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Aiming the Canon

In a recent piece for The Guardian, Sean O’Brien tells how a young acquaintance pertly announced her dislike of T.S. Eliot at a dinner party to the groans of her elders.  The anecdote is supposed to illustrate the sort of ignorance that comes from abandoning the idea of canon in the study of English literature – though one notes that if the student in question disliked Eliot so much she can’t be entirely ignorant of him, which is an oblique homage to the notion of canon (at least Eliot makes the required reading list).  But not all educated persons go into raptures over The Waste Land.  And it’s not this young woman’s mere dislike of Eliot that so rankles O’Brien as her apparent inability to appreciate the referential context within which Eliot wrote, and which he presumed of his readers:

What saddens me is that, when my friends’ daughter reads Eliot, material that had remained until recently common property among educated people – for example, biblical allusion – is a closed book to her, a difficulty that seems to offer her attention no reward.

Biblical allusion is only a single element, of course (O’Brien might as easily have picked Shakespearean allusion), but if there’s a price to pay for the loss of canon, it begins to make itself felt in examples like this.  The fracturing of critical theory into blinkered, politicized ideologies which began in the 1970s (and gave us term papers with titles like ‘Femino-Marxist Critiques of Manga in Translation’ and graduate students ignorant of Chaucer and Milton) is ripe for fresh consideration.  Whether one thinks it laudable or lamentable, it can hardly be denied that all the frenzied sparring and self-loathing that began with the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism has resulted in a devaluing of the Western cultural inheritance, and nowhere more so than among its natural heirs.

Which is not to say that the idea of canon has unequivocally died the death.  The canon in English literature (as a flexibly-delineated, semi-authoritative set of culturally and aesthetically definitive texts) continues to eke out a sort of half-life, either as an object of derision and forensic inquiry among the post-modernly enlightened, or of hushed devotion in the academic backwaters of provincial liberal arts colleges.  The canon haunts us like the religion of our childhood: we either embrace or reject it, but cannot ignore it altogether.

Or can we?  Successive generations raised outside the Church will eventually lose the context of religious reference that defined the lives of their forebears.  Perhaps succeeding generations of undergraduates schooled without the idea of canon –who then go on to become professors and teach as they were taught– really can raise a bulwark of forgetfulness high enough to delete all memory of the grand context.  Can we expect the proposition that “all books are not created equal” to sound compelling to those taught to judge and value literature through the subjective application of identity politics? How can the idea of canon seem anything but trivial and arbitrary to those who were never taught that it made claims upon them?  As O’Brien puts it:

The word “relevance” looms – that contemporary fetish, so often brandished to mitigate ignorance and justify a failure of curiosity.

Of course, the question of relevance is bound to plague any student of literature in a world governed by science and commerce.  Some dozen years ago I emerged from one of those liberal arts backwaters respectably schooled in the canon, but with enough critical theory to feel vaguely guilty about it.  The question of the relevance, or applicability, of my studies was raised in particularly acute fashion one semester when I was enrolled in a course on Arthurian Literature.  We read Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, Le Morte d’Arthur (of course), some Tennyson, and, as a sort of foil and for comic-relief, Don Quixote.  (Really, the professor should have assigned T.H. White’s Once and Future King, but that’s another story.)  One day in the middle of his lecture, our professor suffered an apparent breakdown and almost with tears in his eyes put it bluntly to us: “Why in hell are we reading these things?  Are these books really proper objects of study?  What’s the point?  And if we can’t justify studying something like Arthurian Literature, how do we justify the study of literature at all?”  We spent the rest of the period in frank soul-searching, but our answers were unpersuasive; none matched the force of the questions themselves.

Eventually, after college, I came round to an answer that satisfied me, and which, I think, gets to the same idea behind O’Brien’s call for a return to the canon: We study literature and and honor the canon because it makes us participants in a grand inheritance, possessors of a tradition that is singular and precious.  Our great authors of the past (as our artists, composers, philosophers, etc.) worked within a sort of theater constructed by a thousand hands, built up of the words and thoughts of those who had gone before them, and indeed of the entire historical, philosophical, artistic and cultural patrimony of the West.  The function of canon, and the proper function of the study of literature, is to place us within that theater, to give us a proper view of the action and make us capable of appreciating the acoustic resonances of the space.

Critical theory masquerading as enlightened political science would remove us from that theater in order to give us a vision of freedom that is theoretically unlimited but inhuman and sterile.  There is no real freedom in a vacuum.  All human truth is necessarily messy.  The great authors of our language are honored in the canon because they tell us who we are, in our strength and weakness, beauty and blemish, accomplishment and contradiction.  The canon provides a tradition of identity and so gives us a place of human freedom, a home, a natural space within which to live and breathe and flourish.  As the Scottish poet Edwin Muir once wrote: “it is tradition that nurtures enchantment.”

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