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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn