Philip Marchand has a piece at the National Post about a new book, This is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation Curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, that would probably irritate me (“the spectacle of two European intellectuals exchanging aperçus”), but I found this thought-provoking:

A more interesting question, posed by de Tonnac, is whether “an unknown masterpiece might still be discovered.” Eco’s response is similar to the comments of the late critic Hugh Kenner. Kenner pointed out that if a copy of the Iliad turned up for the first time today it would arouse an archeological curiosity but little more. Eco agrees. “A masterpiece isn’t a masterpiece until it is well known and has absorbed all the interpretations to which it has given rise, which in turn make it what it is,” he says. “An unknown masterpiece hasn’t had enough readers, or readings, or interpretations.”

I realize this is Postmodernism 101, and many of my readers are rolling their eyes and sighing loudly, but I hadn’t seen it put quite that way before, and, well, it provokes me to think. (Thanks, Paul!)

By the way, I got myself a new laptop with all mod cons, so my computer troubles are (pro tempore) over; I apologize for my failure to show up with the drinks tray and my usual charming repartee for the last few days. At least I kept the salesmen away.


  1. i’m pretty much sure you are not right in this issue, it’s already known fact that learning is beond everything.
    [Spam content removed; comment left for sake of irony—LH]

  2. I would offer a counterexample to that “unknown masterpiece” equation to “archaeological curiosity” proposition in mentioning one recovered masterpiece: The Epic of Gilgamesh.

  3. mattitiahu:
    I think Gilgamesh is probably a little older and more important (historically, religiously) than the “masterpiece” Kenner had in mind. Anything that antedates Noah’s flood is bound to grab a little attention, no?

  4. Somehow the debate between bird and fish never achieved similar status.

  5. jamessal says

    And, come to think of it, because it includes the flood, Gilgamesh already had attached to it the sort of “interpretations to which [a masterpiece] has given rise, which in turn make it what it is,” that Eco was talking about.
    I’m not sure if I should be embarrassed to admit that I tackle classics with at least as much desire to be in on the surrounding conversations (in Letters) as to enjoy the books for themselves.

  6. It took a long time for Beowulf to be appreciated as literature rather than just as a philologically-interesting, historically-important text.
    In the West, Chinese and Buddhist literature have been read for no more than four centuries, but the Confucian texts were taken seriously immediately, whereas Buddhist, Daoist, and poetic texts only started to be read about two centuries ago.

  7. des von bladet says

    There’s also the Bosnian oral epics studied by Parry and Lord (didn’t you read Ong’s Orality thing a while back?).
    They argued that they were cut from roughly the same kind of cloth as Homer, and you will be looking a long time before you find anyone claiming that they are the Cornerstone of Western Civilization.
    Which is to say, you can achieve the same result by rejecting most of the history of reception of Homer as disastrously ill-informed, which let’s face it it was.

  8. Yeah, per jamessal and John Emerson. Examples:
    The Epic of Gilgamesh
    Slovo o polku Igoreve
    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
    Nibelungenlied (I think)
    Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks
    Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno (“For I will consider my cat Jeffrey”)
    Also, Homer was such a great influence on Greek literature that even if his works had disappeared they wouldn’t really have “disappeared”, so to speak. You would have to wipe out pretty much the whole of Classical Greek culture (and Roman, while you were at it) to make the vanishing act complete.
    Also also, Homer did pretty much become a “lost masterpiece” in Western Europe between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. Some of his rediscoverers weren’t that impressed (“Huh! This primitive stuff doesn’t hold a candle to Virgil.”)
    Short version: Eco and Kenner are wrong.

  9. Oops, should have been “per mattitiahu and John Emerson.”

  10. Bathrobe says

    The conclusion I would draw from the same facts is that Eco and Kenner are right. The Epic of Gilgamesh was the first one that sprang to my mind as I was reading the article, and my feeling was the opposite of everyone else’s. I don’t feel that the Epic of Gilgamesh is regarded as a ‘masterpiece’. Interesting culturally, essential background reading for Mesopotamian culture and later literature. But not exactly a ‘masterpiece’. Some of the others are similar. ‘Beowulf’ a masterpiece? It’s possible that there were other pieces in the tradition that haven’t survived, better pieces than Beowulf. But since Beowulf is the best we have, it’s treated as a token representative of that age, something good enough to be placed in view without disgracing itself. But whether it is a masterpiece is another question. A ‘token masterpiece’ seems more appropriate.
    “Homer was such a great influence on Greek literature that even if his works had disappeared they wouldn’t really have ‘disappeared’, so to speak” seems to be making the same point that they are. It’s because of this that Homer’s works are regarded as ‘masterpieces’ — precisely because of their place in the tradition.

  11. Bathrobe says

    And I heartily agree with this:
    “Disagreeable though it is to admit this, the anti-Western canon agitators have a point — literary masterpieces don’t simply drop from the heavens, or emerge from the brain of an inspired individual. Fate and politics play their roles.”

  12. seems to be making the same point that they are. It’s because of this that Homer’s works are regarded as ‘masterpieces’ — precisely because of their place in the tradition.
    I suppose the point I was trying to make is that Kenner chose a bad example. Few books have been as influential as the works of Homer. If that’s the benchmark for masterpiece then hardly anything will make the grade (the Bible, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Shakespeare). None of those could disappear without trace for centuries. On the other hand, something like “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” could. The alliterative tradition didn’t really survive the Middle Ages. Chaucer continued to be read, the “Pearl poet” didn’t. Nevertheless, there seems to be a general consensus today that “Gawain” can stand comparison with the works of Chaucer.
    The rest is arguing over the definition of a masterpiece. As far as I’m aware, since Tolkien at least, Beowulf has generally been regarded as a literary masterpiece rather than a philological curiosity. It’s now a major motion picture too.

  13. Presumably even if we account for works which come to be seen as masterpieces relatively *quickly* the point still stands that something cannot be considered a masterpiece *at its point of discovery*.
    That is to say, I think it’s right that there is no such thing as an “unknown masterpiece”, because becoming a “masterpiece” requires that a thing be recognised as such, but wrong to assign an *arbitrary* length of time to the masterpiecification process, particularly since the dissemination of texts and of critical responsses to those texts has, funnily enough, got a lot more effective since the third century.

  14. Homer had a foundational significance for the Greeks in the same way that the Pentateuch did for the Hebrews and the Book of History and the Book of Songs for the Chinese. Per Havelock (Preface to Plato) the Homeric epics were regarded in Athens as a repository of wisdom and truth, and not just a story or a poem, and snippets from Homer were used to settle arguments the way Bible quotations were among our ancestors.
    Per Havelock, that’s why Plato suppressed poetry — not because he was against art and pleasure, but because in Homer both the heroes and the Gods were all too human, i.e. treacherous, cruel, lazy, absent-minded, etc. Not prescriptive ideals, but descriptive “ideal types.”
    Of the four foundational works I mentioned, the Homeric epics are by far the most satisfying to read. The Book of History is a collection of key proclamations and edicts, the Pentateuch is a crudely-written chronicle, and the Book of Songs is most enjoyable in excerpts, preferably rather atypical excerpts (the bulk of it is courtly praise poems to the Zhou ancestors).
    I don’t think that Beowulf will ever be widely read in the original, and in translation it may not be compelling (not sure), but a very small knowledge of Anglo-Saxon convinced me that it really is a masterpiece.

  15. What about music? Suppose the “Buddy Bolden cylinder” turned up.

  16. Homer had a foundational significance for the Greeks in the same way that the Pentateuch did for the Hebrews and the Book of History and the Book of Songs for the Chinese.
    Does this mean that they are functionally equivalent? It seems that there is an apples-and-oranges process at work here.
    Or put it another way: could you say that “the Book of History and the Book of Songs had a foundational significance for the Chinese in the same way that Homer did for the Greeks and the Pentateuch did for the Hebrews”. By which I mean, are the following statements equally valid– “Homer was the Greek equivalent of the Book of History and the Book of Songs” and “Book of History and the Book of Songs is the Chinese equivalent of Homer”? Are they the same in any meaningful way?

  17. Probably the conversation wasn’t in English, so the semantics may be a bit off, but I would say that Eco (as well as most commentators here) have confused the masterpiece with the classic. A classic, indeed, is something that has been around long enough and has been influential enough to affect the course of the culture that follows it: Homer, the Pentateuch, the Book of Songs, the Canterbury Tales, the King James Bible.
    A masterpiece, on the other hand, is a work that establishes that the author is a master: as such, it might be known or unknown (as the author might be known or unknown). In the days of the guilds, it was literally that, the work of art or craft that a journeyman would make and present to the assembled masters to show that he was fit to join their ranks. Man, says the OED, was often called “God’s masterpiece.”
    Nowadays we may well say that someone writes (or paints or sculpts) more than one masterpiece, but I certainly have no problem calling Sir Gawain or Gilgamesh or Beowulf or the Igor Tale or Lud-in-the-Mist masterpieces.

  18. Man, says the OED, was often called “God’s masterpiece.”
    Some hold that God failed to qualify for the creation guild on the basis of that work and thus remains a mere journeyman or demiurge.

  19. What do people here think of Masterpiece Theatre?
    I feel like a more accurate title would be “Obscure British Novels.” I haven’t seen many of the episodes, so maybe I shouldn’t say much about it…

  20. “. . . a mere journeyman or demiurge”? At least the creator of man was not the hemisemidemiurge whose masterpiece was the 17-year locust.

  21. Bathrobe says

    Hats off to JC, who has put his thumb on it. I do believe I was confusing ‘classic’ with ‘masterpiece’. It’s a classic that has the thumbprints of the centuries on it, something which Beowulf and Gilgamesh lack in comparison with Homer. But they are undoubtedly masterpieces.

  22. “Are they the same in any meaningful way?”
    Educated Greeks, Hebrews, and Chinese, respectively, were expected to be familiar with these books, and were ranked in part according to their degree of familiarity with these books, and apt quotations from these books were frequently, routinely used as authorities in various venues including law.

  23. I haven’t read this thread before, so when I was going through the comments I was asking myself “¿masterpiece or classic?” (when I think I use the first question mark, obviously ;-). It was great to find that John Cowan asked it in a much more articulate form!

  24. Jan: The first 37 years of Masterpiece Theatre before the split into Classic, Contemporary, and Mystery are listed here. Some are obscure, certainly, but I’d say most of them are well-known to the educated, if not always masterpieces.
    As for the 17-year cicada, it is indeed a masterpiece of design. Its highly synchronized lifecycle means that when the adult forms emerge, no predator or combination of predators can get them all, a strategy known as predator satiation. Using a long cycle means that typical predators with 1-to-5-year cycles can’t easily adapt their lifestyles to the overplus, as by producing more of themselves in the year of emergence. As a final refinement, the cycle length is a prime number. If it were 15 years rather than 13 or 17 (depending on locality), a predator could have a 5-year cycle with a population bounce every three cycles, but this is not possible with a prime number, having no exact factors except itself and 1. Indeed, so successful is this strategy that seven different species of cicadas have adopted it. (Disclaimer: this explanation, though theoretically very neat, is disputed.)

  25. I also agree with JC about the difference between masterpiece and classic.
    So, it looks like Eco was just repeating something he and others have been saying for some time now: How literature is received by various societies, cultures, and epochs depends largely on things other than something strictly internal to the work in question.
    But, again, seems like most here see how that is old hat and makes sense.

  26. I’ve just finished reading The Archimedes Codex. I can’t more succinctly describe it than one of the Amazon reviewers: “Reviel Netz and William Noel have given us a well written, immensely informative and hugely entertaining glimpse into the world of Archimedes, mathematical thinking, antiquarian book collecting, manuscript conservation and, above all, puzzle solving.”
    The writing is on occasion breathless (dollars to drachmae it was ghostwritten), but what a treat. Even better that I picked it up as a remainder for six bucks. There’s also a website devoted to the manuscript and the sleuthing to uncover its mysteries.

  27. So now that we’ve moved this over to a terminological dispute between ‘classic’ and ‘masterpiece’, I’m wondering if there’s any translational issues involved here. Does anyone happen to know what Eco is saying in Italian that’s getting translated into `masterpiece’ and its semantics? Is there any such difference between the concept of `classic’ and `masterpiece’ in Italian?

  28. I believe the conversation was in French. Certainly, it was first published that way.

  29. I more or less took it for granted that Eco was speaking French.

  30. mattitiahu says

    Whoops. I didn’t realize it was actually in French.

  31. I don’t know that he was: I’m just guessing that with one French participant, one Italian participant, and a French moderator, the common language was more likely to be French, or even English, than Italian.

  32. Here is an Eco interview earlier this year with Le Figaro in Milan among 30,000 of his books. And there are other similar ones online, like when he won the Prix Médicis étranger. So I think French is a safe bet.
    On the other hand, one of the related videos is an interview by the Brazilian Edney Silvestre conducted in Frankfurt. Questions are asked in English and answered in Italian.

  33. A belated thanks to JE for explaining what he meant about the similar places those different works occupied in different traditions.
    The past tense in JE’s characterisation is important. The world has changed a lot since the particular historical periods when these works held comparable positions, which is why I found the comparison kind of puzzling. Not to worry. I obviously now have a good cause to get better acquainted with the 詩經.

  34. John Emerson says

    “A strategy known as predator satiation. ”
    Reminds me of Al Capp’s schmoos, who were delicious and begged to be eaten.

  35. were delicious and begged to be eaten.
    which in turn reminds me of a certain cow in Douglas Adams’ “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”.

  36. And if a copy of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labours Won” (the sequel to “Love’s Labours Lost”)was ever discovered – would it be considered something special solely because of its author?
    There are an enormous number of plays that will never ever appear on stage again – the economics of that are too difficult – and simply reading them can rarely show if they are of high quality (although often can show if they are of no quality).
    Isn’t it correct that a high proportion of classical pieces never get a second performance for the same reason?

  37. And if a copy of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labours Won” (the sequel to “Love’s Labours Lost”)was ever discovered – would it be considered something special solely because of its author?

    Well, that would depend on its quality. Even if it were not a masterpiece, it would be interesting because of its author, certainly. The various works that people have claimed to be by Shakespeare have stirred up a great deal of interest.

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