Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Literary Taste and Age

I sometimes wonder if certain literary works are best read at certain stages of life. People who seem to read Romeo and Juliet later in life have a more cynical view of the actions of the two young lovers than those who read it in (say) high school. That's just something I've found to be occasionally the case; it could be that this is just a misleading sample. But there's perhaps an argument here, although it's slippery. I'm not talking, of course, of the difficulty of the work, but simply of its suitability to a stage of life.

Hume suggests something similar to this in his essay on the Standard of Taste:

A young man, whose passions are warm, will be more sensibly touched with amorous and tender images, than a man more advanced in years, who takes pleasure in wise, philosophical reflections concerning the conduct of life and moderation of the passions. At twenty, Ovid may be the favourite author; Horace at forty; and perhaps Tacitus at fifty. Vainly would we, in such cases, endeavour to enter into the sentiments of others, and divest ourselves of those propensities, which are natural to us. We choose our favourite author as we do our friend, from a conformity of humour and disposition. Mirth or passion, sentiment or reflection; whichever of these most predominates in our temper, it gives us a peculiar sympathy with the writer who resembles us.

This is not quite the same; Hume is talking about taste, while I am talking about what Hume would call good taste (i.e., things we should have a taste for). Hume is, however, noting that taste can vary with age. Since variations of taste constrain good taste -- which involves our considered judgment on the basis of wide experience and practiced discernment -- if there is sufficient regularity of variation with age across the population, and if (as is plausible) no age can be given a completely privileged position (because the variation simply involves "a conformity of humour and disposition"), then we would have an interesting argument for the claim that good taste should (to an extent) be relativized to stage of life. To use Hume's example (which is not, I think, to be taken as Hume's own view of how the authors relate to different stages of life, but simply as an example), not only may a man of twenty have more of a taste for Ovid than a man of thirty, but a taste for Ovid might be more indicative of good taste in a man of twenty than it would be in a man of thirty.

We do sometimes seem to make judgments of this sort. You might not think comic books are ever in themselves indicative of bad taste; but you might think that a taste for comic books is a better indication of good literary taste in a teenager than in a senior. You might think that a taste for both Dickens and Austen is good literary taste, simpliciter, but that preferring Austen to Dickens at seventy is better literary taste than preferring Austen to Dickens at twenty (or some such). This is perhaps better seen in other cases of good and bad taste. We might think anarchism a sign of bad political taste in any age, for instance; but hold that it shows worse taste in an eighty-year-old than in an eighteen-year-old.

On the other hand, there is a good reason why Hume takes variation across age to be a sign of the limitations of a standard of taste -- i.e., to be a case showing that our account of good taste can only be made so precise. If the difference between two cases of good taste is merely temperamental, the variation between the two doesn't itself seem to be a matter of good taste, and so doesn't seem to admit of any standard. If one person prefers Dickens over Austen because he has a more vivid imagination, and another person prefers Austen over Dickens for some other purely temperamental reason, there's a sense in which they are incommensurable. They can both be examples of good literary taste; but they can't be relativized because there's not really anything to relativize it to. It's just a quirk that good taste in one leads to a preference for Dickens and good taste in another leads to a preference for Austen, not a sign of anything profound or important about good literary taste itself, and we can't really say that it is better taste for the one to prefer Dickens over Austen, and better taste for the other to prefer Austen over Dickens -- precisely the point of good literary taste is that it transcends the merely quirky. The analogy in political taste seems to become irrelevant here; at least, one of the reasons why we might think anarchism less a matter of bad taste in a teenager than in a senior is that we might think the quirks of being a teenager make bad political taste more forgivable than the quirks of being a senior.

What you'd need to do is find a way to look at the situation so that people of good taste of all ages could in principle agree (allowing for quirky divergences) that it is better literary taste to have a taste for X at a certain age than at another age. This seems a tall order. On the other hand, it's perhaps not impossible. After all, good taste is about measured and rational appreciation, and it could be that people of certain ages can better appreciate certain literary works. But to return to the other hand, it could also be that age is incidental to the whole matter. And that does seem to be more likely. It's an interesting question.

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