Firing at the Canon…

At the moment I’m writing a paper ambiguously titled “Christina Rossetti and the Problem of the Canon” for a conference, and I’m finding it remarkably easy to be side-tracked by the canon debate, so here are a few of my overflow thoughts…
The online OED describes a canon as “a list of literary works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality”. I could take issue with that, but will resist for the moment. Actually, no, I won’t resist, it seems a good starting point. The canon is generally accepted as being works (of fiction – I can’t cope with anything else now!) which are deemed to be of such high quality and lasting value that they are always in print and – the key bit – available to the reading public (so although the canon is a notion that only academics care about or debate, it’s meant to be much wider than that). So far so good – and everyone (that I’ve read) more or less agrees that Shakespeare is the centre of the canon – as Harold Bloom says in The Western Canon, Shakespeare invented us, or how we think of us and are constructed as social creatures – so it stands to reason he should be the spider who created the web, as it were. But the canon changes (hence my taking issue with the OED). No work, no author, can be assured of a permanent place in the canon. The secular canon (as opposed to the somewhat inflexible list of books in the Bible) is by definition an open canon – in many ways (more of this to come) it follows fashions, it’s subject to constant change. Some authors are always there, some come and go.
My paper points out that initial reception is no guarantee of a lasting place in the canon: not many people read the once immensely-popular Felicia Hemans now, for example. (Though they should, in my opinion). The problem with Rossetti’s work is that it comes and goes – very popular, then rather sneered at by the Moderns (though Virginia Woolf deigned to patronise her), then seen as sweet and flowery, a bit of a period piece, in the middle years of the 20th century – and then, trumpets, put out the flags, she’s rescued by the feminists because she was a victim of patriarchal repression…Yes, she was. Well, aren’t we all? (I’m very much the feminist, but feminist criticism can’t encompass everything). But this means that the most- (if not only-) read of her poems is ‘Goblin Market’ – which is amazing, and both precise and ambiguous in a way which has lent itself to pornography (yes, PlayBoy 1978), opera, lesbian interpretations, depictions of a female Christ, and so on. All no doubt valid in their way, but what about her other work? Germaine Greer said that apart from ‘Goblin Market’, Rossetti ‘wilfully’ wasted her life – but how dare anyone say that a life of faith – which produced some devotional poems comparable to George Herbert, precise, witty, structured yet personal poems – is wasted? So although Rossetti’s now canonical, really it’s only a handful of her poems which are – those which serve a social purpose, that of feminism.
And this is Bloom’s biggest concern about the canon. Surely the canon should be largely about aesthetics – encompassing works which are generally agreed to be ‘great’ works, poetry and novels which change lives and world-views, which use language sublimely and rescue us from the moral mires of contemporary society? Yes, but then…we have to teach literature, and the predominant way of teaching seems to be in historical context (valuable) but often to the exclusion of admitting the beauty of the work (pointless). So, Bloom argues, we are ‘reducing aesthetics to ideology’, promoting content over form, turning literature into no more than social documentation – and it also means, of course, that the canon is beginning to encompass work that (ahem) isn’t that good, because it makes a point (the favourite points being the repression of women, post-colonialism, ethnicity and so on). This is mere tokenism, and is as insulting to the writers who become ciphers for a social agenda as it is to those who have earned their place in the canon.
So should there be more than one canon, since the canon already seems so fractured? (People sometimes argue there shouldn’t be a canon at all, especially feminists since the canon is a patriarchal institution like…marriage? but then, you can destroy the word, the idea, but you can’t actually stop certain books being read and taught more than others. It’s not as though there’s a website somewhere that lists all the books in the canon, which you can just shut down.) A multiplicity of canons would allow for a feminist canon, a religious canon (broken down into different religions?), a canon of ethnic writers (again subdivided), oh, there could be so many…And who would ever read it all? You’d only end up with a canon of canons.
Finally, what is the relation of the canon to popular literature? Where do the (widely-read and available, but not that aesthetically agreeable) books in the best-seller lists of the day fit in?
I don’t have any answers; this is just a way of musing, really. If there’s anyone out there reading these, please let me know what you think!

Read more about The Western Canon:

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