Anne Carson on why we should read classics today

Here is an excerpt From Anne Carson/Antiquity, a collection edited by Laura Jansen.

This is Carson being quoted from an interview she gave, where she responds to the idea that teaching classics is relevant because it can teach us to recover something we need today.

I don’t feel much direct relevance of ancient things to modern things. It was the temper of the times, in the seventies and eighties when I was getting my degree and teaching, to claim that the project of being a classicist was to find relevance in antiquity and invent courses that convinced students you could learn everything you needed to know about modern life from studying the ancient Greeks. Well, that’s bizarre, to say the least. What’s entrancing about the Greeks is that you get little glimpses of similarity, embedded in unbelievable otherness, in this huge landscape of strange convictions about the world and reactions to life that make no sense at all.

What I like about what Carson says is the notion that we can't learn how to live "better" (whatever that means) today by learning and emulating how people lived in the past. Be that as it may, it is still interesting and valuable to read things written at a radically different time, totally other than our contemporary time and place.

It is like... Even if a text written so long ago can't tell me how I should be living my life today, it is still really damn interesting. Reading and thinking about it is fun, and doing fun things is good because they are fun. We can do something because it is enjoyable. That's it.

This is kind of the whole point of surplus jouissance. It is the enjoyment and satisfaction of doing something completely unnecessary. The things we don't need to do that don't serve a utility, that is excessive, and that is very far from the land of need are the most enjoyable things in our lives.
Sorry, I thought I was done with the call-out text, but I thought of something else. Additionally, enjoying things that bring us surplus jouissance does not hurt anyone. Reading classics --not for a class but for fun-- is a great example of the sort of non-violent, non-victim experiences of jouissance, of a way of enjoying that "waste time" but oh-so-much-fun...

Is this not a good enough reason to be interested in antiquity and the classic texts it has left us?


I'm adding this modification, which occurred to me a few moments after I hit publish.

I don't want to suggest that texts from the past, in general, and antiquity, in particular, don't or can't offer us some kind of useful advice on how we might want to live today. These texts often do have lessons we can learn, and they can serve a utility for us.

What I want to suggest is that we don't need to read them for these lessons to better ourselves or our social conditions. (Again, we can read them for that, we just don't need to.) We can read them for the same reason we watch garbage T.V. or listen to pop music: because it's fun to do these things, and we like doing them, even though doing them does not "make us a better person" or something along that line.

Ok. I'm actually done now. Carry on.


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