Builders, Destroyers, Olympians: A Taxonomy of Literature
By Manfred Weidhorn
Writers are often classified as comic or tragic, optimistic or pessimistic. This approach is useful up to a point but does not do justice to the complexity of the literary landscape, for superlative literary artists may also be regarded as being either "visible" or "invisible". The visible ones (Dante, Milton, Gore Vidal) have definite views on many topics and, besides leaving a body of revealing personal documents (letters, diaries, obiter dicta, incidental essays), make these views, however dramatised or poeticised, the basis of their major creations. Their literary journey has a moral or intellectual terminus, whether in individual work or entire corpus. Intensely egotistical and confident, they offer a patently personalised reading of events. They are sure to inform the world of which political faction or religious sect they support, where they stand on the Trinity or the Class Struggle, and, almost, what food they favour for breakfast.
If, on the other hand, the invisible writers (Homer, Shakespeare, Salinger) have such opinions, they keep them well-concealed. Their private documents either do not exist or reveal little. Their literary productions – detached, non-partisan, non-sectarian and impersonal – have a naturalism that makes the reader feel as though she beholds life itself, not some particular version of it. No sensibility or interpretation intervenes between subject matter and reader. These chameleon-like writers are all things to all persons and, like God, at once everywhere and nowhere. Their minds – as T.S. Eliot said pithily of one of them, Henry James – are so fine that no idea can violate them.
Yet another way of classifying writers would go beyond visible and invisible to a more nuanced analysis, one which offers a trio:  System Builders or Ideologues;  System Destroyers or Iconoclasts;  Olympians. In other words, while the invisible writers tend to be Olympians, the visible ones may be either Builders or Destroyers.
The Builders have a ruling passion, a working hypothesis, a recurring formula, which, like a magnet, galvanises the iron filings of facts into a clear pattern. They presume to classify, explain and judge everything. Some of them are original, erecting by themselves grand edifices of thought. Others are derivative – borrowers or adapters – taking from predecessors ideas which they proceed to refine and make memorable.
The System Destroyers, by contrast, are masters of attack, subversion, ridicule. Carrying on relentless intellectual guerrilla warfare, they are far better at taking things apart than at putting them together, and – when it comes to alternatives to the risible status quo or to offering positive values or ideas for rebuilding society – they become tongue-tied or downright foolish. Scepticism, which is unknown to the Builders, becomes rampant, in a particularised form, among the Destroyers and in a broader, generalised form among the Olympians. Another difference is that the Builders are usually solemn, and the Destroyers are whimsical, satiric, comic. The Invisibles or Olympians can be both, sometimes concurrently. Also, the Destroyers have (or develop) a high degree of contempt for the human race, while the Builders are inclined to be optimistic (or is it naive?) about human nature, and the Olympians specialise in compassion, or at least a bemused tolerance, for almost everyone.
These categories are not, of course, hard and fast; system destroying may go hand in hand with system building, though usually a writer is more persuasive in one capacity than the other. Which category, furthermore, certain writers belong to is sometimes arguable. Nor do these distinctions have anything to do with quality or merit. Shakespeare and Dante are among the few supremely great writers, yet Shakespeare was an Olympian and Dane was a Builder – and not even an Original, at that.
Builder (Plato, Virgil, Paul, Augustine, Dante, Machiavelli, Milton, Lawrence, Kafka), Destroyer (Aristophanes, Lucian, Erasmus, Swift, Voltaire Nietzsche, Twain, Shaw) and Olympian (Homer, Sophocles, Chaucer, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Joyce): They simply are three types of artistic temperaments, three areas of literary specialisation, three approaches to reality, three versions of the truth.
Original System Builders
The first Builder in the Western tradition is also one of the finest and most original of them all: Plato. He pioneered the effort to assemble an ideology that encompasses nearly every aspect of life and that still remains an influential system of thought. His psychology, politics, ethics, aesthetics, rhetoric, epistemology, metaphysics and even eschatology are interrelated parts of one entity, expressions of a unified and poetic sensibility. Pessimistic in the short run about the soul's misadventures in the mutable material world, he is a cosmic optimist who sees the individual as rational, capable of learning and of spiritually progressing, with the sky literally the limit. A principle of justice and harmony not only governs the universe but, accessible and relevant, also offers individual and society a paradigm of the good life.
A different emphasis pervades the Aeneid by Virgil, another original System Builder. Upon the brutality that marked the rise of Rome, he superimposed a putative divine purpose. That Aeneas was saved from burning Troy, that Dido was eventually jilted, and that Carthage was destroyed could not have been mere unrelated accidents of history. The gods must have chosen Rome to bring law and order to a fractious world, and all events are transformed by that ruling thesis (even if many readers see in certain compromising details a subtle demurral or an undermining of the thesis, a semi-veiled regret over the price paid for that blessing). The wars Aeneas fought before he could take possession of that promised land were the archetype of the wars his descendants were now winding down in the process of imposing a civilised peace upon the known world. The past renders meaningful an otherwise tearfully brutal present. This vision is nothing if not tendentious – go ask the Gauls, the Judaeans, the Parthians, the Celts, et al.
The writers of the Hebrew Bible constitute another remarkable set of original System Builders. They invented a theocentric reading of life, a monotheist theology, a view of history as purposeful, an ethical dimension, a sense of the dignity of the individual soul, the seeing of things under the aspect of eternity, an articulation and attempted explanation of the problem of evil, a notion of social justice and of compassion, and, not least, a delight in the beauty of the world, in the miracle of life, and in the accessibility and mystery of God. This is consummate system building, achieved not through Platonic dialectical rigor but through some of the greatest and most varied literary creations: folk tales, an epical odyssey, historical chronicles, wisdom literature, soaring visionary poetry, dramatic dialogue.
In the Christian portion of the Bible, the original System Builder is Paul. This least voluminous of writers has wielded the greatest of influence. The first to interpret the life and sayings of Jesus, he rewrote the covenant between God and man, abrogated or internalised the Law, replaced human self-reliance with faith in Christ, and sang eloquently about a new kind of love. A poet (especially in I Cor. 13 and II Tim. 4:6-7) turned exegete and theologian, he gave the nascent church an ideology and thereby provided in his brief epistles grist for the mills of hundreds of theologians through the millennia.
The Renaissance produced in Machiavelli and Thomas More two fascinating antithetical Ideologues, each constructing his own model of an ideal state. The Italian, starting with the pessimist's (or realist's or Christian's) view of human depravity, bases his ethic on the principle of fighting fire with fire, on a judicious reliance on fear, deception and violence – all for the sake of the noble goal of liberating and stabilising a downtrodden Italy. The Englishman, starting rather with the optimist's dream of man as a potentially rational creature, organises a society based on reason and fairness.
Among modern masters, T.S. Eliot was a derivative (ie. Christian) Builder, while Kafka was an Original Builder. The latter's vision or thesis – of metaphysical insecurity, incarceration, trial, torture, alienation, angst – is private and sui generis. What is an aspect of other systems (for example, of the Christian existentialism of Pascal or Kierkegaard) becomes the sole element in his books. Life, apprehended in its most extreme, nightmarish form, is without hope or redemption.
Yeats exhibits, like Blake, the plight of the original Builder in a modern pluralist, secular society. A poetic Builder in earlier periods could take for granted large accumulations of legends and values. Within such a massive framework, a Dante or Milton would apply his genius to refining his material, while relying on a narrative shaped by tradition and on a subtle network of references and allusions to do his work. A modern writer, confronting a multiplicity of value systems and a shapeless audience with a poor sense of history, an ignorance of Greek myths and even of the Bible, as well as a disbelief in the ontological validity of mere "fiction" (=lies), has to build his own framework and his own myths from scratch. That way lie subjectivity, solipsism and obscurity – those afflictions of some major modern writers. Yeats therefore (like Blake) built a peculiar system of symbols, and his best poetry is based on it, though how much its greatness depends on that system is a matter of debate. Joyce went further, creating in his last work his own universe (of sleep, dreams and trial) with an invented private language. That is a dead end for the literature of Original Builders.
Derivative System Builders
One of the greatest of theologians, Augustine, was also a fine literary artist, genus Builder. His City of God is philosophic system building on an almost Platonic scale, but germane here is the artistry of his Confessions, a tale of a guided pilgrimage to the mountain of truth through the vales of lechery, pride, ambition, philosophic irresponsibility, theological errancy, personal obduracy and sheer inertia ("Make me chaste, O Lord, but not yet!"). Despite his many zig-zags, he came to see life as not the coruscations of chance but as the steady if invisible working of God's hand. His system is derivative – the Psalmist, the Redeemer and the Apostle figure mightily in the text – but the introspective narrative and the perfervid personal expression know no precedent and few successors.
Even more eclectic system building marks Dante's Commedia, which combines the ethics of Aristotle, the theology of the Church Fathers, the speculations of medieval scholastics and mystics, the surmises of various uninspired authors of Michelin-like guides through the afterworld, the unifying artistic vision of Virgil, the confessional mode of Augustine, the fervour of the greatly modified courtly love tradition, the vision of the New Testament and, above all, Dante's own unique poetic voice and sense of form. The result is, because of the triumph of synergy over mere eclecticism, a book that many critics think is the finest in all literature. In a reductio ad absurdum of the Builder's zealous classification and systematic calibration, Dante portrays the architecture and topography of the universe down to the last rivet and rivulet. With intimations of the space travel of modern science fiction and with a portrayal of that rarity – a Christian utopia – his book is thus the most comprehensive, persuasive, unified example of a derivative Ideology or System Building in a non-discursive – ie. literary, imaginative, narrative – form.
Milton is another consummate derivative System Builder. His views on just about everything important are on display in prose or poetic work. Paradise Lost, an amalgam of Hebrew story, Christian interpretation and Graeco-Roman form, exudes a self-assurance that rivals Dante's – or God's. To adapt an old saying, Shakespeare (or Montaigne or Cervantes) is not as sure of any one thing as Milton is sure of everything (except the Copernican theory).
Plato's contemporary, Aristophanes, is the first and liveliest System Destroyer or Iconoclast. The systems in question are contemporary intellectual fashions: the relativism of the Sophists, the rationalism of their opponent, Socrates, the modern "domestic" tragedies of Euripides, the demagogy, war-mongering and litigation rampant in overly democratic Athens. Though he occasionally celebrates positive values – the good old days of Aeschylean tragedy and of Athenian virility – these are conservative pieties rather than systematic interpretations of reality.
Late ancient Greek culture produced in Lucian a possibly even more comprehensive Destroyer than Aristophanes. Few indeed are the constructive things he has to say. His energy goes into the mockery of puerile notions about the gods, the pretentiousness of philosophers, the folly of avarice, and the fickleness of human beings. If Aristophanes concentrated his savage attacks on his fellow Athenians, Lucian's sly critique of universal traits allows no portion of mankind to elude his net. If Aristophanes looks ahead to the harsh, aggressive satires by Juvenal, Lucian reflects the gentler, ironic mode of Horace.
The Christian appendix to the Hebrew Bible is something of a shocker, as an iconoclastic stance is consistently maintained in the Gospel. Jesus is one of the outspoken System Destroyers. Despite the protestation that he came to fulfil, not destroy, the Mosaic Law and despite the vast theological edifice erected in his name, a literary reading of the New Testament offers the portrait of an Emersonian or Nietzschean rugged individualist. Jesus was an ad hoc critic of a religion appearing to be senescent and mechanical, a celebrant of spontaneity and feeling in lieu of list-keeping, of systematisation, of ritualism and of communal worship. His utterances are sometimes too cryptic or self-contradictory to constitute system building. Even his disciples are often confused.
Although Jonathan Swift was a highly-placed Anglican clergyman, he is a master Destroyer, more like Jesus than Paul. When the smoke and dust clear after the passing through of that moral juggernaut, that most subversive and pessimistic of books, Gulliver's Travels, no human construct – individual or communal – is left standing. Given such a grim vision, how are human beings to live? Religion is curiously out of sight, emotion is suspect, and reason is peculiar only to fictional horses. The Brobdignagians and the Houyhnhnms live simply, with few words or books, but such a nascent dream of the noble savage had little relevance then and has less so now. The positive practical steps that could be taken to ameliorate misery, at least in Ireland, appear fleetingly in the Modest Proposal in a pained ironic, common-sensical aside, as if to suggest that such "idealism" is hopeless. Thus Swift notably exhibits the Destroyer's lack of workable prescriptions or of a unifying vision with its attendant panaceas.
Swift's iconoclasm was carried on in France by another formidable destroyer, Voltaire, and later in Germany, with greater vehemence, by Nietzsche. Some objects of the latter's withering contempt are capitalists, socialists, democrats, militarists, Germans, Wagnerians, philosophers, women, and, always and above all else, Christians and Christianity. Somehow he managed to overlook chess players and fishermen. Nietzsche has the Iconoclast's trait of being (like Swift, Blake, Marx) nebulous on constructive ideas. Symptomatic of that vagueness is the history of his having been, like Jesus, "kidnapped" by widely differing groups, including those non-thinkers, the Nazis.
Mark Twain is the American Swift or Voltaire. After books that gently mocked the claims of devotees of European culture, medieval society, or American social institutions, he wrote in his last years a series of pieces which so scathingly treated Americanism, Christianity, sexual Puritanism, moral probity and "that damned human race" that they were suppressed for decades. In the end, hardly anything was left for him to believe in; he had made a long intellectual pilgrimage to nowhere.
The Destroyer who began to make an impact at about the time that Twain's career ended, G.B. Shaw, was, by contrast, a Voltairean from the beginning. While as critical of every institution as one could be, he avowed a faith – socialism. Being, however, much more persuasive in deriding what existed than in sketching what could be, he remains primarily a Destroyer.
A classic instance of a poet in whom System Destroying and System Building are precariously balanced is to be found in Rome: Lucretius. The same rationalist enthusiasm which impels his iconoclastic attacks on the many superstitions about the gods also expresses itself in a coherent picture of a world consisting of a chaos of hooked, swerving atoms, of delusory beliefs evolving from human fears and vulnerability, and of the individual contentment attendant upon the understanding of all this.
Dostoyevsky is a rare example of Destroyer and Builder. Destroyers usually aim their fire at what is loosely termed the establishment, that is, reigning religious, philosophical and political systems. But Dostoyevsky attacked movements that were against the establishment; hence the rebel against rebellion is, like Milton's Abdiel, a servant of the status quo. Dostoyevsky's genius (or neurosis) prevented him, however, from marching to anyone else's drum. His openness to heterodox ideas made the anti-theist Ivan Karamazov one of the titanic literary figures. Furthermore, the author's apparent values – the Russian national mission, autocracy, the Orthodox Church – are anaemically presented, as ideology dampens artistry. In the rare case when it does not, that is, in the great portrayal of Father Zossima, Dostoyevsky subverts his own values. For Zossima as a Christian is a loner – like Jesus, like the later Milton and Kierkegaard and Tolstoy – who is significantly the object of jealousy and backbiting from his fellow monks. The meaning of his life willy-nilly transcends paltry ties to church, nation, or ideology – the very things Dostoyevsky seems to favour.
European literature begins with a formidable Olympian. In the Iliad, Homer's compassion embraces Trojan as well as Greek. Whether he subscribed to or satirised the Greek pantheon was long disputed. The ubiquitous violence is portrayed in a manner that is neither melodramatic nor sentimental; combat is at once beautiful and grim. The discrete insights into death, heroism, amor fati, sympathetic identification, endurance, revenge, the poignancy of life, and numerous other psychological truths cannot be extracted from the text without doing violence to the story and leaving the reader with a set of platitudes. Ideas are an intrinsic part of action, and action imitates reality. There is no "philosophy of Homer" because there is no philosophy and there is no Homer. There is only Achilles, who, after passing through justifiable anger, understandable revenge, inevitable regret and, at the end, surprising but utterly natural pity, is ready to resume his workaday butchery on the 13th day after the truce, as if nothing in the external world has been changed despite his internal evolution. There is also the paradoxical fact that a schism in the Greek camp will result in the fall of Troy. Now what philosophy or ethics can one establish on such anomalies?
A classic medieval example of amoral detachment is Chaucer, notably in his General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Of this large collection of imperfect, often racketeering human beings, the one thing which the narrator continually emphasises is that each one is the best of his type. This judgment is, of course, partly ironic, but, insofar as it springs from an aesthetic rather than ethical perspective, it is also meant literally. What counts is not the moral standing of the pilgrims but the prowess they exhibit in their extracurricular activities; not their virtue but their Machiavellian virtu. This is the approach that nominates someone for the Most Valuable (Baseball) Player Award even though he beats his wife and that considers Stalin and Hitler "great" because of their unique impact on history, not their saintliness or charm. Lord! – Chaucer in effect says – what a varied, picturesque and delightful range of scoundrels make up the human race! Or so it looks from atop Mount Olympus.
A Renaissance master, Montaigne, tries on different philosophies the way people in a clothing shop try on different suits. While scholars speak of his settling for scepticism and, later, Epicureanism, the fact remains that in him, as in Homer, idea is so rooted in turn of expression and is so mutable as to have little independent existence – a tell-tale sign of the Olympian. Though he sometimes makes iconoclastic noises, notably on the subject of European smugness or Christian fanaticism, he remains a God-like observer on the human tragicomedy, without a guiding thesis to account for it or a formula to transform it.
Britain contributed in Shakespeare its version of a Renaissance Olympian. More even than Montaigne, he tries on many sorts of metaphysical apparel. Sometimes he sees life as a tragedy, sometimes as a comedy, sometimes as a wry romance. Sometimes he loves a monarch (Henry V, with possible qualifications), sometimes he contemns one (Henry VI, John) and sometimes he betrays Chaucerian ambivalence (the two Richards). Evil may be in only one rotten apple (Othello, Macbeth), or it may be in nearly the whole barrel (Hamlet, Lear). In one play (Hamlet), he shows prudent delay and inquiry to be self-defeating, and in the very next tragedy (Othello), he shows its reverse – precipitate action – to be no less dangerous. Who is more attractive – the narcissistic though poetic Richard II or the level-headed prosaic politician Bolingbroke? The irresponsible craftsman in love and war, Antony, or the man dutifully minding the imperial store, Octavian? The noble but obtuse republican Brutus, the resentful independent Cassius, or the avuncular would-be autocrat Caesar? And what will we ever make of Falstaff, inimitable Falstaff? In short, what songs the sirens sang is no harder a question to answer than what philosophy of life Shakespeare espoused.
The Olympian outlook expressed in the form of a long tall tale is the achievement of Cervantes. Don Quixote's many experiences add up to no single formula other than that reality is fragmented and multiform, rather like the collection of often contradictory proverbs spouted by Sancho Panza. The moral force that would connect the discrete experiences with each other into a comprehensive design never materialises. The closest we come to a compelling theme is a gentle pervasive scepticism. To wit, Dante's Beatrice, who injects purpose into the pilgrim's journey, is, as part of the donnee, an objectively real presence, but Dulcinea del Toboso, who likewise inspires the elderly knight, is clearly shown to be, unlike Beatrice, a figment of the imagination. Fiction, in other words, often trumps fact in governing our lives. The Don is, moreover, sometimes less a commendable utopian visionary than a peculiar self-fulfilling prophet; he seeks to mend the world but, in the process, often creates chaos. His return at the end to dull quotidian normality makes everyone at last aware of how insanity in the guise of idealism, while barely tolerable, is yet a necessary leavening in human existence.
Flaubert and, initially, Tolstoy are among the outstanding 19th-century Olympians. But where the Frenchman kept the faith – his last work, Bouvard and Pecuchet, is almost dogmatic about the elusiveness of all certainty or design – the Russian began to feel the allure of a non-institutional personal Christianity. War and Peace, Ivan Ilych, Hadji Murad, and even Anna Karenina contain some of the most characteristic Olympian passages, but the portrayal of Levin in the latter work seems to grow tendentious. Above all, the destruction of Anna, however powerfully rendered, is felt by some critics to be case of vindictive authorial murder for the sake of ideology and at the cost of verisimilitude. And Tolstoy's continuing obsession in some of his last works with the evils of sexuality is another sign of the Ideologue.
After the febrile ideological simplifications of the later Tolstoy and the febrile ideological complexities (or confusions) of Dostoyevsky, it is a relief to come upon the Olympian Chekhov. Few writers can give, as he does (mainly in the plays, but also in the deliberately inconclusive ending of his possibly best short story, 'The Lady with a Dog'), the sense that we watch life itself, not some dramatisation or interpretation of it. What "themes" one can extract from them for the purpose of synopsis, theatre reviewing or pedagogy immediately shrivel up when detached from the characters and actions in which they were embedded. Olympian also are Henry James and Proust, but in both men (as sometimes in Joyce) dazzling stylistic virtuosity occasionally smudges the picture.
Destroyers are still among us, there being many illusions for them to work on, as in Brave New World, 1984, and the works of the anti-Soviet satirists of "utopia"; and Olympians can always find a detached vantage point. But, under the dominance of modern scepticism, deconstructionism and pessimism, where will we find our own Builders, Original or Derivative? The old systems (Christianity, rationalism, communism, progress, primitivism) are, despite numerous adherents, dead or dying in the eyes of most thinkers and writers, and the only beast slouching towards Bethlehem appears to be nuclear, environmental or cybernetic. In a different, more settled age, Kafka, Yeats, Joyce, Nabokov and Garcia Marquez might have been certified insane on the basis of some of their books; in our time, they have rather become our icons. But will the later 21st century read them, as it surely will read the ideological Dante, the iconoclastic Swift and the Olympian Homer?QLRS Vol. 17 No. 2 Apr 2018
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