The Scandal of the Classics

Oeuvres Complètes, Volume 5: Ecrits sur la musique, la langue et le théâtre

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 2,004 pp., 495 FF

The Anatomy of Melancholy, Volumes I–III

by Robert Burton
Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 2,034 pp., $160.00 (Volume I), $125.00 (Volume II), $125.00 (Volume III)

Oeuvres, Volume 2

by Marquis de Sade
Gallimard/Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1,447 pp., 360 FF

Sämtliche Werke, Band 7/I and 7/II

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1,976 pp., 240 DM (cloth); 292 DM (leather)

Werke, Band 3: Politische Schriften

by Bettina von Arnim
Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1,034 pp., 148 DM (cloth); 273 DM (leather)


A museum, it is now generally realized, deforms and disfigures the works of art it contains. It wrenches the pictures and statues out of the churches, palaces, and homes from which they drew their life and much of their significance, and exhibits them in an apparently neutral space, an intellectual void. Some of their functions have been wiped out, a good part of their meaning is lost. The walls have a color and texture different from the ones that originally set off the works of art, so that the harmony of the paint and the marble has been denatured, the space in which the art presents itself to the spectator has been altered. Although we may celebrate the uncanny aptitude of the objects in a museum to adapt to their new home, to present new aspects and even to convey some of the old meanings, historians deplore the inevitable loss that the institution entails. Nevertheless, we cannot do without museums: if they alter the meaning of the past beyond repair, they allow some of it to survive.

Literature, of course, survives physically with greater ease. We do not need to exhibit books: they lie peacefully on the shelves of libraries, and need only a minimum of heat and humidity control so that they do not crumble or rot. There is one function of the museum, however, imperfectly exercised by the library or only haphazardly exercised. The museum conserves the past by suppressing part of it: works of art are divided into those worth seeing and junk, the latter consigned to the reserve cellars when it is not shipped out and sold. Our knowledge of the past demands this suppression in order to be manageable. We cannot look at every picture, read every book; critical evaluation is not so much ideological as practical. Some of the past has to be suppressed for the rest to become visible. But it is just this suppression that has understandably and sometimes justifiably given rise to protest in our times.

For literature, the counterpart of the museum is not the library but the uniform edition of the classics, the publication of the “canon” in a hard-bound, permanent form to be kept on their shelves by the well-to-do and even the less well-off but more ambitious and appreciative readers. These regimented volumes with their similar bindings give their owners a satisfying sense of culture, and define that part of our heritage invested with an aura of prestige. Today, however, large parts of the population in many countries are alienated from a culture they feel has been imposed upon them. There is agreement from all sides that the canon in art, literature, and music needs revision, although less agreement on what kind of revision and even less understanding of how revision might be accomplished. Dragging the neglected artist or writer out of obscurity does not inevitably result in acceptance. The editions of the classics that still manage to survive today reveal the difficulties both of…

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