A popular miscalculation in my view is the notion of a first and last in literature. Presumably to enhance their subject’s importance, scholars and critics have made out a writer to be the first or last of a kind. The problem is that no sooner is someone proclaimed the first, someone else comes up with an earlier specimen; and hardly has someone been pronounced a last, than somebody produces a later specimen. But what exactly is the benefit of being proclaimed a first or a last
Of course both can be claimed by groups or coteries such as, for example, the Romantics or the Moderns, in which situation a case may be made out for one or another member. But what if, say in a poet, though someone comes early but harks back to a remote precursor, can he or she be fully first? Could not the Pre-Raphaelites be made out a last or a first? Where exactly would you fit in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, both as poet and as painter? Even harder is picking the last, as nobody knows what the future may bring.
Still, what good precisely is the belonging to either of those categories? Does being an earlier writer make one a better one? Or does being a last achieve that? It may come from dubious analogy with sports, where the fastest runner or the last man or woman standing is winner of a special laurel and plaudits. But to go back to poetry, is Chaucer better than Shakespeare because his “Troilus and Criseyde” comes before Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”? Why should art be comparable to sport? Physical skill or strength is nowise comparable to spiritual and artistic preeminence.
So I think we should forget about making too much of tracking down firsts or predicting lasts. At the utmost, we may designate someone as early or late, but please, no superlatives, as they don’t represent value judgments.
Now onto another subject that we may call exclusivism—making someone’s name notable for departing from the norm. By which I mean a Megan calling herself Meghan or Megyn, as some of them, still not necessarily unique, will do. It catches the attention when read, but matters not a whit in pronunciation. To be different, you must almost be African American—they come up with often ingenious or amusing first names, but these do not automatically make the bearer more interesting, let alone worthier.
But for vanity, nothing seems to register as more prestigious than an unusual spelling. For me, perhaps the worst offender is Rachael for the good, traditional Rachel. It is clearly derived from the second syllable in Hebrew Michael (godlike) whose pronounced diphthong shifted to the first syllable in English, yet retained the spelled difthong, unpronounced as such, in the second syllable. But Rachel (Hebrew for a ewe, i.e. gentle as) never had a diphthong either in Hebrew or in English.
Of course, the peculiarity stems usually from what was chosen by the parents, out of pretension or ignorance, but a sensible daughter ought to legalize and espouse Rachel, the established, traditional spelling. Is a zebra going to subtract a stripe or a cat going to adopt an additional whisker. Even if born with a sixth toe? These things are not like cars or sewing machines, where a newer model is likely to be superior to an older one.
Next, critical overpraise. Why do so many reviews approve of, or even rave about, shows that I find despicable? Is it that they cater to their editors’ stated or unstated wishes, in order to get more lucrative advertising? Or is it simply a matter of bad taste or low expectations? To be sure, positive reviews appeal to hoi polloi, whereas my allegedly elitist discriminations merely exclude and annoy them. Well, I can’t help being a minority voice, but why shouldn’t that minority earn a place among all the other minorities that are welcomed under our multicultural auspices?
What if we blend in with Toms and Dicks, but not with Harrys? Or not even with all the Toms? Somewhere or other lurk our semblables, our frères.
Finally, let us consider “Death and the Maiden,” the popular name of one of Schubert’s quartets, whose second movement is variations on an earlier Schubert song of that title, to a poem by Matthias Claudius? Think of all the versions of “Death and the Maiden” in the theater and on the big screen, most recently the 1990 drama by the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, as political as it is psychological.
What I am after is why the maiden? Why not death and the young man or boy or male infant? What is so special about the maiden? Well, something is: her beauty, her fragility, her tenderness, her vulnerability--why should they be doomed? She ought to be the most precious, the most protected form of humankind, and thus in loss the most tragical. Thus also with other dangers, such as that of the damsel in distress, lost, for instance, in the London fog in a Gershwin musical.
Granted all that is changed now, what with feminism and ERA, shattering of glass ceilings, enlistment of women even for combat, same sex marriage and legalization of every form of consensual sex? If chivalry is no longer, independent of questions of first and last, considered by most women as patronizing or condescending, there will no longer be a seat on a crowded bus or subway offered to a woman, or a door held open for her, we will find we can live not only without it, but also without overwhelming interest in where and when it began, and none whatever in when and where it may end. We will have yet another example of the rather supererogatory nature of the quest for the first and the last.