Do We Need a Literary Canon?

By Richard Jenkyns
Prospect, December 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

The chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, recently wrote: "Until recently, national cultures were predicated on the idea of a canon, a set of texts that everyone knew. In the case of Britain they included the Bible, Shakespeare and the great novels. The existence of a canon is essential to a culture. It means that people share a set of references and resonances, a public vocabulary of narratives and discourse."

AR  Nowadays everyone knows the highlights of big movies or television series. This can be just as good a way of supporting a unified culture as the canons of old.

The idea of a canon has a religious origin. The early church had to decide which of its texts were sacred scripture and which were not. The decision was a straight yes or no: either a book was in or it was out.

AR  And therein lay its danger. One committee decides what we all revere for centuries after? Well, maybe the Nobel prize committee does something similar nowadays, or Oprah Winfrey, or Harold Bloom. Whatever form it takes, the idea lives on.

This religious notion in due course blended with another drawn from secular culture: the idea of genius. The idea that great poets and musicians are men apart is itself very ancient. At first the thought was that these special people received inspiration from outside themselves, from a god or muse. Later, genius was seen as a quality innate in the artist.

AR  The world of popular culture is filled with celebration of genius. The cults of Bob Dylan the poet and Jimi Hendrix the musician come instantly to mind. So the idea of genius lives on undiluted.

For all its emotional appeal, this idea looks unlikely in the cold light of reason: it seems more plausible to suppose a more or less continuous spectrum of creative ability than a sharp division between genius and the rest. But if this is so, we may wonder why we are so drawn to the notions of genius and canon. The answer may lie in our need for heroes.

AR  A spectrum here makes good sense. But then all the better that we each get to select our own personal pantheon from the wannabe-geniuses on offer. Let democracy prevail in the election to the pantheon!

Isaiah Berlin used to say in his last years that there were no geniuses left in the world: no great novelists, poets, painters or composers. That judgement may or may not be true, but it surely expresses a general perception. On the surface there is a good deal of chatter about young British artists or brilliant novelists and filmmakers, but deep down we feel that nothing very large is coming to birth.

AR  Old men do tend to say such things. Hundreds, thousands of years ago, you can find old men who said the same. This says a lot about human psychology but not much about the relative merits of the talent on offer. One would expect the talent on offer to be comparably strong from generation to generation.

In earlier ages, there were men who were recognised by their contemporaries as among the supreme imaginations of all time. The people who first entered Chartres Cathedral or looked up at the ceiling of the Sistine chapel or heard Beethoven's 9th knew that they were at the birth of creations that equalled and perhaps surpassed anything of their kind that had gone before. That is not an experience that has been available to anyone in the last 100 years.

AR  The idea of scientific genius lives on in robust form. Think of the idolization of Einstein, and the way his mantle was inherited by Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking. In philosophy we have the cults of Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Even in religion there is the cult of Pope John Paul II, not to mention the idolization of the current Dalai Lama. But in every case it takes a few years for quality to shine through. To be sure to have recognized the real greats, 100 years is not an unreasonable waiting period.

The chief rabbi is more concerned with the coherence of society and the place of ethnic and religious minorities within it. However, his argument connects at least two and probably three things. The first is the importance of shared experience—he is explicitly attacking multiculturalism. The second is the importance of high culture. And Sacks may also be hinting at a third idea: that it is important for us to understand where we have come from, to know the texts which have formed the beliefs and behaviour of the world in which we live.

AR  In a world of CNN and MTV and Google and YouTube, it is hard not to drown in shared experience. I see no danger there. As for high culture, it should surely remain an esoteric world for university faculties, since its value consists largely in its remaining aloof from the untutored masses.

It is easy to make exaggerated claims about the canon. The greatest loss has been knowledge of the Bible: it is not rare these days to find professors of English literature missing allusions that humble people would have picked up 150 years ago. The literature of Greece and Rome, too, remains or ought to remain essential to us, not only for its intrinsic quality but for the ways in which it has helped to shape our own world, from the middle ages onward.

AR  The best tropes from the Bible have embedded themselves so deeply in our cultural medium that regret there seems completely out of place. The danger is rather the opposite: that in a world like ours, the wildfire of religious fundamentalism is so easily stoked by such words that we do better to go easy there.

Sacks is right, in turn, to say that a society needs shared references and resonances, but there is no inherent reason for these to be high cultural ones. The truth is that shared references and resonances mostly need to evolve naturally, that most of them derive from popular culture, and that many of them are like family jokes.

AR  Absolutely. I just said that.

To understand how a canon is formed, we might look to another kind of canonisation, that of individual men and women. The earliest and most durable saints were not created by the Pope: they were canonised by a process in which church and people somehow shared. Similarly, it is an obscure collaboration between the clerisy and the people that has canonised the great writers.

AR  Number one hits in music charts or Google results soon join the popular canon. Bestseller books like the Harry Potter series give canonical status to authors like J.K. Rowling, and blockbuster movies from the books do even more for authors like J.R.R. Tolkien or Ian Fleming. We can forget the Pope here.

Does this mean that we can do nothing about our cultural condition? Not entirely. There is a good deal we can do about the way in which we teach literature, though here there is a nice balance to be found between drawing the young in through the works that may most naturally appeal to them and stretching them with works that may seem less attractive.

AR  Again, better let the people decide. Forcing a standardized curriculum down everyone's throat can only do harm, and the sort of constrained choice that a winner-take-all marketplace of ideas like ours offers will keep most people safe from straying too far off the beaten track.

The political class should proclaim the value of culture for its own sake. This would be the right thing to do. People do not want their leaders to be exactly like themselves, and there is plenty of evidence that the public still likes a gent. All of us should affirm that our culture is grounded in a distinct history: in Christianity and the Bible, Greek and Roman antiquity, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

AR  A gent! Get real, Jenkyns! You've been in your ivory tower for too long. Take a long bath in popular culture and see how close the "gents" are to the pitiable actors in the House of Windsor real-life soap opera that still quaintly colors public life on the Sceptred Isle.

The chief rabbi is right to say that multiculturalism has been a disaster. For one thing, it is actually monocultural: it is the demand that all countries should be like America. For another, it inhibits the robust and confident expression of the majority culture. We should assert the importance of historical memory, of ancestry and rootedness.

AR  But America is our great prototype here. It's the proof that a melting pot is possible. Lose that and we're back to tribe against tribe. A monoculture has to relax enough to make people feel their freedom. If that looks multicultural, too bad. Does one want a monoculture as rigid as Windows software for personal computers? If so, one doesn't have a clue about what makes people tick. With all due respect, sir, you seem to be talking through your Oxford professorial chair.