Posted on July 18, 2020

Why I’m Passionate About Classical Literature

While watching for the gazillionth time the “Pride and Prejudice” film, as I call it “Cinderella for grown-ups”, my husband thinks out loud to me “You like these past time stories, don’t you? You connect to them?”
I immediately become defensive: No, in no way I would want to live in this time! 
For some time, this question makes me think, what is there, that I’m finding in these stories of the past, that I can’t find in modern human stories? 
Look at her life (referring to Pride and Prejudice), no opportunity to be independent, only hope to get happily married. Yet I love this story for two things, first, the way her relationship evolves from curiosity, to hurted pride, to resentfulness, to hate and outrage, conflict, resolutions and on and on… My addiction for this story of love is a statement, human relationships are not simple, they are a maze where we wonder, sometimes forgetting why we entered it and where we are headed. It is a reminder, that what we want all depends on what we know, the information, knowledge, experience we possess - it shapes our dreams and goals, goals don’t really matter, experience and knowledge is the Queen… And thirdly, their social life is engaging, deep and full on so many levels that it electrifies me, you want to argue with me that our social life is not that bad?  
I caught a thread, and bear with me to unravel it…

The Ode to Lonely Souls - Or The Dark Corners of Modern Life...

I openly admit, I do love a good classical book about older times, better and bigger the volume, merrier for me. I like to submerge myself in these unfamiliar contexts, with different mentalities and challenges, it's fascinating, and closer to reality is better for me. 
It’s like traveling, however, my traveling in the future also has an extensive list too, yet books that happen in the past especially written from the author that lived at least 100 years away cannot stand together. The attempt to see how the future will be is a healthy exercise for my imagination. It does make me think about many aspects of how we will evolve, yet, it would be impossible to understand these topics without understanding where we are coming from. 
Understanding the past, and seeing how it evolved to present helps me understand the future. 

For sure classical books have an advantage of being tested by time and it is much easier to find a good book that was written in the past than one from present, these books just didn’t get the test of dust, yet there is another issue… The way we write today gives me a feeling that I ate some junk food, it’s fun and addictive but leaves me yearning and empty like I’ve been missing something important. 

What I Miss in Modern Literature?

When we speak about novels mostly, I must exclude other genres because they are different, and for another discussion, one of the very interesting points that am I missing in modern literature, I lack human depth, authors are interested more in external events than the protagonists depth, scratching only the surface of human consciousness, it does not make me care deep, it does not make me wonder through the maze of human experience with the complexity of human evolution and social dynamics. It is simply not there, and I feel disappointed and cheated by the author.  
It is not for all titles surely, yet the feeling persists and this is why. 

It is not lack of style or understanding, I believe that we do know more things about reality than any person let’s say from 100 years ago. But our social experience is conditioned by modern life, where we lack true connection to our psyche, because we have no opportunity to spend quality time with ourselves. We’ve become good at entertaining our boredom, distracting us from deep dive into our consciousness, where we can truly meet ourselves and understand. Secondly, language, we stopped using words that describe shades of feelings in our daily life, we use basics for everything, and this stunts our comprehension of human emotions even more. Then there is a lack of deep connection to people, in the past this was a form of punishment for people who somehow were wrong in the face of society, we pushed them out of our closed circle, where they had to experience social isolation, now we have no real inclusion. Yes, you might argue that ‘Wait, Nicoleta, I’m not alone - I have friends, family and coworkers with whom I interact daily!’ And yes, for many of us we interact with more people daily, which can be compared with some public figures of the past like a King for example. Yet, if you pick up a couple of books and follow through the activities and interactions we had in the past we can see a stark contrast between the social activities we were engaged then and how much more diverse and busy and superficial, we have become. 
What I want to say is that for 99% of people before radio times, most of their activities revolve around work, which was more physically intensive than mentally, leaving our mind free to roam around and self analyze, and then were social interactions in a restrained group of relatives and equals in your social group. 
Yes, often as my first reply to a question whether I want to live rather in the past I say ‘No! Heaven forbid!’. Yet the reality is more complicated, yes I surely want to be a part of my present life, there is no way I can comfortably fit in any other time, not the past or future, sometimes it is hard to be away in a foreign country, in a different culture. Yet I have to be honest, progress did not come only with positive changes, the new times lost some of the important aspects of our human needs, to connect inwardly and outward, be shaped by this connection, gain meaningful experience from challenges it poses. 

Why do I say that? You think it was easy to be aware of yourself? Yes, in many aspects we knew little about our rights and our potential often was unaware and rarely achieved. Yet, do not lie to yourself saying that this is all it is to know, there is a more important part of us, which we call today with a fancy word like psychology and emotional intelligence, in past it was soul and heart,  then we certainly knew when we are hurt or happy, we knew why, we knew how, and we had amazing ability and knowledge to adapt and make ourselves thrive in the context we live in, no matter how limiting it was. 

I think I was aware about this problem, subconsciously, but never truly understood it until I had real human connection, spending time with a person, to the point when all social discussions are drained with and intermittent silence interrupted by basic communication, in that space I had to deal with two challenges, communicate my feelings for the benefit of  “mutual survival” and learn to listen. These challenges opened a whole new world for me, discovering myself in a more active environment.Yes I spent a lot of time alone being highly introverted yet being by yourself is a different experience, it lacks reality stimulus and challenges, the internal conflicts I was experiencing when being alone were more dealing with past problems. These emotions did not meet a constraint, flowing freely in my mind interacting with no one but me. It is different to be yourself in the same space with someone else who also has its own processes, it creates obstacles, conflicts, friction, potential, discoveries, adaptation, we learn to adapt our behaviour and feelings around these shapes, it changes us, it shapes us. Being with someone all the time is always an ongoing process of molding yourself into the form that helps you function, like a mollusk creating pearls in order to adapt to the presence of foreignobject inside. Being alone leaves you lacking the external factor which is important in many ways, we constantly act in different ways and people around us can shape our patterns of behaviour just by constantly reacting to us, we automatically learn what we want and need and what we need to do in order to achieve that. Also here is another aspect of human connection, the mirror, we have a chance to study someone else from outside and up close, this gives us a glimpse of ourselves too. By watching many processes in my partner I would analyze them in my context and have a better understanding of what’s happening in me. In order to understand something in yourself you need to have two looks, one deep inside yourself, another to someone with similar experience. By analyzing my partner I see many processes that are similar and can learn from them a great deal. 

I often can easily spot a person who has not been socially well connected, not been socially shaped, a “Wild Goose” , which I am, in many ways too … These people are completely blind to social reality, they are blind to people around them and to themselves. 
This is a double edged sword, it’s bad in both ways, but I see a great opportunity in it. Knowing about it we can learn from the past and include these processes in the context of modern life.

The Dangers of Social Inclusion

Social conditioning in many cultures has a strong influence, you can see its effects in many countries that still relies heavily on it, forming human consciousness, its behaviour, beliefs and values, often distorting the reality and enslaving people to its cause. 

Yet social conditioning can be a powerful tool for constructive purposes. I often experience it myself when I meet a person that inspires me and makes me reach beyond the limits of my imagination. It opens new possibilities, it shapes our dreams, purpose in life is an important factor making the difference between making you a successful fighter or a knot of frustration… 

Coming back to classical literature, I know that I’m passionate about it for one more reason - I learn about social interactions of the past, because people then knew better what was going on in themselves and understanding what we have lost helps me reclaim and benefit from that knowledge. I’ve learned that social isolation and lack of emotional intelligence is a present problem, and this problem eats us from within, not letting us reap the benefits of our achievements and limiting our ability to make the best of our circumstances. 

Our survival instinct is wired to drive us to stay in the pack, our brain treats social exclusion as a death sentence because for the longest time we depended on our tribe to help us survive, and often staying alive meant to be accepted… 

Understanding the mechanisms of how we function is giving us a power of choice. 

Here are the books that I have learned a lot about social integration and emotional intelligence. This a longer list, and somewhat not a full list of all times classics, but I judged these titles were most insightful to me at the discussed topic, hopefully, to inspire you to read some of them if not all, and if you did read some of these books, I challenge you to rethink the book in a new way, maybe you can find some ideas lost to you until now. And a warning, try not to fill your mind with air of superiority towards people of the past, because you will lose the chance to learn anything at all, and I promise there is much to learn from them too.  

Before you read these books I want you to ask these questions:

  • What were social interactions in the past?
  • What were the emotional struggles people were challenged in the past?
  • What were their dreams like in the past?
  • What people in the past didn’t know or understand that we do?
  • What people from the past knew and could do that we cannot in the present?
  • What people in the past had that we don’t have anymore?
  • How our social life changed?

Great Expectations  by Charles Dickens, 

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane,

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, 

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, 

The Acharnians by Aristophanes,

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, 

Demons,  Poor Folk, The Raw Youth, Crime and Punishment, The Insulted and Humiliated, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot - titles by Dostoyevsky, Fyodor

Othello by William Shakespeare, 

 War and Peace, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, 

 Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Emma, Pride and Prejudice  - all titles by Jane Austen, 

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, 

 The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, 

 Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, 

 The Metamorphosis, The Castle -  Franz Kafka, 

The Magic Skin, Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac, 

 Ulysses by James Joyce, 

 Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, 

 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 

 Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, 

 Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

 Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, 

 Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant.

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