Defining the Canon of Literature, Part I

By Tim Butler | Posted at 7:19 PM

In Eduardo's excellent second piece in the series On Porn: A Catastrophic Pastoral Failure, he touches on a separate, but touchy issue in the defense of the content in Arabian Nights. Works such as that one, which contain content that would be condemned as pornographic in pop fiction, are often defended on the basis of being great literature. The problem here is simple: what is great literature?

Let's consider the logic. The works of William Shakespeare are great literature because they exhibit the characteristics of the great dramas and poetry of literature. What are the characteristics of great dramas and poetry of literature? Characteristics, in the Elizabethan times, best portrayed by William Shakespeare. The logic, in other words, is cyclical. Many have argued because of this that literature is really just that thing which we choose to call literature.

I tend to dislike schools of thought that suggest that important definitions are merely arbitrary designs of the elite or general populous. The Intertextualist-Structuralist critics of literature are quite reverent in their view of literature, but nonetheless insist that for literature to be meaningful, one must be indoctrinated into literary thought. I cannot, they say, point to X, Y and Z and say this is why literature is literature. The Intertextualists in this regard remind me of the liberal theologians that came in force in the nineteenth century: they do not deny the usefulness of the terms, in fact, they appreciate them a great deal, but they destroy any inherent meaning that allows for the long term ability to support interest in the object they describe. In the case of religion, this problem came to light in the early to mid twentieth century when Karl Barth and other neo-orthodox theologians — whom we might call moderates — called for a return to orthodox foundations even while retaining the academic tools of the liberals.

The message is clear: if the foundation is arbitrary, people will rebel into either total rejection or a refreshed orthodoxy. There is no reason to go to church if the primary purpose of the rituals is to be a good person. I can be a morally good atheist, one might say quite rightly. Likewise, there is no reason to teach Shakespeare instead of some romance novelist's work if the primary reason we study Shakespeare is because he has been awarded the title of “literature” by the academic elite to perpetuate their existence. As the Historical and Formalist schools of literary theory gave way to Reader Response, Intertextualism, Post Structuralism and New Historicism, people have rightly increasingly found arguments for the study of the literary canon indefensible and promptly rejected the canon. A side effect of this change is to place a work such as Arabian Nights on the level of the trade paperback romance novel at the supermarket, and hence eliminate a roughly objective aesthetic justification of the one over the other.

Why read Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Marlowe, Johnson, Milton, Blake, Dickens or Hardy when Dan Brown or Tom Clancy appeals to our “modern tastes”? Is it possible to define and defend the literary canon? Would literature by any other name be indistinguishable from pop fiction?

These are important questions. Questions I hope to address.


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