The Loss of “the Old Unified Function”

Pointing out that Dante’s Divine Comedy is a multi-faceted work of “travel into regions which the audience could not reach but in whose existence they had a literal belief” and “a poetic expression of the current philosophy of the age” and “a religious allegory like Bunyan” and “a history of the poet” himself, C.S. Lewis illuminatingly writes:

…Much of the strength of the Comedy comes from the fact that it is performing a complex function which has since been split up and distributed among several different kinds of book…All old works of art show the same contrast to modern works, and the history of all arts tells the same miserable story of progressive specialization and impoverishment….The separation of the low-brow from the high-brow in its present sharpness is a comparatively recent thing: and with the loss of the old unified function all curb on the eccentricity of real artists and the vulgarity of mere entertainers has vanished.:”(“Dante’s Similes,” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature [Cambridge University Press, 1998], pg. 68.)”:

Here, as in so many other ways, it’s hard not to see Lewis as almost “prophetic” – though I suppose this impression is more a function of reflecting on how much further things have gone downhill since his day than on any real prescience on his part.


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