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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

One People

Posted by Daniel Green on 12/18/07 at 11:00 AM

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 exlusively “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.

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 asssumptions 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 heirarchy 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 heirarchy 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.


It seems Jenkyns merges two issues I tend to consider separately: (a) the canon of Great Culture, and (b) the body of “cultural literacy” that binds groups together.  Those two Venn diagram sets overlap but aren’t coterminous.

Hirsch’s infamous cultural literacy list spanned high and low culture, tho with a clear favoring of the high.  Still, compared to one of the Blooms, Hirsch’s list is amazingly democratic.  Alternative lists have been proprosed (see Eugene Provenzo’s *Critical Literacy: What Every American Ought to Know*) that gathered from a more pluralistic body of materials.

As Daniel writes in his last paragraph, the reduction of great literature to some basic sense of “shared culture” only serves to lessen the greatness and complexity of the literature.  Many of the critiques of Hirsch’s list similarly observed that his curriculum for K-8 students is a mile wide and an inch deep, insofar as he seemed to urge teaching only for allusions and not for complex understanding.  (I don’t think Hirsch actually was pressing for such a reductive education, but I can see how the first readers of *Cultural Literacy* could reach that conclusion.)

By on 12/18/07 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not to state the completely obvious, but how can we talk about the broader social function of the process of canonization (as opposed to its purpose within literature as a discipline) without talking about class? The canon represents the reification of ‘culture’ as class shibboleth – those works with which a ‘well-educated’ person is supposed to be acquainted. The appeal to what is ‘timeless’ rather than time-bound seems superfluous to me. (Not to mention that this notion of ‘timelessness’ has itself been rapidly truncated over the last hundred-odd years; with the shedding of the requirement that a well-educated person know Greek and Latin, the canon doesn’t stretch back much beyond the Renaissance at the very earliest, and seems to have its centre of gravity sometime around the early or mid-C19.)

Semi-relatedly, a broader disciplinary perspective might be of value here. If you look at e.g. philosophy or music, the creation of ‘national’ canons has been much less important than in literature – in these disciplines one can still talk of *the* canon or tradition. The problem with these canons is their gross Eurocentrism – and their very lack of national specificity has made them more resistant to critique in these terms.

By on 12/18/07 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s even more truncation of “timeless” than that. The “everyone” who was supposed to know Latin and Greek included (very nearly) only wealthy men, and these men in turn were far stronger in Latin than in Greek. Only in the nineteenth century did the Greek classics prevail over the Latin—only then, for example, was Virgil recognized as much inferior to Homer. In Samuel Johnson’s life of Pope, Virgil and Homer are contrasted as equals—and Homer is the easiest Greek available; it’s not certain that Johnson could have easily navigated his way through Aeschylus.

In Disraeli’s CONINGSBY there’s a lot of talk about how classical education is not worth that much in practical life—not surprising from a politician, but a good example of how thin commitment to the canon was, even in the educated classes.

The most recent issue of the NEW YORKER points out that people are reading less, willy-nilly, in part because of internet distractions like this. The whole idea of canonicity seems to be fading away.

By on 12/22/07 at 04:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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