in rural Paris, Iowa, and Wordpress

We, the Audience

I try to limit severely my writing about the great books that I have read, which is the noblest and best part of my life and the thing that I would most like to write about. It is not a social endeavor, however. In fact compulsive reading may be one of the most solitary endeavors there is. Other than compulsive masturbation and compulsive writing. There are some others of you out there who do this. Yet, even when we find each other, we remain isolated. You know this. I know this.

Not too long ago I read a post in a blog by a man who disparaged classic literature, particularly long novels. He allowed as how he considered himself quite sophisticated enough, quite intelligent enough without having read anything in those amorphous categories “classic literature” and “literary fiction,” certainly not anything more than 250 pages long. He had, after all, taken in whatever was worthwhile in the classics by “osmosis.” This was greeted with 61 comments, 60 of which were laudatory. Mine was the odd one. So be it. It is a quintessentially American attitude after all.

Notwithstanding all that, I am going to write of a classic again anyway. Because—you see—this is my blog. It exists to please only one person.

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding was first published in 1749. It is the first true novel, as we use the term, ever written. It remains one of the very best in the estimation of people who care about these things. In my opinion it is flatly the best novel ever written. Jonathan Franzen contends for Robinson Crusoe in both categories, but his fondness for that book has obviously colored his judgment.

Tom Jones is a page-turner with 801 pages to turn in the Barnes & Noble Classics edition. The plot is intricate and entertaining, clearly the best plot of all time. The cast of characters vivid. I have read it through three times and revisited sections repeatedly.

I am in love with the heroine, Sophia Western, and have been since I first met her. I have betrayed that love on occasion with women in what I laughingly refer to as real life, and I repent of it every bit as much as Tom Jones repented his transgressions at the end of his long struggle to win Sophia. I would have been much the better man, it would have been much the better life, had I not strayed and instead remained loyal to her myself.

The novel is divided into 18 books. At the beginning of each book there is an essay by Henry Fielding. There is no question who the narrator of this novel is. It is Henry Fielding, and he is the most reliable narrator whom I have ever encountered. At the beginning of Book VII is his essay entitled A Comparison Between the World and the Stage. A successful playwright himself, Fielding acknowledges the obvious—that he is not the first to compare life with the stage–and duly cites Shakespeare:

—-Life’s a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.

However, all of those previous comparisons focused totally on the actors, the actors being metaphors for us. Fielding’s original contribution was to focus on the audience, in the theater and in life. I remembered this while skimming blogs on current events, particularly current events of the more sordid variety. We are quick to condemn the actors. These blog entries are in a real way audience reactions:

But as Nature often exhibits some of her best performances to a very full house, so will the behaviour of her spectators no less admit the above-mentioned comparison than that of her actors. In this vast theatre of time are seated the friend and the critic; here are claps and shouts, hisses and groans; in short, everything which was ever seen or heard at the Theatre-Royal.

So you see, again the theater is a metaphor for life itself. Because he has been around, Fielding is more interested in the audience than in the actors for the simple reason that nothing the actors might do surprises him anymore.

Those persons, indeed, who have passed any time behind the scenes of this great theatre, and are thoroughly acquainted not only with the several disguises which are there put on, but also with the fantastic and capricious behaviour of the Passions, who are the managers and directors of this theatre (for as to Reason, the patentee, he is known to be a very idle fellow and seldom to exert himself), may most probably have learned to understand the famous nil admirari of Horace, or in the English phrase, to stare at nothing.

When he refers to “patentee,” he is referring to the theater owner. Passions are the managers and directors of the theater. Reason is only the passive theater owner who controls nothing. Horace’s nil admirari simply states that nothing surprises anyone familiar with human nature. He stares at nothing because nothing about human behavior amazes him anymore.

And then this observation as Fielding closes in on his point:

A single bad act no more constitutes a villain in life, than a single bad part on the stage. The passions, like the managers of a playhouse, often force men upon parts without consulting their judgment, and sometimes without any regard to their talents. Thus the man, as well as the player, may condemn what he himself acts; nay, it is common to see vice sit as awkwardly on some men, as the character of Iago would on the honest face of Mr William Mills.

Billy Mills, a sweet guy, was an actor and close friend of Fielding. Fielding is teasing him about his ineptness at playing the villain.

What a comfort that is for those of us who are older, those of us who have done this or that awful thing, the thing that we will never blog about if we keep our wits about us, the thing that haunts us. That awful thing we did does not define us. It was only a bad part, one role among many, that we played for a time.

But then Fielding closes with his observations about the audience, the audience to these bad parts. It is a thing that I always try to remember:

Upon the whole, then, the man of candour and of true understanding is never hasty to condemn. He can censure an imperfection, or even a vice, without rage against the guilty party. In a word, they are the same folly, the same childishness, the same ill-breeding, and the same ill-nature, which raise all the clamours and uproars both in life and on the stage. The worst of men generally have the words rogue and villain most in their mouths, as the lowest of all wretches are the aptest to cry out low in the pit. [Emphasis added.]

3 Responses to “We, the Audience”

  1. iowadaughter

    As a fellow compulsive reader, I am appalled that any educated person would disparage the classics. Lazy comes to mind for anyone who picks a novel based on the number of printed pages. I am simply aghast.

    I have often wondered who gets to pick the novels that we term “classics”. I found this excerpt on Wikipedia that struck a cord with me…

    In the 1980s Italo Calvino said in his essay “Why Read the Classics?” that “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say” and comes to the crux of personal choice in this matter when he says (italics in the original translation): “Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.”[Note 1][1][2][3][4] Consideration of what makes a literary work a classic is for Calvino ultimately a personal choice, and, constructing a universal definition of what constitutes a Classic Book seems to him to be an impossibility, since, as Calvino says “There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics.”[5]

    Ultimately, this is what I have done over the years by creating my own ideal library of classics.

    Then for giggles, I went and looked up the top 100 classics for the United States. I was amazed that I have read most of them. I was never on a mission to read all of the classics it just happened.

    Truth be told, I have no problem with any of these top 100 classic novels. I will rarely read a novel more than once, but where these literary works are concerned I come back to them time and again. I will never forget the first time I read The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Letter, Utopia, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, just to name a few. The classics never let me down.


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