Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Essays

Toward an Incarnational Aesthetic

On locating the sublimity of art within the world and within history.

Ashley C. Barnes

Woman Holding a Book, 1924, by Fernand Léger (1881–1955), private collection; photograph © Christie’s Images/ Bridgeman Images; © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

A narrative of loss shadows every narrative of progress. Such is the story of our lives: We grow up only to lose our youth; we trade the capacity to believe in talking animals for the knowledge that nothing gold can stay. As children, we are free to live in the present; as adults, we discover that we are trapped in a timeline we cannot control.

Our common term for the sense of loss that accompanies progress is disenchantment. Max Weber gave us that name in a lecture to a student group in Munich in 1917. He made the point then that the modern world had been emptied of magic (a more literal translation of “disenchantment” is “un-magicking”).11xPaul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, Introduction, in Max Weber, Charisma and Disenchantment: The Vocation Lectures, ed. Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, trans. Damion Searls (New York, NY: New York Review of Books, 2020), xiii. Unlike the savages who had to propitiate unseen spirits, Weber wrote, we now believed that “all things, in theory, can be mastered through calculation.”22xMax Weber, “The Scholar’s Work,” in Charisma and Disenchantment, 18.

But this progress—which Weber suggested might be only the replacement of old deities with a new polytheism of “impersonal forces”33xIbid., 32.—leaves us lonely and empty. Because there are always more calculations to make and new things to master, we get exhausted by life without filling up on it. And because “the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life,” we lose our capacity to connect with each other. The best coping mechanism Weber could offer his audience was to “find and obey the daemon that holds in its hands the threads of our own life.”44xIbid., 40, 42. Such obedience, though, makes for an unshared faith.

No wonder Weber’s account has made us long for re-enchantment. Whether anything can still make us feel free or bring us together has been a lively question of late. Surveying recent books that call for the re-enchantment of everything from political science to nature to art, Jason Crawford notes that the authors of such works all disavow the credulity that would seem to belong to enchantment, promoting instead sociable values like communalism.55xJason Crawford, “The Trouble with Re-enchantment,” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 7, 2020, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-trouble-with-re-enchantment/. Advocates of re-enchantment like the literary scholar Rita Felski speak of networking and association, of vulnerability and wonder.66xFor instance, in her most recent book, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), Rita Felski urges critics to “greater receptivity” (12) and to think of themselves and texts “linked in extended constellations of cause and effect” (164). If you define disenchantment as being stuck in your own head and dying pointlessly, then enchantment means loving others and achieving what the philosopher Charles Taylor, our great chronicler of disenchantment, has called “fullness.”77xCharles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 5. The re-enchanters’ gambit, as another literary scholar, Bruce Robbins, sees it, is to convince us that modern progress is illusory so that we’ll be grateful to be redeemed from it: “To decide that everyday life is rationalized, bureaucratized, or routinized is to kill it in order to get a pat on the back for rescuing it from the dead.”88xBruce Robbins, “Enchantment? No, Thank You!,” in The Joy of Secularism, ed. George Levine (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 93.

Such an account can still imagine—as Robbins does, as do I—that recognizing the potential for freedom and love in everyday life is a worthwhile endeavor. A prime candidate for such work has long been literary art. Literature teaches us sympathy and makes us see a blackbird in thirteen different ways. But many recent accounts (including Felski’s) hold that in order to re-enchant us, literature must be rescued from the disenchanter in chief: history, specifically history conceived as an impersonal force that determines who and what we are. That rescue impulse is a mistake. But it has its own long history worth unraveling.

A recent scuffle over what it means to love literature helps explain the logic of the case. Jon Baskin, editor of The Point, named the novelist and poet Ben Lerner a representative of “the hatred of literature, as it has filtered from academia into contemporary literary culture.” For Baskin, Lerner’s work “exposes the misunderstanding in the hatred of literature’s disenchanted heart.”99xJon Baskin, “On the Hatred of Literature,” The Point 21 (Winter 2020): 7, 11. A few months later, Lerner responded in the form of an autofictional story published in The New Yorker. The story’s narrator addresses an unknown interlocutor: “I’m just clicking on things in bed, a review by a man named Baskin, who says I have no feelings and hate art.”1010xBen Lerner, “The Media,” The New Yorker, April 20, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/20/the-media.

For Baskin, art does still enchant, and that is why it demands love. Baskin sees, in the films of Terrence Malick, for instance, a beauty that testifies to another world of higher values.1111xJon Baskin, “Conversion Experience: Terrence Malick’s ‘To the Wonder,’” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 12, 2013, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/conversion-experience-terrence-malicks-to-the-wonder/. Lerner acknowledges that art is meant to dissolve the particular individual into a higher unity, but he believes it fails to do so. Lerner sees, in Keats and Dickinson, for example, great poets who “rage against the merely actual.”1212xBen Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 37. Real love of art manifests as contempt, because only real love sees how much more art could have done.

On one side, then, we have a faithful lover, for whom art is as powerful as ever but beset by smug haters. On the other, we have a wised-up lover who has accepted his beloved’s limits and matured beyond what now looks like a honeymoon phase. One side is loving, the other is knowing. Loving defends art’s capacity to rise above the world we know; knowing acknowledges how much art has already been compromised by that world.

Yet the distance between these two lovers is not so great. Both want the same kind of enchantment from art. They only disagree about whether art can give it to them. Both share an aesthetic of transcendence, preferring what is otherworldly to the this-worldly. Lerner admires Keats’s line about the superiority of music that goes unheard; Baskin admires Malick’s refusal of manmade standards as the final measure of life. For both, what is enchanting about art is its power to liberate us from the narrow confines of our historical situatedness and to offer access to something beyond ourselves and our times.

The aesthetic of transcendence makes history the chief obstacle to the love of art. Baskin blames New Historicism, which dominated English departments in the 1980s and 1990s, for having spawned a crop of writers and editors who now conflate art with the advocacy of social justice. He sees historicists turning literature into a courtroom exhibit for the critic to judge: Were its author’s politics good or bad? Lerner’s impoverished imagination is the result, Baskin says, of a hyperpoliticized historicist literary criticism. For his part, Lerner identifies poetry’s mission as escaping “the finite and the historical.”1313xIbid., 8. In this view, to write a particular poem in a particular time and place is to objectify, and therefore to falsify, poetry’s full power. For Lerner, it is a shame that literature can be written only in history; for Baskin, it is a shame that literature can be read only as history, at least in today’s intellectual climate.

But history does not have to be seen as an enemy to art, such that art must either be protected from it by a lover or reluctantly abandoned to it by a knower. The conflict between knowing and loving is itself a byproduct of the antihistoricism inherent in the aesthetic of transcendence. The aesthetic of transcendence measures art in the singular moment when a reader or viewer locks eyes with a poem or film. Any hint that the poem or film is trailing not clouds of glory, but the dusty streamers of its historical provenance, feels like a degradation of that encounter. Baskin and Lerner want art to do its work immediately: to swoosh us into a self-realization or a self-dissolution that could at least momentarily suspend our disbelief, shake us out of our neoliberal instrumentalization, and join us in shared enchantment. According to the aesthetic of transcendence, this enchantment either happens as an out-of-time epiphany, or it doesn’t happen at all. It is a vertical breakthrough from a realm above to ours below.

If that is the end of the story, that is not love. It is, at least, only one kind of love. Love also happens diachronically, across and through time, stretching horizontally into a possibly infinite distance. We need the poem and the film, it is true, to make us feel more alive right in the moment of first contact. But the poem and the film also need us to carry their lives forward in time. Artworks are no more autonomous than we are. Our mutual dependence binds us to a future whose end we can’t see. That apparent endlessness is equally worth calling transcendence, and equally enchanting. This view doesn’t deny art its transcendent power. It reframes the time scale in which we judge art’s power. This view says that art’s full capacity to enchant us unfolds across time, in the world. Seen this way, art is not degraded by history; art creates history.

What I am describing is an aesthetic of incarnation. Unlike the aesthetic of transcendence, it locates the sublimity of art within the world and within history. This aesthetic of incarnation borrows two related ideas from the great political philosopher Hannah Arendt: natality and action. Natality is the power to make something new, granted to all of us as newcomers in the world; action is the effort to make such a beginning, “to set something into motion.” Such a creative act is unpredictable, even miraculous, because it marks a freely undertaken effort by which “we insert ourselves into the human world,” thus achieving a “second birth.”1414xHannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 9, 177, 176. Arendt identifies speech as the paradigmatic example of action; I would identify art as a form of speech and of action as she defines those terms. Art is a miraculous incarnation—uncalled for, contingent, and prone to consequences that may be good or bad—that we collectively sustain by talking about it. We, as readers and viewers, can repeat that miracle through speech and action provoked by our encounter with art. In our own speech and action, we enable a second birth for that art.

In contrast to an aesthetics of transcendence, then, an incarnational aesthetic posits that art’s power to move us depends on its emergence in history, and on the arguments, like Baskin and Lerner’s spat, that keep it alive over time. It also depends, crucially, on conserving and reforming the institutions that make such talk possible. If we see art as creating history, then the apparent gulf between knowing and loving disappears. What makes an incarnation miraculous is that it happens in a particular time and place, even though it didn’t have to. To ignore that time and place is to miss the power of the act. A true love for art, then, requires knowing where and how art appears in history, how far it traveled to reach us, and how obligated we are to keep it alive by acting and speaking ourselves. The incarnational aesthetic doesn’t mourn this world as lost to enchantment; it sees the enchantment of the world as our ongoing collective task.

The Origins of the Fight

If knowing and loving are two different ways of expressing an opposition between art and history—knowing, on one hand, reluctantly accepting that art has succumbed to history; loving, on the other, declaring that art still rises above history—where did that opposition come from in the first place?

The most contiguous source, for people whose reading habits were shaped in the twentieth-century American university, is the enmity between the Bible and history that came to a head in the nineteenth century as historical criticism was exported from German universities to Anglo-American scholars. Matthew Arnold, a founding father of literary studies, recognized that historical studies in his lifetime had whittled the textual edifice of Christianity down to human scale. The result, to Arnold’s mind, was cultural chaos. But he was confident that poetry, dealing in ideas rather than facts, could withstand the historicist destabilization he saw going on all around him. Arnold put his faith in Shakespeare, whom he believed was immune to archaeological undermining: “Compare the stability of Shakespeare with the stability of the Thirty-Nine Articles!” he wrote in 1879.1515xMatthew Arnold, Introduction, The Hundred Greatest Men, vol. 1, Poetry (London, England: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1879), Lyriktheorie, accessed December 28, 2020, http://www.lyriktheorie.uni-wuppertal.de/texte/1879_arnold1.html.

The New Historicism of a Shakespeare scholar such as Stephen Greenblatt was something Arnold couldn’t see coming. But Arnold’s bet that literature could serve as a secular scripture did pay off for most of the twentieth century. Maybe the Bible had to be abandoned to the historicist skeptics. But at least literature, which only presented the idea of transcendence and didn’t claim to present the fact of transcendence, could be protected from worldly perishability. Advocates of the New Criticism like Cleanth Brooks accordingly argued that the greatest art was the furthest from history. The well-wrought urn that Brooks praised in 1944 was blessedly timeless, a representation of an imaginary polis that was more wonderful than any actual historical society could be.1616xCleanth Brooks, “History without Footnotes: An Account of Keats’ Urn,” Sewanee Review 52, no. 1 (Winter 1944): 89–101.

An overt concern with politics or history became a literary gaffe: What was good was what could meet the standards of the timeless and the universal. In the words of Archibald MacLeish, whose poetry Brooks approvingly quoted, the ideal poem was a still life, “palpable and mute / As a globed fruit.” Like the godliest of gods, “a poem should not mean / but be.”1717xArchibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica,” Poetry 28, no. 111 (June 1926): 126, accessed November 16, 2020, poetryfoundation.org. Meaning or doing anything would disturb its profound self-containment. Such a poem would be enchanted, and command a loving reverence expressed in the minute analysis of its miraculous working parts. To historicize the poem would be a disrespectful mistake.

By the 1980s, then, when Greenblatt and other literary historicists began making waves, they confronted long-held habits of rejecting art’s historical life in order to secure its transcendence. The New Historicists breezed past Arnold’s assurance that poetry was safe because it didn’t claim to record historical facts as the Bible had. For this younger generation of academics, poetry itself was a historical fact. As such, poems were ripe for knowing. Poetry could be submitted to investigation as part of a chain of causes and effects.

That investigation proved for historicists (some, at least) that the aesthetic transcendence that had so enchanted their older colleagues was really an ideological tool. Simon During aptly calls this takedown of the literary canon a “cultural secularization.”1818xSimon During, “Losing Faith in the Humanities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 18, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/losing-faith-in-the-humanities/. The first time around, nineteenth-century historicist scholars recast the Bible not as a transcript of God’s word but as a patchwork of legend and chronicle pieced together by anonymous men. The second time around, twentieth-century historicist scholars assessed Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter not as sublime expressions of the democratic spirit but as elite efforts to enforce a liberal consensus. Such knowers didn’t have the gentle melancholy of a Ben Lerner seeing how much Dickinson attempted, and how little her words on the page actually could do; they were vengeful ex-lovers bent on unmasking their former beloved.

The New Historicist knowers might not have been motivated to such aggressive takedowns if the New Critical lovers who preceded them had not so carefully shielded art from history. The New Critics’ efforts to enshrine literary transcendence as a last bulwark after historicism killed the Bible was an overreaction. Not all the biblical historicists of the nineteenth century disenchanted the Bible they studied.

Yet the nascent fundamentalist movement saw it that way: Its founders saw their liberal colleagues, a whole cadre of historicist theologians, as so many secular wolves in sheep’s clothing. And it was true that liberals had abandoned the doctrine of full inspiration. Acknowledging Scripture as the product of translations, quarrelsome synods, and faulty manuscripts, they dropped the long-standing Protestant claim for God’s truth in every word. Some liberal Protestant theologians argued that a faithful reader’s personal experience of Scripture proved its truth, relying on a subjective sense of the sublime to validate what history had invalidated. But a few of these theologians did something more radical for a nation that had long venerated the sanctity of the individual conscience: They identified the historical institution of the church as a guarantor of the Bible’s truth.

One of this camp, Charles Augustus Briggs, became a celebrity heretic, booted out of the Presbyterian Church in 1893 after telling an audience at Union Theological Seminary that a Bible would not stop a bullet any better than a Catholic missal.1919xCharles Augustus Briggs, The Authority of Holy Scripture: An Inaugural Address (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), 30. Briggs kept his job at UTS, but he spent much of his career vainly lobbying for a reunification of the Christian church. He took missionary trips to Europe to meet with modernizing Catholic theologians and to try to convince Pope Pius X that now was the time to mend what the Reformation had sundered. Briggs believed with other liberal Protestants that historicism was a progressive force, capable of freeing the Bible’s timeless truths from the accretion of mere dogma. But unlike other liberal Protestants, Briggs was not satisfied with establishing the subjective experience of reading as the final ratification of those timeless truths.

Instead, Briggs argued that the church was a necessary pillar of faith, and that Protestants had done wrong to kick away this support. For Briggs, the church’s historical existence was what made a present-tense emotional response to the Bible possible. The institution was necessary, first, to produce the text: There had to be “an organized society, filled with the Holy Ghost, ere the sacred writings could be produced.” Second, the institution’s traditions were necessary to order a believer’s present-tense experience of the divine. Only the church could “bring us into communion with the Triune God in the forms of the modern world, and give us the assurance of His presence with the Church through its history, and with us in the hour and moment of our use of its institutions.”2020xCharles Augustus Briggs, The Bible, the Church, and the Reason: Three Great Fountains of Biblical Authority (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892), 21, 65. A reader felt God’s presence and encountered transcendence not in spite of, but because of, the church’s mediation.

No wonder, then, that Briggs was not a fan of the man-and-his-book method of reading. He argued that any valid interpretation of the text had to be arrived at by negotiating the “hotly contested field” occupied by prior interpreters: “Christian divines, Jewish rabbins, and even unbelieving writers have not studied the Word of God for so many centuries in vain.” Only from the “acting and reacting influences of this conflict” among generations of interpreters would “the truth of God…maintain itself” and “prevail.”2121xCharles Augustus Briggs, General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899), 31, 32. Through this process, these many subjective interpretations would cumulatively scale up to approach the status of permanent truth.

Briggs pointed to the same phenomenon in literary reading. He argued that “a reader may enjoy the literary features of Shakespeare, Milton, and Homer, without himself taking part in critical work, but consciously or unconsciously he is dependent upon the literary criticism of experts, who have given him the results of their labours upon these authors.”2222xIbid., 294. Only a naive reader fails to understand that our reading is always conditioned by the interpretive insights and faults that both we and the text inherit. Briggs thought of reading as participation in an ongoing contest to identify the truth of a text, and he understood our dependence on that generation-by-generation conflict as empowering, not hindering, our love for the text. Such a reading program subscribes to what I am calling an incarnational aesthetic.

Theologians like Briggs who saw the institution of the church as a mediator between history and faith did not solve, or dissolve, the modernist versus fundamentalist debate. Despite his turn-of-the-century notoriety, Briggs was later remembered as a conservative. The more culturally salient movement in the early decades of the twentieth century was Neo-Orthodoxy, inspired by translations of Søren Kierkegaard newly available in English and by the work of Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth. Neo-Orthodoxy doubled down on the choice between history and faith, capitalizing on its impossible tension rather than resolve it through the church’s institutional mediation. Neo-Orthodox thinkers synthesized a liberal recognition of the historical distance separating modern man from Scripture with a fundamentalist insistence on the Bible’s fully and immediately binding authority. The result was a mode of reading that acknowledged, with the liberals and against the fundamentalists, the historicity of the Bible and the non–self-evident nature of its truth. But with the fundamentalists and against the liberals, Neo-Orthodox readers declared the gulf between the infinite and the finite unbridgeable, and saw that gulf as compelling an utterly personal, utterly impossible leap of faith.

This interpretive mode of urgent impossibility, steeped in Kierkegaardian irony and paradox, circulated from theologians to literary scholars through journals like John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review and T.S. Eliot’s Criterion. Neo-Orthodoxy gained ground at a crucial moment for the self-definition of academic literary study. In a landmark 1937 essay, “Criticism, Inc.,” Ransom argued for English departments to free themselves from disciplinary self-justifications that relied on history or ethics. Poetry was an anguished ontological wrestling, not a window into the past or a lesson in virtue.2323xJohn Crowe Ransom, “Criticism, Inc.,” Virginia Quarterly Review 13, no. 4 (Autumn 1937), https://www.vqronline.org/essay/criticism-inc-0. The postwar boom in university enrollment made close, ahistorical reading a highly efficient method for teaching roomfuls of students who hadn’t been schooled in Horace’s influences on Milton. Given the nature of the text as transcendent, its mysteries translatable only by the critics, the bureaucratic institution where those critics encountered the text was seen as fallen. The university was a worldly, necessary evil, and the critic needed to protect literature (that palpable, mute fruit) from campus politics and the strife of the world beyond.

Again, New Historicists and ideology critics of the 1980s made it their business to point out the self-interest of the claims of universalism and timeless paradox that had propped up a lily-white canon. If their work represented the leading edge of the second, cultural secularization, what we are seeing now, in work by literary critics like Rita Felski, Caroline Levine (Forms, 2015), Jane Bennett (Vibrant Matter, 2010), and Michael Saler and Joshua Landy (The Re-enchantment of the World, 2009) is a predictable swing back toward enchantment. The New Historicists had insisted that we read Shakespeare or Melville in light of the material conditions of the production of his works. Their successors (the New New Critics, we might call them) aim to return us to the wonder of a singular encounter with a text that we apprehend as if unmediated by time. None of these latest critics deny the text’s position in a web of historical context. But in their hands, that context itself becomes aestheticized, a conflict-free zone of cultural associations, not a hotly contested field (as Briggs would have it) where the power to make truth claims is fought over. In many respects, this is a valuable argument; in many cases, historicist criticism did become rote and reductive. But this drive to rehabilitate an aesthetic of transcendence overlooks the possibility of an aesthetic of incarnation that would allow us to see natality and action—the emergence of art into a political scene, and the human speech that keeps it on the scene—as the forces that make perishable art last forever.

The Fight Ends in a Draw

Again, although Jon Baskin urges that art is not bound by time, and Ben Lerner laments that art is compromised by time, both share a belief that art’s enchantment exists without rather than within history. Their claims express the same kind of love of literature, but one is hopeful and the other disappointed. I agree that we may, on extraordinary occasions, fall in love with art in a single shattering experience. Something in a text has to jolt our vision or arrest our attention if it is to make us want to share it with others. That is a love, however, that we can sustain only by recognizing our experience as part of a long line of such experiences. Our enchantment is produced by the artwork’s unexpected debut in the world, its natality. But the artwork’s enchantment is sustained only by our talking, teaching, writing, and fighting about it. Art’s life lives in human communities and therefore in history.

William Faulkner, whose work explicitly reckons with the gravitational field of history, provides an image in Absalom, Absalom! of a perishable art that endures by being transmitted from person to person. Its fragility is a greater achievement than the timeless monument because every part of its transmission is subject to death, time, and history. A “block of stone cant be is because it never can become was because it cant ever die or perish,” but a “scrap of paper” could outlast itself by changing those whose hands it passes through, even if they don’t understand it. Even a “scratch” is an event, something that “happened” and can “be remembered” so long as it “pass[es] from one hand to another, one mind to another.” Such a text “might make a mark on something that was once for the reason that it can die someday.”2424xWilliams Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (New York, NY: Vintage, 1987), 158. First published 1936. The only action that can count as a second birth, to return to Arendt’s language, is taken by those who will die, and who depend on others to sustain their action. In that way, art makes history.

When speech attains the status of what Arendt calls action (not just life-sustaining work, or utilitarian labor), it is a profoundly revelatory act, but it is also political; it is how we know that each one of us is equal, able to understand one another and to imagine a common future, but also distinct from one another, needing to make ourselves understood. Action makes possible a “space of appearance” that produces a heightened awareness and vision of one another that is like the condition Baskin and Lerner believe that art produces, or used to produce. In the space of appearance, we “exist not merely like other living or inanimate things but make [our] appearance explicitly.” And though we cannot “live in it all the time,” “to be deprived of it means to be deprived of reality.” Anything else “comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own”—a perfectly private love—“but without reality.” Finally, it takes power—the power we invest in institutions—to make it stick: “Without power, the space of appearance brought forth through action and speech in public will fade away as rapidly as the living deed and the living word.”2525xArendt, The Human Condition, 198–99, 199, 204. The universities that taught Baskin and Lerner how to talk about art (or how not to talk about it), the journals and magazines across whose pages they accuse each other, are necessary, not a necessary evil.

My argument against the fear of historicism is that the transcendent remains transcendent even when it is incarnate. Petrarch apparently never got his hands on Laura, and we are lucky for the poetry he wrote about his thwarted desire. But Thomas had to stick his hand in Jesus’s wound to believe that the spiritual could be material too. We are also lucky that the disincarnate is only one sort of love. Historicism loves the incarnate. If we do want to resist the cultural secularization of the present moment—if we are to maintain the possibility that art can baffle capitalism’s instrumentalizing of every last minute of our lives—then we need historicism to help us appreciate art as incarnation.

Lerner, in “The Media,” suggests that the artist’s work is, “or was,” to make visible “a spirit [that] is at work in the world, or was.”2626xLerner, “The Media.” His unwillingness to affirm that task in the present looks cowardly to Baskin. Yet Lerner speaks longingly of the possibility of transcendent poetry, of how we wish in the face of a bad poem for a form that is “irreducibly individual” yet fully present to a collective across time and space.2727xLerner, The Hatred of Poetry, 29. Historicism can help readers recognize art as bound by the same conditions that bind us all: born into a particular political and social scene, driven by the desire for recognition and compensation for our labor. Those conditions do not determine art. But they shape art’s expression, whether through confrontation, evasion, or other means. Reading literature in its historical context helps us recognize that art is powerful not only because it speaks to us now but because it tried to act in the world into which it emerged. We love art because it acted then and still acts now, and because we know that it meant something to readers who preceded us. We make it possible for readers who come after us to love it, too, if we give that art a life in our words and institutions.