[Note: This is taken from Hamilton Wright Mabie's Books and Culture.]
The study which has found its material and its reward in Dante's "Divine Comedy" or in Goethe's "Faust" is the best possible evidence of the inexhaustible interest in the masterpieces of these two great poets. Libraries of considerable dimensions have been written in the way of commentaries upon, and expositions of, their notable works. Many of these books are, it is true, deficient in insight and possessed of very little power of interpretation or illumination; they are the products of a barren, dry-as-dust industry, which has expended itself upon external characteristics and incidental references. Nevertheless, the very volume and mass of these secondary books witness to the fertility of the first-hand books with which they deal, and show beyond dispute that men have an insatiable desire to get at their interior meanings. If these great poems had been mere illustrations of individual skill and gift, this interest would have long ago exhausted itself. That singular and unsurpassed qualities of construction, style, and diction are present in "Faust" and the "Divine Comedy" need not be emphasized, since they both belong to the very highest class of literary production; but there is something deeper and more vital in them: there is a philosophy or interpretation of life. Each of these poems is a revelation of what man is and of what his life means; and it is this deep truth, or set of truths, at the heart of these works which we are always striving to reach and make clear to ourselves.
In the case of neither poem did the writer content himself with an exposition of his own experience; in both cases there is an attempt to embody and put in concrete form an immense section of universal experience. Neither poem could have been written if there had not been a long antecedent history, rich in every kind and quality of human contact with the world, and of the working out of the forces which are in every human soul. These two forms of activity represent in a general way what men have learned about themselves and their surroundings; and, taken together, they constitute the material out of which interpretations and explanations of human life have been made. These explanations vary according to the genius, the environment, and the history of races but in every case they represent the very soul of race life, for they are the spiritual forms in which that life has expressed itself. Other forms of race activity, however valuable or beautiful, are lost in the passage of time, or are taken up and absorbed, and so part with their separate and individual existence; but the quintessence of experience and thought expressed in great works of art is gathered up and preserved, as Milton said, for "a life beyond life."
Now, it is upon this imperishable food which the past has stored up through the genius of great artists that later generations feed and nourish themselves. It is through intimate contact with these fundamental conceptions, worked out with such infinite pain and patience, that the individual experience is broadened to include the experience of the race. This contact is the mystery as it is the source of culture. No one can explain the transmission of power from a book to a reader; but all history bears witness to the fact that such transmissions are made. Sometimes, as during what is called the Revival of Learning, the transmission is so general and so genuine that the life of an entire society is visibly quickened and enlarged; indeed, it is not too much to say that an entire civilization feels the effect. The transmission of power, the transference of vitality, from books to individuals are so constant and common that they are matters of universal experience. Most men of any considerable culture date the successive enlargements of their intellectual lives from the reading, at successive periods, of the books of insight and power,—the books that deal with life at firsthand. There are, for instance, few men of a certain age who have read widely or deeply who do not recall with perennial enthusiasm the days when Carlyle and Emerson fell into their hands. They may have reacted radically from the didactic teaching of both writers, but they have not lost the impulse, nor have they parted with the enlargement of thought received in those first rapturous hours of discovery. There was wrought in them then changes of view, expansions of nature, a liberation of life which can never be lost. This experience is repeated so long as the man retains the power of growth and so long as he keeps in contact with the great writers. Every such contact marks a new stage in the process of culture. This means not merely the deep satisfaction and delight which are involved in every fresh contact with a genuine work of art; it means the permanent enrichment of the reader. He has gained something more lasting than pleasure and more valuable than information: he has gained a new view of life; he has looked again into the heart of humanity; he has felt afresh the supreme interest which always attaches to any real contact with the life of the race. And all this comes to him not only because the life of the race is essentially dramatic and, therefore, of quite inexhaustible interest, but because that life is essentially a revelation. A series of fundamental truths is being disclosed through the simple process of living, and whoever touches the deep life of men in the great works of art comes in contact also with these fundamental truths. Whoever reads the "Divine Comedy" and "Faust" for the first time discovers new realms of truth for himself, and gains not only the joy of discovery, but an immense addition of territory as well.
The most careless and superficial readers do not remain untouched by the books of life; they fail to understand them or get the most out of them, but they do not escape the spell which they all possess,—the power of compelling the attention and stirring the heart. Not many years ago the stories of the Russian novelists were in all hands. That the fashion has passed is evident enough, and it is also evident that the craving for these books was largely a fashion. Nevertheless, the fashion itself was due to the real power which those stories revealed, and which constitutes their lasting contribution to the world's literature. They were touched with a profound sadness, which was exhaled like a mist by the conditions they portrayed; they were full of a sympathy born of knowledge and of sorrow; their roots were in the rich soil of the life they described. The latest of them, Count Tolstoy's "Master and Man," is one of those masterpieces which take rank at once, not by reason of their magnitude, but by reason of a certain beautiful quality which comes only to the man whose heart is pressed against the heart of his theme, and who divines what life is in the inarticulate soul of his brother man. Such books are the rich material of culture to the man who reads them with his heart, because they add to his experience a kind of experience otherwise inaccessible to him, which quickens, refreshes, and broadens his own nature.
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