Perspective

I Love to Tell the Story

My old teacher, the classicist (and Scots Nationalist) Douglas Young, once interrupted a boring conversation about television by declaring loudly, "Speaking of Aeschylus . . . " When one of his naive colleagues insisted, "But Douglas, no one was speaking about Aeschylus," Young responded, "Yes, but I want to be speaking of Aeschylus." This month, when I ought to be writing an essay on why virtually every really good American poet of the 30's hated Franklin Roosevelt, I have decided, instead, to be speaking about Aeschylus, or rather about the moral and social significance of literature.

What is art good for, anyway? The older critics used to declare that the functions of poetry were two; entertainment and instruction. There may be other, more vital functions for all I know, but the billions of dollars we Americans spend on films, television, and popular music attest to the importance of "the arts" as entertainment and to the value we place upon even very bad art.

But entertainment is, to a very great extent, a morally and politically neutral quality. We may be entertained by a caricature of Ronald Reagan or a spoof on Jesse Jackson; some people enjoy Jane Austen, while others take their pleasure from the Marquis de Sade. The difference lies in the character and outlook of the readers, and our character and outlook are formed, to some extent, by the books and films and music that...

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