Questioning the Canon

I was in the best of settings when I realized that Shakespeare was indeed great. My freshman year in high school, I had English class with an esteemed teacher, Mr. Broza—hailed as the Paul D. Schreiber High School Shakespeare aficionado, founder of Schreiber’s Annual Shakespeare Day, and, perhaps most heart-warming of all, a self-proclaimed Shakespeare lover whose posters of The Bard could be found as wallpaper in his small office. How lucky I thought I was. Indeed, if I wanted to appreciate Hamlet, I was in the right hands.

But how misled I actually was—at least, in Walker Percy’s eyes. In his essay, “The Loss of the Creature,” Percy recalls a scene from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter:

…the girl hides in the bushes to hear the Capehart in the big house play Beethoven. Perhaps she was the lucky one after all. Think of the unhappy souls inside, who see the record, worry about the scratches, and most of all worry about whether they are getting it, whether they are bona fide music lovers. What is the best way to hear Beethoven: sitting in a proper silence around the Capehart or eavesdropping from an azalea bush?

Percy here contrasts two different approaches to viewing art—the girl who informally and spontaneously encounters the work of art, out of context, as opposed to the “unhappy souls inside” who formally prepare themselves for a kind of pre-packaged listening experience. Percy wonders which is better—a question meant for the reader’s pondering. But his essay offers his answer: we can only truly see or hear a piece of art by “the decay of those facilities which were designed to help the sightseer”. Perhaps Percy is right—it might have been better if my experience with Hamlet had been an accidental discovery rather than a guided tour, an “eavesdropping from an azalea bush” rather than “proper silence around the Capehart.” Perhaps I should have encountered the text unaware of its origin but intrigued by its mystery. After sitting by a tree and reading the text front-to-back, perhaps then I would be able to “see” Shakespeare in Percy’s sense of the word.

Percy’s noble task is to open our minds to the possibility that we are not the masters of what we know—that, in part, what we know and what we see, when approached passively, have a lot more to do with “preformed symbolic complex” than with ourselves. Percy’s exploration achieves one of the main goals of all philosophy—to change the way we think about things. He changes the meaning of many concepts human beings tend to take for granted. Sight is no longer the mere act of seeing, but “a struggle,” an act of understanding and appreciation. “Sovereignty,” in relation to things, is no longer some abstract concept of “power,” but an ability to interpret for oneself. Education—or perhaps more specifically, its dynamic—is reshaped, for it is no longer a passive act (i.e. “being taught to”) but an action that relies much more upon the student, who “may have the greatest difficulty in salvaging the creature itself from the educational package in which it is presented”. These concept-alterations are thus meant to alter our reality; they aim to help us rediscover in art what he calls in his opening paragraph an island, “Formosa.” This previously untouched island is beautiful to its discoverer “because, being first, he has access to it and can see it for what it is”. The metaphor of seeing an object as the discovery of untouched territory suggests that every thing in this world has a certain rawness only present upon initial discovery or with the conscious effort of recovery. Once we rediscover art, Percy thinks we will “catch fire at the beauty of it”. I, however, am no longer as hopeful as Percy when it comes to literature, especially those works of the Western Canon with which Percy was surely acquainted, and of which he will likely become a part. It may sound plausible, but I think it impossible to recover a work by the “breakdown of the symbolic machinery by which the experts present the experience to the consumer”. It is one thing to encounter a piece of art out of context and thus have its rawness left unaltered by the “symbolic machinery”. It is quite another to temporarily unlearn pieces of information that may influence our interpretation.

Whether I like it or not, “great authors” are almost always introduced to me—even hyped—before I approach their work. This is to be expected: how else would I know to read them? Furthermore, for those works I read whose authors have not yet achieved greatness, the standards by which I judge their work are undeniably Shakespearean, Borgesean, Joycean.

Even if I could have avoided all the English classes that taught me artists without first showing me their art, I would have still run across that author’s name somewhere, for those of the Canon are relatively ubiquitous in everyday life and conversation. In my search for knowledge, I would defer to the “expert” on general knowledge: the Encyclopedia. There I would find some “unadulterated truths,” such as these, direct from the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition: Shakespeare is considered “the greatest playwright who ever lived;” Borges is “widely-hailed” as “the foremost Spanish-American writer” of the 20th century; Joyce was perhaps “the most influential and significant novelist of the 20th century,” and, in fact, “he was a master of the English language, exploiting all of its resources.” There it was, then. Before I even had Ulysses in my young, anxious hands, I knew the one who wrote it was not just a writer—no, no, he was a master. And we always bow to masters.

My Formosa is an island, but I do not discover it—I am, instead, born into it, and led around it by hand. Its tumultuous shore, I am told, is Shakespearean, its luscious sand Joycean, and its maze-like forest Borgesean. I am bound by it. “When you visit other islands,” I am told by its keeper, “see how it compares to this one—your first island, your one and only Formosa.”

Surely, Percy did not see Formosa in my sense. Mine is an island-as-boundary; his is an island-as-essence. I know that my discourse, the Western Canon, limits me and frames how I see things. I also doubt whether I will ever be able to forget those limits—to see an artwork for its idealistic essence, in Percy’s sense. And so, I ask: How do we extract the essence of an artwork from the cloud of united critical praise and reverence for those works deemed canonical?

This becomes a complicated endeavor: in the world of professional interpretation, context, it seems, is everything. One can see this clearly in the art classrooms, in which sometimes the image has much less to do with art and much more to do with a story—a story which must be learned, one not easily decipherable from the image itself. How could one learn of Matisse without learning of Picasso, and vice versa? How could one disregard the temperamental relationship when even Picasso once said, “You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time.” In this sense, sometimes artists go so far as to produce a kind of meta-art—that is, art about art itself.

This, however, is merely an exercise. Most art does not beckon the gazer to contextualize and draw conclusions based on the story that went into its creation. Most artists expect their art to stand alone, to fight a battle in the perceiver’s mind without being told where that battle takes place or who the opposing forces are. We may not see exactly what the artist intended, but that is what makes art so very vital—none of us sees it the same way, though all of us have the right to see it, one way or another. One could even go so far as to say knowing anything about how one is supposed to see a piece of art removes much from the experience of viewing art. This is similar to Percy’s argument that he relates to the girl in the azalea bush. Jeanette Winterson also writes of an analogous idea: “When I read Adrienne Rich or Oscar Wilde, rebels of very different types, the fact of their homosexuality should not be uppermost. I am not reading their work to get at their private lives. I am reading their work because I need the depth-charge it carries”. This “depth-charge” remains undefined by Winterson, but we get a sense of it as the complexity of emotion wrapped up in the writing—the connection the author shares with us when we have read the written work. Is not the ultimate goal of writing—or any art, for that matter—to attain a sort of timelessness, a feeling or idea not limited to the banality of facts or details? Winterson describes this connection as “hands full of difficult beauty”. She carefully and purposefully chooses this very complex juxtaposition of words. Beauty is given a quantity here, and we can almost imagine it as an abundance of glowing sand, piled high upon open palms, freely flowing through the fingers. The generous artist gives this to us without cost or effort. It is seen plainly in his or her art, not in hype or critical analysis or biography or scholarly research. Yet it is “difficult” in the sense that we will not take it, for we fear we cannot, for we fear that we will let it slip through our fingers and fall to the ground; then we will never be able to claim that we conquered that art, that we cut that beauty down to a manageable size and stuck it in our pocket for future use as bragging material.

Winterson and Percy would probably agree that background information—an artless “introduction to an author”—is damaging to the reader who wishes to discover an artist for the first time. “Art must resist autobiography,” Winterson writes, “if it wishes to cross boundaries of class, culture … and … sexuality. Literature is not a lecture delivered to a special interest group, it is a force that unites its audience”. Why, then, are we so insistent in connecting the biography of the artist to the art he or she produces? Mr. Broza spoke of the theory that Shakespeare was gay before we read Twelfth Night. Why did this matter if Twelfth Night was truly any good, was worthy of the title “canonical?” Before I read “El Sud,” I was told by my teacher that Borges had an experience in which he hurt his head and had to be rushed to a hospital, much like the main character in that story. I was also given the standard introduction to Borges’ common themes—“the Labyrinth” of life, the bifurcations of time, and the thin line between reality and the world of dreams. Was all this necessary for me to draw out of the story its “depth-charge?” Or did this force me to read the work and ask myself, “Am I getting it? Am I a bona fide scholar of Borges?” Either my teacher believed I was too unskillful a reader to ever draw that out for myself, or she believed Borges was too unskillful a writer for anyone to see these things without a proper Borgesean introduction; either assumption is foolish, arrogant.

I fear students today are led to believe that reading literature is a three-step, mechanized process: (1) read an introduction to an author and his or her themes; (2) read the work in question; and (3) connect parts or passages of the work to the themes previously delineated. Is this the way it should be? Winterson does not think so:

Learning to read is a skill that marshals the entire resources of body and mind. I do not mean endless dross-skimming that passes for literacy. I mean the ability to engage with a text as you would another human being. To recognize it in its own right, separate, particular, to let it speak in its own voice, not in a ventriloquism of yours. To find its relationship to you that is not its relationship to anyone else.

Winterson thinks we can form a unique relationship with a work, but only if we read it properly. If the themes are spelled out beforehand, if what you are supposed to extract from the work is explained to you before you read it, then how can this relationship be unique? The mark of bad—and by that I mean “average”—English teachers is to teach their relationship with the work to their students; indeed, they cannot help it (whether they are conscious of it or not is another question entirely). And what use is biography for our relationship with the work? Biographical connections are merely ones between the artist and the work he or she produced; they are thus irrelevant to us, except as trivia or an afterthought. A memorable sentence of Nietzsche’s comes to mind: “There has never been a time when art was chattered about so much and valued so little” (The Birth of Tragedy, 107). This has much more relevance when we consider that the only way to “value” a piece of literature is to read it, and not to “chatter” about its significance beforehand. I offer Nietzsche’s entire 22nd section of The Birth of Tragedy (pp. 104-108), which sheds further light on the idea of the homogenization of the interpretation of art. My analysis of Nietzsche will never do justice to his thoughtful analysis of the problem itself, so I leave it untouched and invite you to experience it for yourself.

Literary interpretation is inductive: expert opinion should not be our guide. One is meant to look at a piece of literature—if it is a novel, look at its descriptions, its characters, the dialogue, the symbolism—and from it draw out general conclusions, which we sometimes label “themes.” When scientists discover things, they too use inductive reasoning. For them, the text is not a written work; it is, instead, the phenomena of the world surrounding them. Stephen Jay Gould evaluates the scientific experiments of Paul Broca in his essay “Women’s Brains.” Broca discovered that women, on average, had smaller brains, and thus he concluded that they were naturally less intelligent than men. Gould makes it a point to say, more than once, that Broca’s data were indeed sound. “But science,” Gould retorts, “is an inferential exercise, not a catalog of facts. Numbers, by themselves, specify nothing. All depends upon what you do with them”. Gould here says something powerful—that all science is interpretive. We have a tendency to defer to the expert authority, and we often see scientists as simply the reporters of facts. But Gould asserts that scientists are human too, and no scientist ever reports the facts alone. All facts must lead to some sort of conclusion, and that conclusion is an interpretation of recorded data. Broca misinterpreted his data because he worked deductively, if only for a moment: he used the perceived fact that “women are, on the average, a little less intelligent than men” to explain his data, rather than drawing out from his data an explanation grounded in something more than a social prejudice (Gould suggests height, age, cause of death, and body size as possibilities Broca could have explored). Jumping back to Percy’s example—is not the contrast between the girl and the people sitting around the Capehart a contrast between induction and deduction? The girl observes the music itself, and then perhaps concludes that it is beautiful or that it is not. Those inside, on the other hand, already have an idea of what great music is, and they are trying to see if that idea explains that which they are hearing (a process Percy calls “getting it”).

When I am told that Shakespeare is great, I read him only to “get it;” I read him only to deduce that his writing is great because I am told beforehand, and thus I know beforehand, that he is a great writer. This is what makes me question the Canon in the first place. I am skeptical of its legitimacy because I can never judge it fairly. In saying this, I wonder (perhaps fear) if I am one of many “idealistic resenters who denounce competition in literature as in life”, as Harold Bloom once described those students who hope for the expansion of the Canon. I do not think so, for I have come to realize that it is not the Western Canon I question—it is not that I do not believe its member-works and member-authors are great. I do not even necessarily have strong feelings one way or another as to whether the Canon should be “opened up.” What I do believe, however, is that one is making a grave mistake when one teaches the works of the Canon beginning with the premise that the works within it are already great. Doing this is not logically much different from Broca looking at his data beginning with the premise that women are not as intelligent as men. I thus emphasize what should already be evident: the Canon does not make the artwork within it great; it is the artwork that makes the Canon great. By remembering this, our interpretation of these works can be richer and much more complicated than a mere deductive confirmation of expert opinion.

I have come to realize there are two sides to this coin—true, the Western Canon restricts me in some ways, but in many other ways it can also catapult me to new heights. Although I see the need for a change in the way the Canon (and any literature for that matter) is taught, I, like Bloom, think studying those who were widely hailed in the past is essential for exploring deeper and richer thought in the future. “There can be no strong, canonical writing without the process of literary influence”, writes Bloom, who describes literary influence as “a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion”. In this sense, the Canon serves a useful and vital function: to provide for the thinkers of today the fruits of centuries of intellectual labor, to allow us to begin our explorations where they only left off. The Western Canon does not only frame me, but, paradoxically, it also urges me onward, upward. Knowing this, it is difficult for me to feel entirely contained by my Formosa, for there are such great heights to which I may leap, so many undiscovered territories awaiting my arrival.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon. Harcourt, 1994.

“Borges, Jorge Luis; Joyce, James; Shakespeare, William.” Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2000.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Women’s Brains.” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry. 2nd ed. Ed. Pat C. Hoy II and Robert DiYanni. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. 305-10.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Ed. Raymond Guess and Ronald Speirs. Trans. Ronald Speirs. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Percy, Walker. “The Loss of the Creature.” Ways of Reading. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston:Bedford, 1996.

Winterson, Jeanette. “The Semiotics of Sex.” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry. 2nd ed. Ed. Pat C. Hoy II and Robert DiYanni. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. 642-51.


This essay was originally published in 2003 for NYU’s expository writing journal, Mercer Street. I recently re-read it and thought it might be wise to save it for posterity on my personal site. I sometimes think back to some of the ideas I wrestled with in this essay when reading modern works.

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