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How is it that we are still able to enjoy works of art, especially literary works, produced hundreds and in some cases thousands of years ago? We can still enjoy, for example, The Epic of Gilgamesh or Homer or Beowulf, despite their having been produced in ancient societies with values and attitudes profoundly different to our own? Does this suggest they uphold certain values or beliefs which are of timeless and enduring importance to human beings?

November 11, 2007

Response from Douglas Burnham on November 22, 2007

An excellent question. One can imagine two very different types of enjoyment that would lead to two very different answers to your question. We might enjoy something because it is familiar, and thus serves to comfort or even reinforce our sense of who we are, and the value of who we are. (If I had a choice, I would call this the 'pizza and beer' theory, after my personal paradigm of what is familiar and enjoyable.) This line of thinking would lend itself to the position you express in your last question: human productions, even from long ago or far away, rest on a baseline of distinctly human beliefs, values or modes of thought that make them in some way 'familiar' and thus enjoyable.

On the other hand, it also seems reasonable to argue that something alien to me can be enjoyed precisely because it is alien, new, different, or challenging. This suggests that Gilgamesh is enjoyable because it is unfamiliar and continues to resist assimilation into the familiar.

These two modes of enjoyment have a certain dependency upon one another. What is familiar tends to be found enjoyable as a refuge from the alien, as a 'home-coming'; in order for the alien to continually resist assimilation I have to be constantly trying to bring it into the range of what is familiar to me. Familiar and alien are not just static states of consciousness, but are part of a movement back and forth, a dialectic.

I've never thought of this issue in terms of 'enjoyment' before. I've always looked at it from the point of view of understanding: how is it that Gilgamesh can be read at all and make sense to me? The two questions are formally similar, since both suggest this dialectic between the familiar and the alien. Accordingly, partly under the influence of Hegel, this dialectic has often been considered central to the nature of interpretation and especially our relationship with cultural artefacts and specifically art. Accordingly, it is often argued (and this is one of the key arguments behind a liberal arts education) that part of the purpose of the study of foreign cultures or history is to enlarge my sense of the familiar, to make me a more complete person with a richer sense of my self and my world.



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