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I’m reminded of the Borges idea that when we read something new it alters old texts, or our reading of old texts, such that Kafka gives new meaning to Shakespeare. From “Kafka and His Precursors”: “If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now.” … “The fact is that every writer creates his precursors.”
Borges then references Eliot’s Points of View: “His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”
Maybe another, though more pedestrian, example of this idea can be found in sewing the threads of three poems: Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” Hecht’s “The Dover Bitch,” and Biespiel’s “Dover Butch,” and the thread may go back to Marvel’s “Coy Mistress” and to Herrick’s “Virgins.”
Another way of putting this: no matter what our contemporary experience, we probably won’t be able to read, say, Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” the same way Langston did. Our experience changes his poem. The text moves as we move. Maybe this is why Melville’s “Moby Dick” failed in his own time while it is viewed as a classic in our time, even as that skews the meaning of the word classic as it applies to a book. Then, as for putting the text “in the right shape,” how can we possibly predict that, not knowing what will come next?

I think the idea that the new alters the old is actually Eliot's before Borges's.

Yes, and Borges credits Eliot that, in his Kafka essay, but can we read Eliot the same way having now read Borges? Or, can we write Arnold's response to Hecht?

Eliot would agree we must read him differently after reading his successors.

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About

  • Daniel Green is a literary critic and sometime fiction writer. His reviews, critical essays, and fiction have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. He has a Ph.D focusing on postwar American fiction and an M.A. in creative writing.

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