxy far, far away. But do not let the tools, valuable in their own place and proper use, become the means that prevent a direct encounter with the text.

Instead, remember that that “someone” might not be as far away as you think, because he participates in the same nature that is common to you and to everyone else. That fact is simultaneously a comfort and a terror. In so far as it is true, it means that you can understand an author who wrote in a foreign tongue 2,500 years ago.

But it also means that his problems are your problems, too.[2] And so you must deal with the “relation to life” presented in literary masterpieces. There must be “perpetually renewed conflict.” The reading of literature should be, in some basic sense, agonistic.

This is the reason that Sophocles still strikes so many readers as having, to borrow a phrase from Bernard Knox, the heroic temper. He strives for self-knowledge despite all circumstances–as should we.


1 As a philologist and pedant, I of course think that it is very valuable to know the exact semantic range of a Greek verb at a particular moment in time.
2 This may sound like it is meant pace Lewis (“They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us”), but it is not. I am speaking of the fundamental problems of human existence, which are universal, as I’m quite certain Lewis would agree.


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