On Monday, I asked my medieval lit class about Andreas Capellanus's Art of Courtly Love. Specifically, I asked them if it was literary, if it was a work of literature. The reason I asked was that when I first encountered the work, I thought it was sub-literary. It seemed to me a treatise of little literary value in its own right, of importance only insofar as it allows us to read other texts. Over time my opinion has changed, and in my most recent reading, I was struck by just how literary it is.
The question was not meant to be a stumper; rather, it was to be an appetizing little opener before we got to all the meaty stuff about love and sight and suffering. I figured I would have half the class arguing that it is not literary, and the other half arguing that it is. In fact, what happened was a single student took a position, and the rest dodged the question. I pressed them, and soon I came to understand that they did not believe they have a role in Canon formation.
As I dwelt on it this evening, I realize that their reaction could be the sign of a deep failure in their education -- a failure in which I myself am implicated. They seem to understand their position as mere consumers of the Canon, an inert object that they devour in their reading. As they consume it, some understand that they are transformed by it, gaining insight or wisdom, or perhaps just models for their own creative writing. All that is well and good. Unfortunately, they do not seem to understand just how they themselves transform the Canon, and how they shape it.
I remember my senior seminar project. We were asked to argue for the most important work in the Canon. I picked Moby Dick -- though I can't remember why, and I certainly wouldn't pick it again today. I remember being enamored of its overt symbolic quality in those days. In any case, by the time I came to the end of my undergraduate education I had enough of a sense of my role in Canon formation as to have opinions regarding it. [In case you are wondering, I'd pick the KJV Bible today. If limited to non-sacred texts, I'd probably pick something like Aristotle's Poetics or Homer's Iliad].
As far as I could tell, this was the first time these students had been asked questions of canonicity, by me or anyone else. They seemed surprised by the idea that they had any authority at all for deciding what is literary and what is not. Since I wasn't prepared for them to react in that way, I stumbled around for a bit, then briefly suggested that each of them has a role in the Canon. Even if they haven't got the weighty ethos of their professors to speak to the subject, they surely have some authority. I don't think I got the point across.
Now it is too late to re-work the class, but I think in the future I'll try to make a point of asking them what is literary (or not) about the various works we read. If they leave my class still under the misconception that there's a magical, transcendant list entitled "Great Works of Literature" engraven in stone somewhere, I'll be ashamed.