What Makes Certain Literature Timeless?
An essay on durability in art
“To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme,” wrote Herman Melville, and what he says is true — true of any and all art: mighty themes are one of the distinguishing characteristics of timeless art. What is theme? Theme is the meaning that the components of your story or artwork add up to.
In literature, not all stories necessarily have a theme — and these are the stories that time so frequently sinks.
Soap operas, for example, which possess plenty of plot, usually have no themes to speak of.
Some of the great books in world literature are great primarily because of their themes. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, which does not translate well, is great because of its theme: the human potential which resides within us all.
But there is one other element to durable art — another reason that some art is timeless, even when the theme is not mighty: That reason is depth of style.
All art consists fundamentally of two elements: style and subject.
Style is The How. It is execution.
Here, for example, we can observe drastic stylistic differences in artworks whose theme and subject-matter are essentially the same. The first, by Salvador Dali:
This second one is by El Greco:
Notice the obvious differences but also the similarities — and notice too how, as great a painter as El Greco was, Salvador Dali’s style significantly eclipses El Greco’s.
I often cite in literature the Englishman Anthony Burgess, whom I admire, but who never, in my opinion, wrote a great book. Yet his literature, much of it, endures and will endure, for one reason alone: his writing style is so sophisticated and so strong:
“This was the day before the night when the knives of disappointment struck.”
That is a good sentence. Here are a few others from Anthony Burgess, which I’ve chosen more or less at random from his novel Earthly Powers — sentences I had underlined in my copy of the book and which I disentombed purely for the purpose of this post:
“He downed half of his pint gin and lime with gulps like labor contractions.”
“The sky boiled and writhed over the jungle.”
“Over London the black sky bitterly wept.”
Yet unquestionably the greatest example of stylistic timelessness in literature comes from William Shakespeare, whose plots are often borrowed and whose themes are often undistinguished. In spite of this, the power of Shakespeare’s writing style alone — what Vladimir Nabokov memorably called “the verbal-poetic texture of Shakespeare” — is the primary thing that makes Shakespeare’s literature last.
“I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows.”
Reader, that is a durable style — and that is why it will forever resist the ravages of passing time.