Recently I came across a reference to a literary classic of which I was totally ignorant. I’m sure there are many great works lost to historical memory, but out of curiosity, I looked this one up. The work is Orlando Furioso written in 1516 by Ariosto, the man who coined the term humanism, meaning our focus should be on human potential rather than on our role in relationship to God. (humanism) His poem describes the adventures of Charlemagne, Orlando and the Franks as they battled the Saracens. Today, after it was dropped by the keepers of the cannon at many universities, the poem has become the province of scholars who revere the arcane. Little wonder, I’d never heard of it.
Orlando Furioso is no less art now, however, than it was over 500 years ago, and to my mind, the topic of religious blood spilling in the Middle East strikes me as current, so why, I wonder, has the poem been relegated to obscurity? Writer Irving How’s explanation fails to satisfy: that the laurels of literary culture should now rest only on the shoulders of “Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Jane Austen and Kafka, Emily Dickinson and Léopold Sédar Senghor…” Léopold Sédar Senghor? Okay, I had to look him up, too. He’s a modern Senegalese poet. (“The Value of the Canon,” by Irving How, reprinted from February 18, 1991, The New Republic, Fall 2016, Special Issues on Higher Education, pg. 3.)
Doubtless, Senghor is a wonderful writer, but does his ouster of Ariosto rest solely for the reason given: that like others on the list, Senghor creates works that provide students the opportunity to “learn to enjoy the activity of mind, the pleasure of forms, the beauty of language… arts in their own right.” (Ibid, pg. 3) Oh good grief! Palaver signifying nothing. Ariosto was dropped, I suspect, because he got old and his epic no longer seemed relevant. Senghor got picked because he’s current and doing so makes the list seem inclusive, reasons having little to do with ” the pleasure of form.”
Upon such airy judgments do keepers of the cannon draw their lists of the greats. Those works that survive over time are protected by patrons high enough on the pecking order to define taste according to the modish fashion of the epoch or epochs. We’re not talking immutable truths, however. No Platonic ideal exists against which to weigh the scribblings of would-be masters. And so Orland Furioso must die with the fashion, knocked from his perch by new arrivals with works of no greater beauty. Art is fickle and what once was deemed epic fades with its champions. One day, it’s conceivable, Hamlet must die and all of Shakespeare’s creations with him.