Literature and the Present Tense
Warning: the following thoughts are not completely coherent or organized.
A former student, now a freshman in college, contacted me the other day asking about whether or not she should use the present tense in the essay she’s writing for class.
I said yes, and gave her some examples.
And then I began to think about how strange it is that we say things like: “Emily Dickinson urges us to approach reality with care in her poem ‘Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant'” or “Homer challenges prevailing notions of war in The Iliad” or “Dostoevsky confronts the problem of evil like no other writer.”
Urges, challenges, confronts.
We say that these people do these things, now — even though we know they stopped doing things at all hundreds or sometimes thousands of years ago. The University of Richmond’s Writer’s Web and many other sources call this mysterious grammatical custom “The Literary Present”.
Why is that?
Why do we use the present tense in writing about literature — especially the literature created by the long-dead?
It’s a question that continually perplexes (and confuses) my high school students. Essay after essay, they slip into the past tense no matter how many times I tell them otherwise. For so many of them, practical and down-to-earth as they are, literary authors remain irrevocably entombed in the past – in the coffins of Romanticism and Realism and Colonialism et al. “Ilibagiza told her readers to forgive” and Shakespeare “used really complicated words” and that random poet “showed a sad tone.”
I think that for many of my students, Dickinson is always that weird lady in white from Massachusetts obsessed with death and dashes. Homer is a Greek or Roman guy (we can’t remember) who wrote about Brad Pitt – er – the Achille’s heel. And Dosto-who?
In some sense, aren’t they right? Why do we treat them like they are alive when they very clearly are not?
If you google “the literary present” you will find that lots of websites claim you should use the present tense when referring to art or literature, but not when you refer to historical events or scientific things.
But really –
Michaelangelo created his Pieta sometime back in 1499 and Charles Dickens published the final chapters of Great Expectations in 1861.
These things are no less historical events than Colombus sailing the ocean blue in 1492 and Martin Luther beginning the Protestant Reformation in 1517. (Thank you, Dr. Hansen, for forever ingraining these dates in my memory.) And yet we talk about how Michaelangelo decides to create a youthful Mary and Dickens illustrates the abject material and moral poverty of his time.
So why is it that art – and, most particularly, literary art – earns a special place in the “eternal present” while the conquests of Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Ghengis Khan do not?
It’s not even as though art always lasts, as Shelley reminds us in his famous “Ozymandias”:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. (Shelley – full poem here)
I don’t think the ironic transiency of the poem itself was (is?) lost on Shelley, either.
And I’m not sure that survival alone earns literary works the honor of inhabiting the present tense, while the impressive Pyramids of Egypt, Great Wall of China, and continual influence of ancient Indo-European languages remain embedded in the past tense of history.
If you think I’ve got the answer… well, I don’t. That’s really why I’m writing about this. Why do you think we enforce this strange custom?
This is my experience. In college, I wrote about Flannery O’Connor like she was sitting right next to me (or, more probably, gazing skeptically over my shoulder). I read Augustine’s Confessions in high school and found myself constantly forgetting that he was some old saint from the 4th century. As I child I heard C. S. Lewis’ voice resonating in my ears: “I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia” (The Silver Chair).
For me, these people were there.
Better yet, they are here.
They are speaking now, to me, in this moment, as I lie on my couch under my blankets and type at the bright Macbook screen. Just as they spoke to me years ago. Just as they spoke to their first readers. Just as they whispered to the type writer, the blank page, the fresh parchment, the scribe.
And somehow we know this and therefore require our students to speak of them in the eternal present tense.
I can’t help but wonder if all this may have something to do with God being “I am”?