One of the charges brought against classic literature by the champions of “YA” (note the jargonistic use of the acronym)–“Young Adult”–books that have been the subject of recent comments on my blog–is that the classics aren’t “relevant.” They don’t “speak” to modern people. I thought about these remarks when I was out in California visiting my ailing father.
He was taken to the hospital because he couldn’t sleep. For almost five weeks this went on–he would sit down and maybe take a short catnap and then he was up again pacing the floor, all day, and all night. He seems almost to have feared the night, knowing he would face it, sleepless, again. He would sleepwalk and even hallucinate. The doctors prescribed drugs, but to no avail: “All I want is to sleep,” he would say. Because of the hallucinations, he needed someone with him at all times, and my stepmother, as a result became as miserable as he was. The whole house was brought down by it. He finally got so worn down, he could not get himself up off the couch. Some kind of anxiety was preventing him from sleeping.
I just so happened to have packed a copy of Aeschylus’ Orestia trilogy that I had been wanting to read. I was just finishing the Brothers Karamazov and wanted something short to try on next. So I turned to the opening lines of Agamemnon, which opens with a watchman before the palace of King Agamemnon, still away at war, alone on his post, unable to sleep for anxiety about when his king would return. He asks the Gods for “some respite from the weariness” from years of lying awake:
Now as this bed stricken with night and drenched with dew
I keep, not ever with kind dreams for company:
since fear in sleep’s place stands forever at my head
against strong closure of my eyes, or any rest:
I mince such medicine against sleep failed: I sing,
only to weep again the pity of this house.
There was the lidless night. There was the fear “in sleep’s place.” There was the unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem with drugs. The watchman had a completely different reason for his anxiety, but it was anxiety nonetheless. And the words exactly captured my father’s sleepless predicament. No one could have said it better.
Now I fully believe the claims of the YA advocates: they can’t read this stuff. But it isn’t because it isn’t relevant.