I have been reading The Shores of Light, a collection of literary criticism from the 1920s and 1930s courtesy of Edmund Wilson, a very capable and perceptive critic who as far as I can tell isn’t sung much of these days. He has an essay—“It’s Terrible! It’s Ghastly! It Stinks!”—wherein he uses a rather hagiographic-sounding biography of Louis B. Mayer as a jumping-off point for what he perceived as the near-total stagnation of Hollywood by 1937 (!). The Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races had just been released, and Wilson could barely bring himself to sit through it.
Time and chance have been such that most every Marx Brothers film, even the "bad" ones, are now classics. Most of the movies Wilson complains about — yes, even the "bad" ones — are still yards better than most of what is dumped out today, and not just because they're older but because they were fashioned according to a different set of sensibilities. Those sensibilities are gone today except as a memory or an artifact; they're as extinct as the knights of yore.
I go back and forth about how bad this is. Perhaps it's neither good nor bad, because films of quality can be found in any era if you look hard enough. I suspect there is little merit in arguing whether the brassy musical revues of the Depression were "better" than the PG-13 gross-out comedies of today, because each satisfies an audience a world removed from the other. We are not people of the Twenties and Thirties, and we can never be those people again. But that doesn't mean we can't make an effort to taste a little of what the world might have been like for them, and how they amused themselves in the face of it.
When I took various classic-lit courses in college there was, for just about every work published before 1970, at least some degree of acculturation needed by the class for a given work. For Shakespeare, that was inevitable: most everyone who walked out of the course knew what the "groundlings" were and how this or that scene in a play had been aimed at them to shut them up a bit before the real action commenced. But some of it was required for F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway as well — maybe not as much, but it was that much more a sign that the reader of the 1990s was not the reader of the 1950s, let alone the 1920s.
I don't believe for a moment that anything written today will survive a thousand years without copious footnoting or explanation, just as Chaucer required the same. Not just because of this reference or that allusion, but because the very people the work was written for do not exist anymore in any form. What I'm still struggling with is whether or not that's always a bad thing. If a book written to disabuse the ignorant is no longer in fashion because its particular species of ignorance has gone extinct, that might well be one of the best things we could hope for: a concrete example of progress. My real worry is that we will, in decades to come, look that much more askance at something which saw life in an inimitable way, because we will have unthinkingly discarded our appreciation for such a vision.
Which is all my roundabout way of saying: I hope never to find myself in a world where people don't find the Marx Brothers funny anymore.
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