29 March 2006

Revising the Canon

Read: Isaiah Chapter 5
Listened to: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, the version with full chorus and children’s chorus

I do worry about the new shift in literary priorities, the replacing of “good old” classics with not-quite-so-good, maybe as old, certainly not classics! Where will the next generation of readers be if they read, in high school, Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head” instead of Wordsworth’s “Prelude”; Felicia Hemans to the exclusion of Coleridge; Frederick Douglas’s slave narratives rather than Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and “the greatest masterpiece of Japanese prose narrative” replacing Moby Dick? But there is not time to read both, I mean all of the above. Such students/readers would have a different perspective on literature, and consequently, somehow on life. They would likely value social awareness and influence over compositional skill—wait, hum, that’s already happened. They might probably search for issues of race and gender rather than spiritual elevation or exaltation of the human soul. Wait, again: we already do. In the halls of higher learning, this shift has already occurred.

In my graduate classes, that’s what we do. Now, let me explain. We do not read Smith to the exclusion of Wordsworth; we read them side-by-side, as a comparison. We do not talk about slavery rather than The Sublime; we talk about both. So that’s good. In that context we have time to look at both the old priorities and the new. And we already have that rootedness Rosie recommends.

What will happen when this shift makes its way down the academic ladder, I don’t know. Do teenage readers need “a rootedness in one particular tradition”? I wonder. I would be heartbroken if every reader knew The Tale of Genji and not one knew Paradise Lost. But is that just my preference? Let’s unpack that more.

What about globalization? Christians, with everyone, need to be ready for this new earth. We need to be aware of and sensitive to all the cultures and traditions we will encounter in our neighborhoods and all over the world. We hop on planes as easily now as our ancestors stepped into Model-Ts. No, more comfortably! So why not read about the heritage of the places we’ll step off into?

Well, we can never read it all. Once, up until the 18th century, I think, it was possible for one man (or woman) to have read everything, EVERYTHING ever published. Some had done it. Coleridge is believed to have come close, though he lived into the printing boom. It is now not only impossible to read everything, it is not even close to possible to read everything even on one narrow subject. OK, maybe you could read everything about, say, organic okra farming, but you could never read everything about organic farming in general. And even excluding the internet (who does that now?), there are far too many books and periodicals. Even excluding periodicals, there are far too many books to read them all. One must choose. One is, of necessity, choosing to exclude thousands of books when one picks up one. When I picked up one particular biography on Tolkien last night, I was excluding all the others [unfortunately, for that one turned out to be no good as far as getting to know Tolkien the man]. So should young readers be trained to be snackers in literature? Read a little snippet of English poetry, a bite of Japanese prose, a tidbit of African folk tale, an appetizer of Australian fiction, an hoers d’ouevres of the American novel, a taste of Greek epic, a nibble of Latin epigram, a sip of Norse myth, a crumb of Saxon verse, a sampling of Asian poems, and a smorgasbord of modern plays? Or should they first be immersed in one tradition, so as to have some comparison to jump off of, some foundation to judge from?

Well, then the question becomes, whose tradition should be privileged in American education? Ours, simply because we were born into it? Well, why not. It’s a good tradition. Does it boast anything over others? Well, maybe it boasts its long association with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Maybe we (Westerners, Americans, Christians) think our literature is worth teaching to our children because of its spiritually healthy origins and associations.

Or, to put the same thing in a negative way: Perhaps as Christians we are afraid of losing the great spiritual classics, the books from a time that was, apparently, more sensitive to the Holy Spirit than now. Perhaps we understand the loss to consciousness, the weakness of a worldview built without (for example) Milton’s perspective on sin, marital love, choice, divine predestination, the problem of evil, the possibility of Paradise, the necessity of the Son of God as intercessor, etc. There is something about reading these things in his fabulous blank verse that brings them to life. It’s not better than reading the Bible, but it might be more memorable, or more vivid, or more fresh and new. So, yes, Christians can always read the Bible, but won’t we lose something without Milton?

That said, our “Western Canon” does not include Jewish writing, or a lot of the early Christian fathers, or the mystics (generally). And the new shift towards finding out overlooked authors often turns up very spiritual characters, such as Jones Very and Alice Meynell.

Part of me wants to end this by saying: The Holy Spirit will take care of Himself. God is big enough to be found through any literary tradition, and He will not let truth disappear. Reading, say the writings of Confucius instead of the Book of Proverbs, or even Poor Richard’s Almanac, will not make Proverbs any less true, or the writings of Confucius anything more than sometimes right and sometimes wrong thoughts of a wise but fallen human being. So should we teach any and all literature and let God look after the formation of young minds?

Or should we approach this from another point of view? “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Train up a child surrounded by the books that are rooted in the spiritual tradition s/he must be rooted in, and then s/he will grow up with a taste for The Good. Maybe. Then, as you say Rosie, then teach readers as they grow older to dip into every tradition for the flavours of the exotic, the tastes of the foreign.

I’d love to hear what other people have to say. I’d love to know what somebody thinks who was raised on the literature of another culture all together and thinks that has contributed only positively to his/her Christian worldview.


Rosie Perera said...

Read: (finally finished, after nursing along for several months...) I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away by Bill Bryson

Listened to: John Tavener, "Lament for Jerusalem"; Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 "Romantic"

I was raised on the Western Canon (well, a small subset of it, anyway), so I can't speak to what it's like for Christians raised on a non-Western culture's literary heritage.

One problem this whole discussion brings up, which I alluded to just above, is that no one student in the Western educational system (including the tertiary level) can possibly cover even the entire Western canon, let alone the greatest works of other traditions. I'm sure it wouldn't be hard for someone to read more of the Great Books than I did growing up, because I decided at a relatively young age that I was more interested in math and computers than in literature (I've since discovered that it needn't be either/or). Consequently, I only ended up reading the minimum required of me in the public high school. So I'm extremely unversed in the classics, especially as compared to such a voracious reader as you, Sorina. (I've been trying to make up for lost time these last few years, though, but it will probably take the rest of my life to catch up.) I'm having to scramble to have something interesting to report for my "Read:" and "Listened to:" entries each time I post, but it's a great discipline!

Here are a few related questions: How much of the Western canon must a person have read and absorbed before launching out on literature from other traditions? Can we learn what we need to know about other localities by reading American authors' depictions of them? And hasn't the Western canon for a long time included works by authors from other traditions (e.g., Pearl Buck's The Good Earth [she was born in America to American parents, but lived most of her life in China] and Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country" [published first in America, though by a South African author])? Have we decided that these "non-Western" books are okay to have in our canon simply because they've been there for 40-50 years so they don't grate us anymore as being "foreign," or are they really great books? Will some Great Books list from 2025 which includes a greater percentage of books from Asia, Africa, and South America (I imagine Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude might be on such a list) seem hopelessly dated to teachers and students of 2050?

Now, for grins, here are a few "Great Books" lists (I've been collecting links to these for some time):

- Some Canonical Lists (compiled by Jonathan R. Ferro)
- Great Books Lists (compiled by Robert Teeter)
- Great Books Index (maintained by Ken Roberts)
- Library of America Catalog
- (no longer online, but this is a web archive version from 4/1/04)
Image Journal's Top 100 Books of the Century
- Great Books list from The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer (classical education, homeschooling)

Mehitchcock said...

I've heard the old stories about Coleridge or Milton having been the last people to be able to read everything. But I've never been able to believe it, what with the millions of papyri, parchements, and scrolls scattered around the Earth in places like Rome, Athens, Beijing, Baghdad, London, Paris, Kyoto, Delhi, Bangcock, Kathmandu, Copenhagen, and even Dublin, not to mention the imperial capitals which I do not know the names for (some of which are no longer known)throughout Asia, the Mid-East, and Africa.
The world has always been too big for us to see or know it all.
When I'm choosing what literature to read, I mainly choose by word of mouth. Sometimes that word comes from you, Sorina, or from another friend, and sometimes that word comes from the scholars of the past, from all their lists of reccomendations.
When I was seven, I had the realization that I could never read everything, and it depressed me. Now that I'm older, and have been exposed to much that is worthless, I don't mind as much.
As for not being able to read all of the classics, maybe it's just me being Godless, but for now, I feel satisfied not having read Milton, but having had it explained to me. It's pretty much the same satisfaction I feel at having had my Girlfriend explain Algeria to me.
Both Algeria and Milton are interesting places to which I have no intentions of going.
The other thing I thought of after musing on the subject for a few days, is that the cannon is always being and has always been revised.
I looked for, but couldn't find, a reading list from before our century. My preliminary conclusion is that before sometime in the Eighteenth century, Western scholars would mainly read only scholarly tretises: Math, Physics, Astronomy, Music,and a few other subjects (very few). Almost all of them were required to read the Bible.
Scholars of that time would certainly lament all the time present day scholars and intellectuals "waste" learning history, politics, and literature.
As a teacher, you have the privilage to teach your students what is important and what is not, by what you teach. When I teach, I will have my students read some Vonnegut, Bradbury, Orwell, and Huxley, for starters. Then we'll read The Good Soldier Schveik, Catch-22, and Candide.
The reason I would teach these is because these books deal with keeping and building one's personal philosophy in the face of a seemingly omnipotent and omnipresent entity (usually the state) which is antithetical to all philosophy but its own.
What do you teach? What knowledge or worldview do you hope your students leave you with?

Today I read a little bit about the Mamluks (Kipchak Turks sold as military slaves in Twelth and Thirteenth Century Egypt, who became the dominant power in the Muslim world.)
I didn't listen to anything because I fell asleep at five o'clock. It's now 2:54 am and too late for the radio.