Monday, March 20, 2006

On Literary Canonization

Because of a sick child we are suddenly NOT going to the beach today, so I find I have time to write a more complete response to HeoCwaeth's post about canonization of medieval women writers. If you haven't read it (or the rest of her blog), you should, as she's quite thoughtful. I hope to meet her at K'zoo this year, though as she's a pseudonymous blogger, I might not know I'm meeting her (or, perhaps I already know her and just don't know it)!

I think the crux of our disagreement can be found about midway through her post, when she writes:
There are a number of reasons I consider women writers of the medieval period necessary to any study of the literature, regardless of their ability to write "beautifully."

Here I see a set of assumptions that practically demand HeoCwaeth and I disagree. She sees the inclusion of medieval women writers into the Canon as the central issue, whereas I see the inclusion of works by said writers into the Canon as the central issue.

In shorthand, we often refer to works by their author's names, so we might say generally "Shakespeare" is in the Canon, though, in fact, that's simply our own (meaning mine too) sloppy usage. What we mean is Hamlet, King Lear, etc are in the Canon. I like Coriolanus a lot (it is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays), it would be a real stretch to say that Coriolanus is in the Canon.

Why make the distinction between the author and the work? Several reasons, I think. One reason is that the identity politics in play in the statement "what was let in the canon was almost always literature of the men, by the men, and for the men" seems to me to be the same old Intentional Fallacy, played out in the cultural Marxist milieu. Now, the study of authorial intention has a long and noble tradition, and so if you hold that meaning and value are held in the author, rather than the work, I'm just going to have to disagree with you.

Another reason, I think, is the concerns of literature rather than the concerns of history. Since I don't know HeoCwaeth, I'm not certain whether she is on the literary side of the historical side (or one of the children of the marriage of the two in historicism), but when she writes "The most important is my desire for as much information as I can get from the age, and differing voices may give me that information," I hear the concerns of a historian, not a literary scholar. Bede's account of the poet Caedmon makes clear that all the others there who also sang and composed songs. Now, while I would be interested from a scholarly perspective to see some of their compositions, I recognize that their work was ignored because it was not of the same quality as Caedmon's hymn. My job is not to present a fair cross section of medieval writing ... my job is to present a fair cross section of GOOD medieval writing. Perhaps others will disagree, but I recognize my own mortality and feel cheated when I have to read something that I don't find very good. When HeoCwaeth "was, at first, a little astonished that any mention of medieval women writers (pro or con) would come up in a post about a medieval woman warrior," I think we see a fundamental difference in our assumptions. Someone says "medieval women" and I immediately think of medieval women writers, since I'm a lit guy. To a historian, that must seem a non sequitur, but to lit folks, it should seem the natural association.

HeoCwaeth also raises some points about how we determine what is "beautiful" writing. That's not just a whole other can of worms -- that's a huge barrel of worms too large to include in this already over-sized post. If any non-academic readers want to know more about that issue, we call the study of beauty "aesthetics." Academic readers familiar with issues in aesthetics will understand why I'm skipping over this important issue.

The last important issue she raises is of one of universality. I've got to confess, after re-reading that section several times I'm still not clear on what side of the fence she lands, so my apologies in advance if I misrepresent her position.
If I understand her position, she seems to suggest that works can never be universal, only particular, and so we hit on as many particulars as possible to speak to as many students as possible.

I disagree. A LOT. Literature is always set in the particular, but the particular should give access to the universal. I've never been a god, nor am I ever likely to be unless my theology is really out of whack, but I still tap into the beauty of the Popol Vuh. I've never been a Japanese courtier, but The Pillowbook of Sei Shonagon still makes me laugh out loud at socially unacceptable moments. I've never been an exile, but Deor and The Wanderer both make me want to weep with their nearly-tangible lonliness. In other words, I've never been a woman, a very old man, a prince, a god, a barnyard animal, or an anthropomorphic rood, but I've experienced joy, disappointment, fear, desire, hatred, love, etc. If I believed that my students or I were more likely to experience those things when they were written by people who fall into arbitrarily-chosen demographic categories similar to them, I wouldn't be a student of medieval literature -- I'd be a student of contemporary American literature written by fat, bald guys.

Of course, there are other poor reasons works get canonized: Jean de Meun's tiresome continuation of the Romance of the Rose only gets pulled along behind the star of The Book of the City of Ladies. Alain de Lille's Plaint of Nature was once canonized only because of its connection to Chaucer, and now has been de-canonized for its homophobia, both rather silly reasons to include/remove it. I doubt we'd much read Cleanness and Patience if they weren't in the Pearl manuscript.

One last note on the anecdote from HeoCwaeth's undergraduate years: It is a shame that she was so poorly served by that professor, though given the quality of her thinking, he doesn't appear to have done much damage. She relates the story this way:
I'll never forget the expression on his face when I feigned epic upset at having to eliminate all those volumes of battle poetry produced at a time when only men wrote and fought from my reading list. All the political writing that centered on the upper classes had to go, too. My God, I said, even The Sorrows of Young Werther is no good because it is all about a man in love, women will never be men in love. The argument ended there.

If the professor could not claim that the literature on his syllabus did "speak to the human experience in its entirity," then he should never have included it. Literature written by men (or, more commonly in the medieval setting, anonymous literature) should be ignored if only the men "get it." I don't have time in my mortal life to read mediocre works by men, women, or anonymous authors -- and students should not have their time wasted by professors who assemble syllabi without justification. I had a similar experience in undergrad (though in that case it was a medieval lit prof who was unable to justify the study of non-contemporary lit when confronted by a frustrated student), and it still makes me angry that he was wasting our time without thinking it through.

By the way, I've never been forced to teach Salinger, and as she has, HeoCwaeth and her students have my sympathy. *shudder*

[Updated to fix a spelling error. There are probably more, but I'm too lazy to fix 'em all]


  1. Anonymous10:21 AM

    ah, "hell hath no fury," and all that. that's all I need to know.

  2. What's interesting (and surprising) to me about this disagreement is that both of you are talking about the medieval literary "canon" as if it's much more inflexible in practice than it actually is.

    Heck, even when putting together a syllabus we have enormous leeway; there's far more good stuff than we can pack into one career or one curriculum. For example, this semester I added "Havelok the Dane" to my survey course--but I could have opted to include Julian of Norwich. These and other choices can be praised or condemned for a variety of reasons--including the "ars longa, vita brevis" defense of a more conservative canon championed in the above post--but unless things have changed since my pre-adjunct grad-school days, the medieval-lit field seems fairly open to researching lesser-known works and seeing what can be done with them. So I wonder: Is there really a medieval-lit "canon," or are there merely a few canonical works and lots of gray areas?

  3. I disagree with you on several fronts, I'm afraid.

    First, the idea that it's certain works which make up the canon doesn't really seem to play out in the application. At many institutions, after all, we find courses on "Milton," "Shakespeare," and "Chaucer" in the catalogs and graduate-level exam reading lists frequently include "The complete works of XXX" as a line item.

    Second, I don't agree that literature should--or even can--be a particularity which provides access to universality. Supposed universalities usually are, after all, surprisingly non-universal. Laura Bohannon's article, "Shakespeare in the Bush," does a good job of putting paid to the idea that Shakespeare's work is universal, for example.

    Furthermore, canons are not, to my understanding, a list of works which provide access to well expressed universals. They're a list of works which the majority of people in the position to do the choosing--and yes, for a very long time, most of those people were white guys, and yes, that did have a lot to do with what made it onto the list--agree are of such importance that educated people ought to know about them.

    Much of our disagreement on these points probably has to do with our wanting different things from literature. For example, what attracts me to the medieval period is not a sense that I will be able to connect with medieval people in a truly fundamental way through their literature. I am attracted to medieval literature precisely because it is different and challenging--it does not allow me to think that the world has "always" been any particular way or that people have "always" reacted to their world in any particular way. In addition, I frequently enjoy texts which aren't just "mediocre," but actually plain awful, because they're valuable in ways that don't boil down to aesthetics.

    Which is not to say that I don't enjoy a good aesthetic. In fact, I'm surprised to learn that you dislike Julian of Norwich precisely because I find her Showings not only culturally fascinating, but also stunningly beautiful and deeply moving. And if you value attempts to express human universalities, a texts which seeks to explore the nature of the universe and our relationship to it surely counts for something?

  4. Ancrene,

    The truth is that I can't stand most of the big names in medieval Christian mysticism, be they male, female, or other. I'm not really sure why this would be, since I like a lot of mystical texts, and a lot of Christian texts. I would be surprised if someone with the word "Ancrene" in her pseudonym didn't like Christian mysticism.

    As for enjoying texts that are "actually plain awful," of course we all have our guilty pleasures. I also think professors deserve one mulligan per semester -- the right to teach one work that they cannot defend, but just love.

    And, of course, the Canon isn't as static as we've been making it out to be, as Jeff points out; it has very fuzzy edges. Things fall into and out of the Canon all the time, though the process is pretty complicated (and somewhat commercial). Perhaps "The Economics of Canon Formation" would make a good future post.

  5. Anonymous8:57 AM

    'Here I see a set of assumptions that practically demand HeoCwaeth and I disagree. She sees the inclusion of medieval women writers into the Canon as the central issue, whereas I see the inclusion of works by said writers into the Canon as the central issue.'

    I don't think so really. Apologies in advance for 'going cosmic', but the problem is that the Canon, as such, is not a repository of fixed truths but instead is a contingent entity.

    The 'problem', as such, is the concept of 'Canonisation', which, because of the nature of the beast, is bound to represent the contingent 'truths' of any given time.

    The clamour for the inclusion of medieval women writers in the Canon is a reflex of the increasing empowerment of women in modern society - not a realignment of the concept of what 'Canon' is.

  6. Dear Prof. Nokes,

    The truth is that I can't stand most of the big names in medieval Christian mysticism, be they male, female, or other.

    That's intriguing! It sounds to me as though your gripe is with medieval Christian mysticism in general rather than with Julian as a particular and female writer?

    I would be surprised if someone with the word "Ancrene" in her pseudonym didn't like Christian mysticism.

    Ha! Well, yes, I guess that's a dead giveaway, all right. Oddly enough, though, I really don't work much with the mystics and haven't read them in years.

    I like your idea of the "mulligan text." Shameless hussy that I am, I feel almost no guilt about my hedonistic delight in certain types of plain awfulness, but I do feel bad about foisting such things on an entire class of hapless students. In that arena, it's probably best to practice a little restraint.

  7. Cappy, ::cheekpinch:: That's adorable!

    The rest of you bring up interesting points that I'll have to consider.

    But, you do get that the rood didn't actually write that poem, yes? Our opinions on the content of literature is probably a whole nother can of worms, and I make it a habit to limit my worm-cans.

  8. Anonymous11:16 PM

    I'm a little late to this - and properly speaking, as a historian, I probably don't have much ground to stand on here - but the "mulligan" text is intriguing. I actually have a hard time with the idea of the text that you can't defend but just love - on what grounds is the text to be defended? What makes a text just plain awful? (I know, it's really obnoxious of the historian to step into this morass.) I have a hard time teaching anything I can't defend for SOME reason. It's just that there are lot of texts that are "terrible," in terms of aesthetics or enjoyment, but really valuable to study nonetheless - depending on what questions you want to answer by reading them. (Which, duh, is the whole issue of the canon, which thankfully isn't really something historians have to deal with. Not quite, anywway.)

    FWIW, I don't buy the access to the universal argument, either, although I'm not critiquing it (being a historian and all!).I guess to use an example like The Wanderer - yes, it makes me feel that loneliness, BUT for me what's more significant is what causes the narrator to feel that loneliness, which is NOT universal, but specific to a particular time and place, and is completely different from my own feelings of loneliness. Sure, I can get loneliness, but I *can't* ever get loneliness caused by losing one's lord/family/connection to society in that specific way. To me, it's more valuable for telling me what made Anglo-Saxons lonely, than for being an expression of loneliness. If that makes any sense.

    Again, sorry for butting into the party late. My excuse for commenting at all is that medievalists are all pretty interdisciplinary anyway, so I get to have opinions on things I outside of my field proper. ;-)