A response to The Harper Review’s winter 2024 proposition, “We should never forget the past.”
When I ponder the phrase “We should never forget the past,” Irish poet William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” comes to mind. At the time he composed the work, Yeats was aging and tired. Within it, he criticizes young people, whom he claims are “[c]aught in that sensual music”—“all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect.” Rather than being preoccupied with the activity of being “in one another’s arms” as the youth are, Yeats desires to return to ancient Byzantium and study its mosaic art. He beckons the ancient men and women immortalized on the mosaic walls and urges them to teach him the ways of their magnificence in art: “O sages standing in God’s holy fire / As in the gold mosaic of a wall, / Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, / And be the singing-masters of my soul.” Once he completes his education in Byzantine craftsmanship, he will become a golden bird “set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”
Yeats’s poem presents an indictment of youths too preoccupied with the uncomplicated to enjoy truly good, inspired art. Unfortunately, the problem of Yeats’s 1927 poem persists to this day. The art of yesteryear is no longer in favor: people censor the genius of the past and uplift the voices of the present despite their being markedly inferior. Classics like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Bell Jar, and Lolita are decried as racist and misogynistic—never mind that they’re some of the most artful and revered books in the English canon. Scores of adolescent and middle-aged women consume countless “unproblematic” fantasy and science fiction books, only to post their so-called progress on “BookTok,” a community of readers on TikTok. (“72 books this year and counting!”) Even worse, most of these books are borderline pornographic, titillating their audiences with passages of erotica rather than imparting any real knowledge. Is the mass consumption of erotica by underage and impressionable individuals “problematic”? Absolutely. But because these books subscribe to the morals of today, society turns a blind eye.
Perhaps young people today are only capable of engaging with the voices of the past by dumbing them down. William Shakespeare is not relevant through his numerous plays and sonnets, but through Taylor Swift’s references to his characters. The newfound popularity of Franz Kafka and his journals and letters is only due to pithy romantic quotes of his having been posted on X (formerly Twitter) and Tumblr. Of course, it is easier for people to simply retweet rather than engage with his works in a serious manner. But nonetheless, Kafka is Kafka. He shouldn’t have to be simplified in order for his work to be palatable to modern audiences.
I advocate for a return to Yeats’s Byzantium—we, as a civilization, have any number of skilled artists to look back on and gain inspiration from. So why, then, do we capitulate to those who would rather be caught up in the easy delights of light reading and forgo “dead cisgender heterosexual white male” writers? Perhaps because the past is just difficult to reckon with. Why bother with James Joyce’s Ulysses if Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses is written in unchallenging prose? The return to Byzantium will be a long and hard journey, but a worthwhile one. Not only should we never forget the past, but we should also strive for the excellence of the past. If society dismisses the masters of the past as being too complicated or controversial, it cannot learn from them, and subpar art proliferates. Only when we reject “sensual music” can we, too, be immortalized and gathered “into the artifice of eternity.”