My recent re-reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy was followed closely by a start on Augustine’s City of God, a work similar in both scope and topic, though certainly not in style. What really strikes me about De Civitate Dei, the Commedia, and other such works more than anything else is their thoroughness. They took a topic, a style, and an intent, and seemingly exhausted them. So much so that any later attempt to cover the same literary ground feels either like an amateur imitation or a quasi-pedantic bit of errata.
John Milton, for instance, intended to supplant Dante as the greatest religious poet. While his Paradise Lost stands quite well on its own, it cannot hold a candle to the Comedy. Dozens of Homeric imitations led to the rise of the epic as a genre, but none of them have come close to the brilliance of the Iliad and Odyssey. (Well, Virgil’s Aeneid comes close, but he is the only one who does.) Many is the playwright who has groaned in frustration at the attempt of saying anything new about human nature after Shakespeare.
And of course, all of Western philosophy is merely a footnote to Plato.
Could somebody write a City of God for today, with all the anti-pagan apologetics switched out with contemporary concerns? Arguably the apologetic has been reasonably updated ever since the Counter-Reformation, but who can match Augustine’s scope, philosophical depth, and spiritual insight in the second part of the book? Maybe only Thomas Aquinas, who himself wrote a work that nobody has been able to replicate or update (sorry, Mr. Calvin).
This isn’t an advertisement for the “Great Books” programs, although most of these Unrepeatable Books end up on such lists. Many of the Great Books were well-imitated and improved upon in later times, and even those that weren’t lack the thoroughness of Dante and Augustine. It is not hard to imagine improving upon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, for example.
It is an interesting question: Which books from the last century or two will be considered Unrepeatable in later times? Will future generations treat Infinite Jest as the epitome and summation of the postmodern novel, slowly forgetting all others? Will The Lord of the Rings survive as the ur-text of subcreational fantasy literature at the expense of the rest? Will Joseph Conrad have a place? Jane Austen? Willa Cather? T.S. Eliot? I wonder if these questions can only be answered after all attempts to replicate their work fail. Some might have thought that The Song of Roland was Unrepeatable, but the variety of great Roland/Orlando-centric romances in later centuries certainly proved otherwise.
Will we ever find or decide upon the perfect, Unrepeatable example of the Catholic Novel? Would it be Brideshead Revisited? The Betrothed? Kristin Lavansdatter? Diary of a Country Priest? Morte D’Urban? Maybe we’re too close to the writing of these novels to decide, just yet. Or maybe it has yet to be written. The experience of Catholics living in post-Catholic times is one that many feel has not yet been explored to its depths.
Only time will tell. Time, and the continued hard work of digging into human experience through the medium of fiction.