In Defense of the Canon

Why the disturbing trend over the past couple of decades toward secondary sources and a dislike of, or sometimes, hatred of the Canon?  Yes, virtually all of it is by Dead White Men, a cohort of individuals whose life experiences were indeed limited and shaped by their particular geography and Judeo-Christian values.  But what is ironic is that even the greatest post-colonial writers or ethnic minority writers, such as Nobel laureates Derek Wolcott and Toni Morrison, are themselves extremely well read in the classics and the Canon, and it informs and influences their works.  Without the Canon, one’s scope is limited, as is one’s understanding of history, classic literary themes, tropes, motifs, allusions, et cetera.  There is a certain “flatness” to the work of many scholars and writers of recent times, for it smacks of excessive self-absorbed individuality or literary disconnect.  In my opinion, this reflects the underlying problem of a general lack of historicity in many people’s perspectives in American academia.  American culture places such a high value on individualism and the now that context—-and along, historical context of hundreds if not thousands of years—-seems to have no importance in shaping one’s mind.  I find literary scholarship and criticism often very guilty of this, with reading into earlier works from a current perspective:  really, shouldn’t Elizabeth Bennet have earned her own living as an investment banker and just hooked up with Darcy on weekends?   Shouldn’t Madame Bovary have just gotten some therapy and a divorce?  But seriously, scholarship based purely on feeling or an individual’s psychological needs reads as somewhat juvenile.  (There are those who maintain that Americans are the teenagers of the world.)  Needless to say, those scholars who have no exposure to non-white, non-Western, colonial and post-colonial works or ideas are just as bad—-they come across as living in some bizarre sort of time warp, dinosaurs of an academic age that is long past.  (I myself suffered through a couple of these professors during my graduate studies).  Aren’t they missing out on Rushdie’s pastiches of literary genius?  Pamuk’s tremendous insight into Turkey’s position between East and West?   Scholars who come from cultures and civilizations that are 10 times as old as their American one?  But for any writer, my feeling is that the Canon is a must.

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