Thursday, November 10, 2005

Pope and the Canon

No, not THAT Pope nor THAT canonization ... I mean Alexander Pope and the literary canon. As I'm re-working my lecture notes on Pope, I'm struck by how surprising it is that Academe still tolerates him. Pope always makes me laugh, but since the main thrust of his important works is to condemn things that happen to be the defining characteristics of Academe, I'm surprised more professors don't ignore him.

Take, for example, The Dunciad. At first glance, we might assume that Academe would applaud any poem puncturing dunces -- but the word "dunce" seems to have changed its meaning. When I think of a "dunce," I think of a stupid boy sitting in the corner of a one-room schoolhouse with a pointed cap on his head. A dunce in The Dunciad, though, seems to be more of a narrowly-educated pedant, unable to take a broader understanding of Knowledge. In other words, a dunce is ... a hyper-specialized professor, the very same type of person graduate schools tend to churn out intentionally. Regardless of whether Pope is right or not (and I think he is), why do we continue to teach someone who points out that we are dunces?

Or take Pope's comments on postmodernism. Well, ok, he wasn't really writing about postmodernity (unless he owned a time machine -- not an impossibility for Pope), but he may as well have. Take the opening of the fourth epistle of An Essay on Man:

Go, wiser thou! and, in thy scale of sense,
Weigh thy opinion against Providence;
Call imperfection what thou fanciest such,
Say, here He gives too little, there too much;
Destroy all creatures for thy sport or gust,
Yet cry, if man's unhappy, God's unjust;
If man alone engross not Heaven's high care,
Alone made perfect here, immortal there:
Snatch from His hand the balance and the rod,
Re-judge His justice, be the God of God.

Ouch! So Pope basically condemns the postmodern perception of truth -- a perception upon which not a few academic careers are (de) constucted. In a sense, this is not true relativism, since judgment is still possible, and opinions can be weighed against one another, but the stanza still ultimately condemns practical application of relativism.

So I like Pope, and plan to continue teaching him, but I wonder when Academe is going to realize that parts of it are condemned by Pope, mandating either a response or exile from the canon.