Who steals my purse steals trash.'' Iago said that; I'd like to believe it. ''Until it happens to you.'' A truism confirmed by life. Baum said that one. After the burglary.
Art may imitate life and life art, but life can also readjust art. Events in the real world may cause literary events to be reevaluated. After your house has been ransacked, the highwayman who comes riding, riding, may seem less romantic, Robin Hood takes on the trappings of an urban guerrilla; even Wordsworth's pathetic rustic, Goody Blake, who steals kindling wood in winter, may lose sympathy in the reflections that follow upon a theft.
Modern literature and criticism support the fallacy that there is no such thing as an all-out-criminal protagonist. The modern consciousness delights in the antihero, the Byronic outlaw, the existential rebel. And it is sensitive, as ''West Side Story'' put it, to those who are ''depraved on account of being deprived.''
Movies, too, support the myth. Robbers, for example, are often made attractive while the ''robbies,'' Establishment types, are often presented as deserving of their unjust deserts. ''Mere materialism,'' we are urged to conclude when valuables have been stolen; nothing valuable: No one can steal mind or soul. Thus are we eased away from considerations of morality and law and find ourselves rooting for the underdog transgressors - charming, clever ne'er-do-wells more sinned against than sinning. What is the Shakespeare canon if not a gallery of rogues, played by handsome leading men who steal thrones and kingdoms?
Nursery rhymes also support the myth, presenting social and political criticism in disguised form, or violent subject matter tranquilized by fabliaux or the soothing rhythms or trochaic tetrameter. Fairy tales too: That youngest son, the most handsome of course, driven to outlaw deeds before he wins princess and kingdom, is the victim of primogeniture - the exclusive right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son. Literature gives what is often denied in life - sympathetic explanation, mitigating circumstance, perspective, and understanding.
Willing suspension of disbelief, however, demands aesthetic distance, and this can be denied if disturbing events in the real world suddenly collide with fictional ones. Not for nothing did Aristotle require that the critical audience for drama be free of peculiarity. Art, he held, must be judged by the norm and the typically enduring, not by the distortions of particular conditions.
What does this mean for literature that is temporarily altered by adverse experience? Ironically - everything. For if the literature is strong, it will withstand the alterations of the moment; if it is weak - melodrama instead of high tragedy, mere farce in place of satire, a sensational slice of life rather than an enduring criticism of it - as Matthew Arnold suggested was the definition of Art - then it will indeed be changed.
Life is the best test of good literature, a measure not of literature's reality but of its ideality. Darkened for the moment by calamity, good literature later on incorporates adversity, makes it part of its meaning. One of the truths of great art is its ability to reveal new truths with time. Great literature is never static. Poor literature is read once - for curiosity or the nonce - but rarely reread. Great literature is enhanced by absence and temporary distortion arising from confusion with reality. It is enriched by being reborn after painful testing in the real world. It moves then from being admired to being cherished.