Few disciplines could be of greater interest than etymology; this is owing to the unforeseeable transformation, over the long course of time, of a word's original meaning. Given such transformations, which may border on the paradoxical, a word's origin is of little or no value in the clarification of a concept. Knowing that, in Latin, "calculus" means a small stone, and that the Pythagoreans used such stones before the invention of numbers, does not allow us to master the mysteries of algebra. To learn that a "hypocrite" is an actor and a "person" a mask is hardly a valuable tool for the study of ethics. Similarly, to understand our current designation of a "classic," it is of no utility that this adjective comes from the Latin classis, a fleet, which later would assume the meaning of order. (Let us recall in passing the analogous information contained in the term "ship-shape.")
So what is now a "classic" book? Within arm's reach I have the definitions furnished by Eliot, Arnold, and Sainte-Beuve, undoubtedly reasonable and luminous, and I would be grateful to concur with these illustrious authors, but I did not consult them. I am now sixty-odd years old; at my age, coincidences or novelties matter less than what one believes to be true. Therefore I will limit myself to my own thoughts on the subject.
My first stimulus was A History of Chinese Literature (1901) by Herbert Allen Giles. In his second chapter I read that one of the five canonical texts which Confucius edited was The Book of Changes or I Ching, composed of sixty-four hexagrams which exhaust possible combinations of six whole or partial lines. One of the schemes, for example, consists of two whole lines, one partial line, and three whole lines, laid out vertically. A prehistoric emperor had discovered them in the carapace of one of the sacred turtles. Leibniz thought he detected a binary system of numeration in the hexagrams; others saw an enigmatic philosophy; still others, like Wilhelm, a tool for the divination of the future since the sixty-four figures correspond to the sixty-four phases of any undertaking or process; and while others espied the vocabulary of a particular tribe, some gazed upon a calendar. I remember now that Xul Solar used to reconstruct this text with matches and toothpicks. For foreigners The Book of Changes risks seeming like a mere chinoiserie; yet thousands of generations of very educated men have read it and referred to it with devotion, and will continue to read it. Confucius told his disciples that if destiny granted him a hundred more years of life, he would consecrate half of it to its study and its commentaries or outgrowths.
Quite deliberately I chose a simple example, a reading which requires an act of faith. I arrive now at my thesis. A classic book is that which a nation or a group of nations – or time itself in its length – has decided to read as if everything in its pages were deliberate, fatidic, as profound as the cosmos, and capable of endless interpretations. Predictably, these decisions vary. For Germans and Austrians Faust is a work of genius; for others, one of the most famous forms of tedium, such as Milton's second Paradise, or the work of Rabelais. Works like The Book of Job, The Divine Comedy, and Macbeth (and, for me, some of the sagas of the North) promise long immortality. Yet we do not know the future, apart from knowing that it will be different from the present. A preference may well be a superstition.
I do not have the vocation of an iconoclast. Until the age of thirty I believed, under the influence of Macedonio Fernández, that beauty was the privilege of very few authors; now I know that it is common, lurking even in the casual pages of the mediocre or the conversations of the street. In this way, my ignorance of Malaysian and Hungarian literature is perfect; yet I am sure that if time were to grant me the chance to study these traditions, I would find in them everything the mind requires to nourish itself. Linguistic barriers do not intervene as much as political and geographic ones. Burns is a classic in Scotland; South of the River Tweed, however, he is of less interest than Dunbar or Stevenson. In short, the glory of a poet depends on the excitement or apathy of the generations of anonymous men who put him to the test in the solitude of their libraries.
Literature may evoke eternal emotions, yet how it does so, even without intention, must constantly vary for it not to lose its virtue. These means persist to the extent that they are recognized by the reader. Hence it is dangerous to confirm the existence of classic works, or their eternity as such.
Each of us loses faith in his art and his artifices. I, who have resigned myself to doubting the indefinite persistence of Voltaire or Shakespeare, believe (this evening, on one of the last days of 1965) in that of Schopenhauer and Berkeley.
A classic book is not a book (I repeat) which necessarily possesses these or some other qualities; it is a book which generations of men, driven by various reasons, read with that same initial fervor and that same mysterious loyalty.