Western Civ Rah-Rah

The Canon

Richard Jenkyns believes that, although a "canon" of literary works is necessary in providing us with a stock of appropriate "shared references," such a canon does not have to be exclusively "high cultural."

It is surely vain to suppose that poorly educated and disaffected young Asians can be brought to a stronger sense of belonging in Britain by a diet of Hamlet, Middlemarch and the Psalms. The truth is that shared references and resonances mostly need to evolve naturally, that most of them derive from popular culture, and that many of them are like family jokes. Television has had enormous power as a unifier; this power is now declining with the proliferation of channels and new media, but in their time Morecambe and Wise did more than Milton and Wordsworth to make us feel one people. (Prospect)

The obvious flaw in this argument comes from that "in their time." The accomplishments of Morecambe and Wise notwithstanding, the ultimate point of a canon is that it includes "shared references" that are timeless, not merely of unifying value in a particular historical era. Unless future generations will likely value Morecambe and Wise as much as those "in their time" did (although, who knows, maybe they will), there seems little point in enshrining them in a "canon," which will only come to seem as much an imposition on the tastes of those later generations as Milton and Wordsworth.

(I'd love to see Monty Python's Flying Circus become canonical, but something tells me that 50 years from now not everyone will find the show quite as bracingly funny as I did when first exposed to it in the mid-1970s. To in effect insist that it is that funny by enshrining it in a canon would not accomplish much.)

Jenkyns correctly locates the origin of our notions of a canon in the deliberations of the Church over which Biblical texts deserved its official sanction, but he doesn't really much discuss the two primary purposes for which the concept of the canon has been adapted to secular culture: to help enhance "national greatness" and to create academic curricula. (Sometimes the two projects overlap.) A canon of great writers focuses attention on the cultural accomplishments a country can claim, the contributions it has made to "culture" and "literature" on a broader, global scale. (Thus, say, Great Britain can claim that "its" poetry is perhaps the greatest any nation has produced.) It also allows the academic study of literature to claim for itself a "subject" of study. "Literature" as a disembodied category of "great writing" is unsustainable as the foundation of a curriculum of study; a semi-official list of sufficiently great writers and texts to justify their inclusion in a prescribed set of courses is needed to give literary studies the status of a "discipline," the core elements of which students will be expected to master.

Because I've never been able to accept the assumptions behind either of these impulses to canon-building, I've never invested much energy in defending the canon against its supposed enemies, those identified by Harold Bloom as the "School of Resentment." Although I agree with Bloom that much of the hostility directed at canonical writers is misplaced and counterproductive, I can't see that preserving the canon in its pre-Theory/Cultural Studies form is either possible or desirable. I have enough regard for most of the texts usually invoked as canonical that I think they will continue to attract readers without the need to place them in a pre-established hierarchy that only invites efforts to divest them of their privileged status, from whatever angle of skepticism or resentment.

Most of the efforts to "interrogate" the canon over the past two decades have not really questioned the need for hierarchy in organizing literary study. Indeed, the focus of much canon-busting has been on making room for other texts, sometimes on replacing existing canonical works with those deemed worthy for other than traditionally defined "literary" qualities. (In some cases, non-canonical works, such as Their Eyes Were Watching God, were shown to have such qualities despite their previous neglect.) The canon was altered or reconceived, not abandoned. Canonization, it would seem, continues to be "socially useful," as Jenkyns explicitly puts it, while the idea of literature as something that mostly provides "shared references and resonances"--or at least should be made to do so--is further reinforced.

If all "great books" can do is allow us to resonate with one another, then I don't think finally abandoning the canon altogether would do much harm. It might do literature a great deal of good, if we can then more profitably think of reading it as a particular kind of experience the ultimate reward of which lies in the experience itself and can't be reduced to its political utility or its role in the academic curriculum. Jenkyns himself, in discussing the popularity of Jane Austen, convincingly maintains that literary works survive through a kind of bottom-up process whereby authors and books appeal over time through their "actual merits." This kind of informal canonization should be enough to keep the greatest books in circulation, while whatever "shared references" they also encourage are references that persist because they're really worth sharing.


David Gessner observes:

As the 150th anniversary of "Walden" approaches on August 9, it may pay to remember that Thoreau's great book also has its share of fart jokes, including references to Pythagrians and their love of beans. Bad puns, too, but you get the feeling that that isn't what the anniversary party is going to focus on. Instead the same, tired old cut-out of Thoreau as nature saint will be dragged out, St. Francis of Concord, our sexless -- and increasingly lifeless -- hero. It makes you wonder if anyone's actually taken the time to read his strange and wild book lately. If they did they would find sentences that fulfill Emerson's epigram: "My moods hate each other." Sentences that are, in turn, defensive and direct, arch and simple, upright and sensual, over-literary (even for the times) and raw. Of course I'm not claiming that Thoreau's book is free of nature reverence, just that the pious tone is often contradicted -- delightfully, thornily -- by moments like his confession that, for all his reasoned vegetarianism, "I could sometimes eat a fried rat with good relish, if it were necessary."

In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that not many people, including most nature writers, have "taken the time to read [Thoreau's] strange and wild book lately." Indeed it wouldn't surprise me to learn that few people have really read Walden at all, at least as it really is and not through the prism of a romanticized revisionism that sees the book as the kind of prissified environmental tome most people take it to be. There's plenty in it that's cranky, imperious, inflexible, and manifestly not politically correct. Most of all there's Thoreau's sometimes dense and allusive style: "I would fain say something, not so much concerning the Chinese and Sandwich Islanders, as you who read these pages, who are said to live in New England; something, about your condition, especially your outward condition or circumstances in this world, in this town, what it is, whether it is necessary that it be as bad as it is, whether it cannot be improved as well as not. I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Brahmins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach; or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of the tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars--even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness."

This hardly seems the sort of thing one would now expect of the tea-sipping kind of nature writing Gessner describes, writing that seeks to describe nature in translucent language and dulcet tones and that seeks to elevate the scenery so described above the writer's own subjective perceptions. In effect, an image of Thoreau as a certain sort of nature-worshipper has replaced Thoreau the writer his texts actually present him to be.

One might say that this kind of inattention to what objectively characterizes the work of writers from the past, a failure to actually read it, is almost inevitable when these writers become known to us only--or at least mostly--through their inclusion in curricula of academic study--through being listed on course syllabi of various kinds. Familiarity with their books or plays or poems comes entirely in the "textbook" variety, although we don't necessarily read them only in literal textbooks. We read them in snippets, abridgements, condensed versions. It becomes very easy in this context for Thoreau to become the solemn nature-writer or Dickens to become the creator of Tiny Tim and other sentimental characters, or Hawthorne to become the grim chronicler of Puritanism, tags that efficiently describe them--or a version of them--and make it unnecessary to read them further.

This dilemma becomes especially acute with Shakespeare, who becomes the great Bard, the English National Treasure, the all-wise and perfect poet, and, most frequently, the measure by which we judge our qualifications to "culture." It was Shakespeare who created the most towering monuments of Culture in its pristine form, and thus the reason to read or view Shakespeare is to admire these monuments. That some people would rather not do this, especially when they're given little help in further understanding why their admiration is warranted, is perfectly understandable, this conclusion being my immediate response to a recent newspaper article explaining its author's refusal to any longer accord Shakespeare such reflexive respect.  The author is wrong in assuming that Shakespeare really doesn't have anything to say to him, at least in my view, but it's hard to deny that the general assumption shared by too many of those who highly value Shakespeare is that one should esteem the plays because, well, just because one should.

Since the dominant attitude toward canonical literature among those who would otherwise be entrusted with educating readers or playgoers in the appropriate strategies for appreciating literature--that is, in the academy--has actually become a skeptical if not belligerent one, this situation will only get worse. The culture mavens will continue to insist on the spiritually pharmaceutical properties of Literature, and the professors will continue to use the snippets and abridgements to advance whatever preconceived agendas they have in mind.

Yet at some point it does become necessary to acknowledge that perhaps some writers, perhaps some great writers, just no longer engage present-day readers as effectively as they seem to have done in the past. Perhaps people no longer read Walden because its voice seems too alien, too prickly, for current sensibilities. Perhaps even the time will come when overcoming all the obstacles to understanding Shakespeare in his own language and according to the appropriate literary conventions will become too difficult, at least for all but the few. Neither insisting on the greatness of these writers nonetheless, nor attempting to reinterpret or literally retranslate them into contemporary idioms and assumptions will forestall this for long. It is true that we live in a time when any kind of difficult or unorthodox writing is often decried as an offense to the "common reader," and it is possible that at some time in the not so distant future such writing will again be welcomed. At that time the difficulties involved in reading works of literature from the past might again be seen as worth the effort as well. But there is effort involved, and it remains an open question whether "literary reading," as it was called in the recent NEA report, will ever really be an interest shared by more than a small, if ardent, minority. And, if not, whether this would be such a bad thing.


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