The Problem of the Canon

beautiful bookshelf design 2Lately I have been playing with lists. Partly, this grows out of my desire to read great books. And partly it grows out of attempt to catch up on the severe lack of education I received growing up. So I have been thinking about the our “canons”–the foundational books that make up our cultural literature. On Monday I played with some canonical lists of Science Fiction and Fantasy books. Last week I talked about Harold Bloom’s problematic and education book, The Western Canon, ultimately selecting out a list of books (really, a list of authors) that are a sample necessary reading for Western literature.

Because of the interesting discussion that came out of those blogs, I wanted to think a little bit about the problem of the canon. As we sit in a moment of cultural disintegration in the UK and the US–these two great nations in some collective doubt about what it means to be a popular democracy–we surely can’t be innocent in the kind of story we are telling by the stories we tell.

guillory Cultural CapitalJohn Guillory, in his 1993 Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, argued that the “canon” we pass on–the basic curriculum of the University or literary culture–is an example of “cultural capital.” The canon does not pass on merely the literature itself, but passes on a kind of social class and idea about culture and civilization. Guillory was speaking into the crises that arts and humanities curriculum found itself when it recognized that it was not just teaching students something—like books or literature or ideas—but teaching students the values of its own culture or counter-culture. Thus there were protests on campus, “Down with Western Civ!”, calling for a more multicultural or adapted curriculum.

If we are really interested in equality and diversity, then, shouldn’t we throw off the old books altogether?

No, actually. Guillory argued that there is no reason to totally uproot the curriculum of Western civilization—the canon. For when we adopt a multicultural society, we “de-racinate” the canon, uprooting it ultimately, if never totally. Even our alternative canons are rootless. We are always changing and adopting the canon, always leaving things out. I know Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and the Bible, but almost no other Greek literature—unlike an educated person a couple of hundred years ago. I’ve substituted the rest of Greek literature for other books that have emerged as important over the last few centuries.

beautiful bookshelf design 4Guillory argues, then, for a progressive curriculum: any good book can be taught provided it is set its social and historical context. The canonical works themselves always undercut themselves. Homer, the foundation of our canon, includes deception and self-criticism and all the traits that undercut the literature itself. Likewise, as new works subvert the canon, they pass on their own cultural values, and are thus a kind of “hegemony.”

Whatever reading list we use will pass on its “cultural capital”—pass on the values of the culture that produced the reading list.

While Guillory was setting up for a fight, his essay largely answered the question before it became a war. A multicultural society will continually undercut its own canon, reinventing it and putting in its place new books–these handheld bombs of cultural power that circulate in culture.

How does Harold Bloom, writing right after Guillory, respond? Actually, Harold Bloom almost entirely ignores Guillory while writing a book that responds utterly to him. I don’t know the political conversation at its deepest levels, but this is powerful language from Bloom:

I am not prepared to agree with the Marxists that the Western Canon is another instance of what they call ” cultural capital.” It is not clear to me that a nation as contradictory as the United States of America could ever be the context for “cultural capital,” except for those slivers of high culture that contribute to mass culture (Western Canon, 37-38)

We have reason to doubt Bloom’s perspective. He is a white, wealthy, well-educated man suggesting that America is so truly diverse that it will always be too self-contradictory to pass on a single story. A quick scan of the of the U.S. primary candidates must put the lie to the claim that America’s diversity will control the cultural conversation. In historical perspective, it is stunning that a woman, a Jewish man, and Latino candidates were under serious consideration. But if you think about diversity in more complex ways, this election feels like a battle over cultural capital and who controls the stories we tell–not stories in books, granted, but the stories of what it means to be a neighbour, a Christian, an American, a human.

2016-presidential-candidatesWhile we have some reason to doubt Bloom’s statement, there is truth in it too. Bloom argues convincingly that anxiety about the cultural canon is really a kind of intellectual elite’s guilt. In America (at least), there has been diversity in the literature that is read.

“There has never been an official American literary canon,” Bloom argues, “and there never can be, for the aesthetic in America always exists as a lonely, idiosyncratic, isolated stance” (518-519).

Why does American culture dominate in this chaotic age? Not because it is entirely rootless but because it is itself chaotic.

Harold Bloom western canonAs much as we root ourselves as good readers to the kinds of lists I have been purveying in this series, we are an unrooted culture. Canon is and canon—no longer shaping our cultural identity as much as giving us a chance to shape ourselves. So I find myself unable to choose a side in the so-called “canon war.” I think it is true that reading lists, university curricula, and canons pass on a kind of cultural capital. This culture we pass on can be exclusive, leaving people out and denying certain stories. Where, for example, are the first nations and aboriginal stories in our canon? Whatever we mean by “the West,” we clearly don’t mean the people who were here before my family escaped destitution in Scotland to live in poverty in Canada.

But I think that where Bloom and Guillory agree there is value in the conversation. The canon is fluid, undercutting itself and acting as a constant prophetic critique of culture.

The canon is a problem, certainly. But I think, for the most part, it is a rich and beautiful problem to have.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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28 Responses to The Problem of the Canon

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    That other variously popular and/or public late-Twentieth-century Bloom, Allan, has an interesting chapter on (something like) ‘the Nietzscheanization of the Left and vice versa’ in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which the context you sketch for “the so-called ‘canon war’ ” brought to my mind, with its elements of the Marxist analysis in terms of ‘class war’ and the implicit influence of the Nietzschean analysis in terms of ‘will to power’ – everything as ‘will’ and conflict of wills.

    That, in turn, brought to mind ‘the battle of the Ancients and the Moderns’ which took place variously in the west throughout much of the Sixteenth-Eighteenth centuries. The recent reminiscence by A.O.J. Cockshut in The Journal of Inklings Studies came to mind, too, with his youthful response – “the shock of glad surprise” – to Lewis’s saying “Calvin was the Karl Marx and Lenin of his age rolled into one.”

    Calvin, Marx, Nietzsche knew their Classics – and, in their various ways, attempted to impose How They Are to be Read (with, I have the impression, various self-identifying followers adding ‘Insofar as They Are (Permitted) to Be Read’). And, of course, they were not alone in this.

    Why do we read various things, including, earlier things? Thinking of Lewis’s Oxford History of English Literature contribution, I am inclined to answer, ‘Because (like Everest to climb) They Were and Are There’, but also to add, ‘Because of their Historical Importance as well as their historical existence’ (which makes me think of a Harold Bloom title which some at Harvard thought was ‘hot stuff’ when I was a graduate student – The Anxiety of Influence (1973) – but which I never yet got round to reading).

    But I think a greater part of Lewis’s general answer might be expressed as ‘to escape (temporal, cultural) provincialism’. Here, I would agree with both him and your last word, above: “The canon is a problem, certainly. But I think, for the most part, it is a rich and beautiful problem to have.”


    • I haven’t yet read The Closing of the American Mind. I’m afraid it might be true. It’s not a surprise, I think, that the canon war emerged during the culture wars in general. In the case of canon, it turned out just to be a really interesting discussion.
      Was the word “Modern” first derisive or dismissive? It means of the mode or modal or fashionable–all of which could be a slight. I just don’t know. I know the theology that came before Luther’s reformation was called “modern” in a more technical sense.
      I think The Anxiety of Influence an interesting book and a good way to read. I don’t know that it is true that contemporary authors (belated poets) always struggle in this way, or battle against the great ones in a Freudian way. But I’m not huge on Freud, so that’s a limitation.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        The 14th-century “modern devotion” (‘devotio moderna’) was, I think, used positively by its practitioners. And a quick Wiki stroll tells me that Charles Perrault’s “treatise on Alceste [the Quinault-Lully opera] initiated the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes), which pitted supporters of the literature of Antiquity (the “Ancients”) against supporters of the literature from the century of Louis XIV (the “Moderns”). He was on the side of the Moderns and wrote Le Siècle de Louis le Grand (The Century of Louis the Great, 1687) and Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes (Parallel between Ancients and Moderns, 1688–1692) where he attempted to prove the superiority of the literature of his century” and, elsewhere, that “The debate became known as ‘a quarrel’ after the frequently made pun on Charles Perrault’s title Parallel of the Ancients and the Moderns, the French word ‘querelle’ being substituted for ‘parallele’.” So, ‘modern’ seems used positively by its advocates (or. perhaps, neutrally, by all, as a term?: research needed!). I was rather extrapolating it as well to things like earlier anti-Aristotelianism, Ramist logic, and so on (which extrapolation was, I think, already part of the later ‘quarrel’/’battle’ – maybe the idea already goes back to post-Petrarchan tripartite division of history where there is ‘antiqua’, ‘media’, and ‘nova’ – and where, again, ‘nova’ is approbatory).

        I’m so “not huge on Freud” myself, that I think it’s done a lot to contribute to my not getting round to that book (or that Bloom, generally) – !

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, there’s an education on etymology! If you didn’t know that “quarrel” was a pun, no etymologist in history ever would have made the connection to parallel or a pariticular argument on phonemic grounds.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Meanwhile, in “democratic” Turkey, “Academics were banned from traveling abroad on Wednesday in what a Turkish official said was a temporary measure to prevent the risk of alleged coup plotters in universities from fleeing. State TRT television said 95 academics had been removed from their posts at Istanbul University alone. […] On Tuesday, authorities shut down media outlets deemed to be supportive of Gulen and said 15,000 people had been suspended from the education ministry” (Reuters, ” Wed Jul 20, 2016 11:13am EDT”). Elsewhere, I’ve read quotations from an earlier English Hurriyet daily News story that “The resignation of 1,557 deans was demanded by YÖK [‘The Higher Education Board’] , of which 1,176 are from state universities and 401 are from private universities.” I haven’t seen mention of any ‘revised canons’, but it’s hard to imagine they will not be part of the package.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, I hadn’t caught all that.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Scary stuff! – and now there’s a three-month ’emergency period’, too. And I just ran into someone reporting “the fact that the Turkish National Security Council determined and announced that Christian missionary activities are one of the nation’s major security problems” – !


  3. L.A. Smith says:

    Interesting discussion, thank you! I saw that item on the news last night, about the mass arrest of university professors and teachers. I don’t know all the ins and outs of what is happening there, but this rounding up of the ones who presumably were teaching the “canon” of Turkish culture (which I suspect might have a fair amount of Western, democratic influence on it) cannot bode well for that country, sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Where, for example, are the first nations and aboriginal stories in our canon?” One strand of an answer ties in to considerations of ‘a shifting canon’ as well. John Garth in ‘“The road from adaptation to invention”: How Tolkien came to the brink of Middle-earth in 1914’, Tolkien Studies 11 (linked at his blog for those who have access to Project Muse) gives fascinating consideration to Tolkien’s familiarity with, and possible uses of/drawings upon, Longfellow’s ; The Song of Hiawatha’. That was, so to put it, something like ‘canon, big time’ for a half-century and more after its publication (1855) – as attested by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Scenes from The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’, Op. 30 ( a trilogy of cantatas written between 1898 and 1900), at least part of which Tolkien also knew and which was (it seems) ‘musical canon, big time’ for several decades, and has been getting performed and recorded again on and off over the past half-century (see YouTube variously, notably the “LongfellowChorus” account, but also historical recordings).

    Longfellow effectively imitated what Elias Lönnrot had done with collecting and adapting Finnish folk material to produce the Kalevala. Wikipedia notes “Longfellow’s sources for the legends and ethnography found in his poem were the Ojibwe Chief Kahge-ga-gah-bowh during his visits at Longfellow’s home; Black Hawk and other Sac and Fox Indians Longfellow encountered on Boston Common; Algic Researches (1839) and additional writings by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an ethnographer and United States Indian agent; and Heckewelder’s Narratives. […] Longfellow insisted, ‘I can give chapter and verse for these legends. Their chief value is that they are Indian legends.’ ” has a delightful audiobook version of the poem by a fine English reader, Peter Yearsley.

    But what of stories not so strikingly taken up and retold? Should we think, among other things, of a distinct sub-canon of (translated) folktales? Going further, sadly, I know even less about your side of the border than mine in this context, and it may again well be a matter of ‘a shifting canon’, but Black Elk Speaks (1932) seems something of a ‘classic’ (Wikipedia says “Black Elk spoke in Lakota and Black Elk’s son, Ben Black Elk, who was present during the talks, translated his father’s words into English. [ John G.] Neihardt made notes during these talks which he later used as the basis for his book”). For another example, Geronimo is famous, and I thoroughly enjoyed his autobiography – but how famous as a work it is, I don’t know. (Wikipedia says, “In 1905, Geronimo agreed to tell his story to S. M. Barrett, Superintendent of Education in Lawton, Oklahoma. Barrett had to appeal to President Roosevelt to gain permission to publish the book. Geronimo came to each interview knowing exactly what he wanted to say. He refused to answer questions or alter his narrative. Barrett did not seem to take many liberties with Geronimo’s story as translated by Asa Daklugie. Frederick Turner re-edited this autobiography by removing some of Barrett’s footnotes and writing an introduction for the non-Apache readers.”) Meanwhile, browsing Wikipedia’s category “Native American literature by writer”, I encounter (among others) Martin Cruz Smith, author of the (I think) best-selling Gorky Park (1981), among a couple dozen other novels!


    • Sorry, I’m quite behind. You are right that some stories have made their way into the minor canon, or the diverse reading of culture. There are also Native American writers, a celtic revival, First Nations (Canada) mythology, etc. In Canada, we’re struggling to see how to reinvent our history, but I think people imagine that you can do that without altering the canon. I’m not so sure.


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    In chapter 8 of his Critical Companion to Beowulf (2004 corrected reprint), Andy Orchard reminded me of a curious sort of ‘anti-canon’ which I think I first heard of just when I was discovering Lewis: Fifty Works of English (and American) Literature We Could Do Without (London, 1967) by Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne. Professor Orchard writes, “According to Brigid Brophy, […] first on the list (albeit for reasons of chronology) of dispensable texts in the canon of English literature was Beowulf.”

    The Telegraph obituary of Sir Michael (as he became) notes that it “dismisses, in rather robust prose, works ranging from The Faerie Queene and Hamlet to Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick” – including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. This, from someone whom it also notes “went to Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied English under Nevill Coghill”! Brophy (Lady Levey, as she became) is reported there to have “been sent down from St Hugh’s College, Oxford, for unspecified sexual misdemeanours” (and to have been “an outspoken campaigner” – among other things – in favor of pornography but against “religious education in schools”), while her New York Times obituary says, “she excelled as a scholar but was soon expelled because of drunken, raucous behavior. She was acting, she later wrote, ‘in the belief that I had more to learn by pursuing my personal life than from textual emendation, with the result that the authorities could put up with me for only just over a year.’ ” But neither of them (nor any of her Wikipedia articles in five languages) say what course she was reading as an undergraduate!

    In any case, a strikingly un-Inkling-like attack-piece by at least two Oxonians (I could not quickly discover which ‘Charles Osborne’ was the third co-author), one of who was tutored by an Inkling, and who might be described as thoroughly successful ‘Cultural Establishment’ figures!


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  10. One aspect of a classic canon that many people miss is that it is actually a window into more cultures than one imagines. Just take the Bible: In the Old Testament, the action centers around Jerusalem, but you have interaction with Egypt, Babylon (i.e. Iraq), Persia (i.e. Iran), Syria, Ethiopians, and more. And then in the New Testament, you have Paul going through what are now the modern countries of Israel, Syria, Turkey, Macedonia, Greece, Malta, and Italy.

    As for the Greeks and Romans, because of the expanse of their rule, their literature necessarily touches on a wide rande of cultures. Sure, it is from the perspective of “the oppressor”, but even this may not look as one expects. In Plutarch, there is a description of Marcellus (a Roman general) leading an attack on Syracuse. He is a lover of Greek culture and learning, and demands that Archimedes be brought to him alive. When his soldiers inform him that Archimedes was killed, he weeps–something beautiful has been lost of a culture superior to his own.

    The Romans thought themselves superior to others in some way, but not in all ways, and their laws were designed to try to preserve the best of every culture they came into contact with. Modern curricula seem to have something else in mind…


    • In the biblical canon, much of it is written from a minority perspective–the oppressed or outsider view. Joshua is a conquering text, but looking closely shows it is more than mere taking of land. The Kings chronicles are critical of the kings, showing it was written from an outside perspective. And much of it is gathered while in exile.
      The Romans felt that about the Greeks (or some of them), but what about Barbarians and Jews? I’m not sure. And that culture-centred perspective does leak into the European canon. Honestly, I grew up with nothing more than a handful of short stories from outside of “the West.” So there’s that too.
      Thanks for the engaging comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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  17. Comet says:

    Guillory took the focus off the books themselves and put it on the institutional mechanisms that reproduce belief in and reading of whatever is on the menu of the school syllabus; further that the menu going forward is not book-based but popular culture through the new media; that what binds the new professional classes (elite) is not a canon of books but an inchoate mediascape of new media technologies. I think Sloterdijk arrives at a similar conclusion in the Human Zoo.


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