The Script, Context, and Lit Crit

El Greco’s View of Toledo. 1596-1600. The Met, NYC.

Context is everything and nothing. But mostly always everything when we think. Its importance is critical, when it comes to utilizing the past as prologue, or avoiding that entirely. Without examining context, in full, rationally, holistically, we will stumble about in the dark, without a view of anything. We will fail to see crossroads and convergences. We will fail to see crosscurrents and cross purposes. We will fail.

When studying literature, I like to concentrate on aesthetics, on expressive properties, on the quality of prose. I like to study the characters, their stories and interaction. The dynamics on display. How it all comes together. I prefer that to digging into political subtext and subjective analyses of times we know little about. Unless, of course, we do. Unless we really do know about a time and place, and how that impacts the writer, artist, musician, etc. Because it often adds a certain kind of indirect depth to studies and informs us about certain worlds as they were then. Or guides us closer to. That helps us know the characters a bit better, their world, their time and place.

Of course, there is a marked difference between the study of literature and the arts and trying to pattern our life on ancient texts, on the way of life in those texts. There is a marked difference that is often forgotten when it should be emphasized. One thing can aid the other. One thing can open our eyes and ears to the other. The study of context can help us realize certain things about those ancient scripts and why we should always pause. Long and hard. Pause long and hard. Look carefully at the world we might wish to parrot, to copy, to live again, because of.

In 2008, in the West, our living conditions are superior in most every way to those found on this earth, 2000-3000 years ago. We live much longer, healthier lives. Our levels of education place us in an entirely different world, light years ahead of those who lived in ancient times. Women and minorities have the kinds of opportunities, rights and legal protections unheard of even a century ago. While we still have a long way to go to make this a truly fair and open society, if we compare context with context, no one should wish a return to those ancient scripts for a way of life. No one. Though some do. Some wish to pattern their lives along the lines of ancient worlds. Seen through a modern prism, of course. Seen through a distorted lens, out of context. Doubly mistaken. Doubly distorted. Perhaps more than just doubly.

Following a script, instead of the observation of now, today, here. Following a received script, rather than discovering the world for oneself. Living in the ancient past, instead of the here and now. Living in the ancient past, without thinking, really, what that means . . .

One of the core ideas of Existentialism, that non-school school, is to throw away every received convention, all received conventional wisdom and hand-me-down knowledge. Start your life from scratch to the degree possible. Observe, learn, form your life’s project anew. Make your own script, in short. If this is done in conjunction with the study of known history, the arts, the sciences, philosophy (a part of that project), we can make the good life and make rational policies today, now, here. We can make it make sense, in harmony with our own context and possibilities. Why long for an ancient world so at odds with the one we’ve created over time, so far removed from that desert, so far removed from that type of society, its slavery, its misogyny, its fear of the other? We should be thrilled to have made the journey we’ve made, hopeful of further change, hopeful of putting even more distance between ourselves and that ancient, tragic, misunderstood and romanticized mother of all deserts.


The Script, Context, and Lit Crit
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