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Universality and Greatness

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How important is universality as a constituent of a work’s greatness?

I was thinking about this in the context of Russian Ark. I like the film, but you need at least some passing familiarity with Russian history to begin to even try to grapple with its subject matter. The film uses a fair bit of irony, with the irony dependent on knowing events in Russian history subsequent to the times in which the film is set (that whole Great Nicholas Hall scene is a last hurrah of pre-Soviet opulence, for instance). Is it fair to expect this baseline of knowledge? Hmm.

I remember reading Ulysses in college and being told that it was much easier to “get into” the novel if you start from the first Leopold Bloom chapter (4, Calypso), as opposed to the Stephen Daedalus chapters that open the novel, and then work your way back (so you’d read chapters 4 to 6, then head back to 1 to 3). Yet those first 3 chapters are sublime pieces of literature, and once you establish some entry into Joyce’s world, the Daedalus chapters are wondrous to read; plunging straight in, though, might be torture.

Similarly, there are many novelists for whom afficionados would say “well, X is their best work, clearly, but you should begin with Y” – implying Y somehow is easier to access, lets you enter the writer’s worldview, and generally gives you enough background before you tackle X.

Back to Russian Ark: its aesthetic is very much akin to Tarkovsky‘s, who people see either as a film genius or cinematic Ambien or both (I recall watching Solaris and thinking, “wow, this is great” and falling asleep minutes later). Clearly there’s no way Russan Ark will have universal appeal… and yet there’s something that says to me “this film is a fine film”. I’m thus inclined to think of universality/specificity as a quality to be measured on a separate axis from greatness: there can be both great and mediocre films and other works of art that demand a lot from the audience, and there can be both great and mediocre works of art that demand very little background knowledge.

(Taken from the the Daryl Sng blog)

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