Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Building a Canon

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.


  1. It's utterly unsurprising to me that your students reacted that way. When you have teachers and professors all through your school career telling you, "You must read this! It is Important! It is Literature! It doesn't matter if you don't like it! That's not the point! It should shatter your world! It's YOU who's the problem if you don't like it! You kids today!" you're not going to engender a lot of rethinking the canon. For most students, most people, The Canon IS some carved stone tablet highlighted in the blood of cute little bunnies, inviolate and unassailable. Despite their own protestations, I think the view of Bloom and his fellow old fogies that there is a definitive list of Great Works containing The Eternal Verities is the dominate one.

    My own view is that, yes, I have authority over my own vision of The Canon, but my views are of no account to the received Canon. They're just inconsequential mumblings about how overrated/underrated some books are. (Wow! Bitter much? *LOL*)

  2. Scott,

    What?!? You wouldn't pick the Silmarillon?

    What's wrong with you?

    And, apart from their view of assessing canoncity, had they read the work? (ah, cynical me).


  3. I have to agree with you regarding the foundational Canon (KJV, Homer, Aristotle). I would naturally add Plato, actually The Republic is probably number one on my list of non-religious texts.

    As to Frank's comments regarding Bloom (don't know if he is referring to Allan or Harold Bloom, not that it matters for his point which is poignant), I think he overestimates how much Bloom (either one) thinks the Canon is etched in stone. Allan would argue that a canon should be something that challenges young people to question the assumptions of the day rather than one that feeds them. Harold believes in an evolving Canon which is affected by the zeitgeist and continues to grow and change. Rarely are books dropped completely from the Canon, but new is added all the time.

    I personally prefer Eliot's view (T.S.) that the Canon is a dialogue. The new is always in discussion with the old, either as addition to or reaction against. Some of the best poetry/art is a rejection of things past, but even rejections are improved when grounded in an understanding of the thing they reject. Thus for me the Canon is dynamic, rather than static, and additive. Some books may wane in importance for a time (Jane Austen's Persuasion or Cooper's Deerslayer), but they are a part of the dialogue.

    The "literary" quality of a book matters to me, but so does the role the work played in its time or how well it represents that age.

  4. King James Version? Wow, when you say "canon," you really bring out the big guns -- the real canon!