Curtius Essays On European Literature And The Latin

How has the profession changed since you began teaching literature?

I’ve been practicing literary criticism for more than 60 years. In 1976, I resigned from the once splendid Yale English department, which I had joined in 1955, to protest the decline in aesthetic and cognitive standards in the profession. I became a professor of the humanities, a department of one. I have been the pariah of the profession for the last 45 years.

I maintain canonical standards for the study and appreciation of literature. I practice philology and knowledge of the history of language. I do not give in to political considerations, however they mask themselves. All this business about gender, social class, sexual orientation and skin pigmentation is nonsense. I’m 81. I’m not prepared to temporise any more. I’ve been prophesying like Jeremiah since 1968, warning the profession that it was destroying itself. And it has. There are fewer and fewer people teaching English, or any other kind of literature, in American universities. Students don’t wish to study garbage and that’s all they’re offered.

Forgive me for sounding so strong on this issue. In fact, I’m tired of this polemic so let us change the subject.

Of all the books you’ve written, The Western Canon arguably made the boldest imprint on the common reader.

I suppose it is true that, facing the decline of a literate audience and desperately trying to battle for canonical standards, my books that have had the widest direct impact were the ones that I addressed to “the common reader” – which was [Samuel] Johnson’s great designation of what a reader should be. I regard myself as a common reader, and I address myself to common readers throughout the world. My books that have made the most impact, and were meant to, are The Western Canon, a huge book called Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, a shorter book called How to Read and Why and an enormous book called Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. But that phase of my work is meant to culminate in my new book, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature As A Way of Life.


The Greeks and the Irrational

E R Dodds


Now for the books of others, beginning with a look at the literature of antiquity. Tell us about ER Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational.

You asked me to list five books that continue to influence the profession. But, as I made clear to you, I’m not interested in that any more. I’m interested in the books that have influenced me and will go on influencing me – as I work and teach and write – until I die. Those books include The Greeks and the Irrational, which still has an ongoing influence on me, particularly in my study of Yeats, Hart Crane and other great poets.

“I’m a heretic. I like to say, ‘There is no God but God and his name is William Shakespeare.’”

The Greeks and the Irrational is an exploration of the daemon, which is Christianised and reduced to demons or devils. But the daemon was a concept, as Dodds makes beautifully clear, having to do with the creative forces in the individual, which are deeper and more pervasive than what you might want to call the mere conscious. Though it’s not the unconscious in the Freudian sense, the daemon is the creative spirit. It is, as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson called it, “the God within”.

Dodds applied the psychological theories of the early 20th century to understanding Greek literature. You undertook a similar endeavour in The Anxiety of Influence. Give us a précis of the theory of literary evolution you developed in that book.

"This is the sort of book which takes much of a man's lifetime to produce and which can be read again and again with profit and pleasure. In effect it is an analysis of medieval Latin literature as a major stage in the transition from the Graeco-Roman classics to the modern vernacular literatures. No forbidding catalogue of periods, authors, and works, but literary criticism and literary history by a thoughtful scholar at home in classical, medieval, and modern literature, this is a powerfully presented and richly informative study of medieval standards, values, assumptions and literary conventions."--The Virginia Quarterly Review

"We have in [this work] a vast store of significant learning, and many new and important insights into the humane literary heritage and its precarious transmission."--Francis Fergusson, The Hudson Review

"A balanced introduction to Curtius studies, putting this masterpiece in context as the work of a German academic 'mandarin' whom family history, character, and intellectual training made an advocate for an elite European cultural cosmopolitanism."--Sixteenth Century Journal

"This is, I think, the finest work of literary scholarship in my time, by the great German philologist Ernst Robert Curtius. It is an extraordinary study of the continuity of European literature, from Homer and the other Greeks, on through Virgil and the great Latin writers, to a culmination in Dante, and moving beyond to a consideration of a long tradition that concludes with Goethe. . . . It is from Curtius that I have learned--and others go on learning--what literature is, and why I myself would call it a way of life and a way of thought."--Harold Bloom, FiveBooks

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