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Literature

Stevenson, somewhere, warns an aspiring writer to consider the insignificance of literature—particularly how little the world would change, had Shakespeare never lived. But this is preposterous. Certainly, I can name no great historical force that Shakespeare impelled or deflected. If you can be convinced that history is a script, a set of roles to be filled—then you must admit Stevenson's doubt.

But if any individual can have an effect on history—however subtle—then Shakespeare's influence is inescapable. For if we knock out Shakespeare, then, five centuries later, we have a different human race. Restore the life of every soldier whom Harry's speech inspired to heroism; take back every life the soldier saved. Take back the child of every pair of lovers brought together when the love suicides at Verona made a young man seek his Juliet, a young lady her Romeo. Take back every life that stayed to make the choice to be or not to be.

Go on with the rest of literature. All those soldiers of Greece who fell to fall like Achilles, all those poets who died to die like Werther; all who wandering like Kerouac found strange mothers for their children; even whom a shared fandom offered friendship and friendship became love. Go back to the beginning, back to folk tales and fireside legends; repeal poetry altogether and see how each woman's love, with no better occasion than strength or success, breeds brutal children whose loves and lives are yet more brutal, and so on all the way down.

That literature occupies mostly idle time does not make choice in literature vain choice: we get only measures of time, and whatever changes how we use any of that time, changes what we leave. Our work is in and for the present, and the present's always delusive future. The true future grows in our leisure.

This is literature's unique power, which other arts only employ. It is not the player that they fall for, but the literary characters Music, and the Musician; not the flag that they die for, but the Flag, the Nation, that someone once defined in telling.

If we could know the minds that went with the names, we would see that genealogy is a transcription of literature; and that the human race we know has not merely happened, but has bred itself by a prolonged act of literary criticism.