The Devil, and other classics

It might be just a newspaper thing, but the urge to categorise seems to be growing stronger by the minute. If it's not Essex girl, it's Worcester Woman. If it's not the Bridget Jones of the Nineties, it's the Becky Sharp of the new millennium. If it's not the new rock'n'roll, it's this year's Thailand. We really do appear to be in need of what I suppose we must call stricter label laws. But, if anything, the making of millennial charts is giving an extra twang to this reflex. The best 100 films, the 100 best records, the best 100 plays, the 100 worst jokes: we are entangled in a hurried audit of the century we are preparing to leave behind. To a remote observer we must look like sad parents about to move house, clearing out that bottom drawer full of family snaps and taking one last fond look at the children before chucking the whole lot into the skip.

We do not have to take all these lists very seriously: they are a species of parlour game, after all. But we should not take them too lightly either. The winnowing out process by which posterity decides whom to leave behind is an important and inevitable one; and while everyone knows that it is impossible to second-guess immortality, which has whims of its own to indulge, we might as well attempt to make some conscious choices. In this newspaper Gilbert Adair is building a weekly sequence of artists (The Guillotine, page 2) who will not, in his opinion, survive the judgement of posterity. Sometimes - or perhaps often - this might jar with other people's estimation of the probabilities. That is how it should be. In medieval times lists were places where lances were tilted, and an element of merry jousting is perfectly in order as we chew over our favourite memories, and try to squeeze our belongings into a manageable suitcase.

Lists are also a sales tactic. Waterstone's has commissioned and published its own guide to recent "classics" as a sort of high-class promotion. It has asked numerous authors and editors to contribute lists, and has compiled the results into a book. It is a thoroughly entertaining exercise in humming and hawing, and it isn't too easy to pick many individual holes in the list, since it includes well over 300 books; but it is all too easy to object to the sheer immodest size of it. Are there 300 classics surviving from the 19th century? Only a specialist in the field could name so many. The really unpalatable truth about classics is that they are rare. Posterity is a tough judge.

It has never been easy to define even the books we generally agree to be classics. According to the sprightly Italian novelist Italo Calvino: "A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say." According to George Steiner it is one that "will be a little newer the day after tomorrow than it will be tomorrow". A classic, in other words, is a work of art that by some, perhaps accidental, alchemy manages to touch and agitate preoccupations so universal that they continue to seem fresh. Somehow it contrives not just to absorb new readings, but to bounce them back as if they were there already. But the conversation between the established and the contemporary is a two-way street. New books plant their feet on the shoulders of old ones, and the old ones are moulded by the footprints of the new.

One classic under threat this week was the devil. According to a Vatican pronouncement he (or she) was being downgraded from category-A offender to one who might perhaps be eligible for parole one day. It is always easy to scoff at churches when they attempt to modernise their doctrines or traditions. But is the Vatican's impulse - inspired as it was by the highly reasonable perception that some psychic disturbances once thought diabolic were simply medical disorders - anything more than the desire for a fresh translation of an old story? No one disputes that the devil is a handy metaphor for whatever we wish to think of as wicked. No one disputes, either, the need for a vivid figure to represent the dark forces that have continued to rage and roar through our blood-spattered century.

Indeed, the idea that we might burn in hell is still a pretty good description of the torments that accompany the wranglings of desire and conscience. But eternal scorching is one thing: the old idea of the devil, cloven- hoofed like a goat and with a Punch-and-Judy grin, has become comic. He'd barely frighten a child (let alone one who has seen a Schwarzenegger video). A more terrifying - that is, plausible - depiction is needed. The sad thing about today's world is that it takes art to create such profound and powerful imagery. There was a time when the Vatican could have turned to one of its servants - Michelangelo or someone - to come up with the logo. These days, the best it can manage is a press conference.