Gaslighting and Gatekeeping: The Literary Canon | Opinion


In my senior year of high school, I took a course on writing a long-term creative project. I immediately knew what I wanted to do: an anti-Shakespeare story.

At that time, I was in my sixth year of studying Shakespeare. We started with Much Ado About Nothing in 7th and finished with The Tempest in 12th. to constantly glance between the original text and the translation in my copy of “No Fear Shakespeare”; to pretend to like, or even to be interested in, half of the pieces that I analysed.

So I wrote my anti-Shakespeare story. If you think that sounds immature and anxious, you’re right. I ended up getting one of the lowest grades in the state, and it nearly caused my Australian version of the GPA to fail. (Thank goodness I had a backup class).

Even though it was a failure, I still think about this project from time to time, because the essence of what I was looking for remains valid. I was not anti-Shakespeare per se, but anti-literary canon. I was expressing a common frustration with the supposed status of the Western literary canon as the zenith of all literature.

Many people before me beat the drum to expand the barrel. They pointed to its serious diversity problem and the fact that it was historically determined by a group of leading critics and scholars. I will not reproduce those arguments here. But as the “to expand or not to expand” debates rage on, I ask another, perhaps simpler question: why should we have a canon at all?

You might be thinking: sure, the current canon has a diversity problem, but anyone who wants to be worldly and educated should read the best texts, right?

Here is my problem. Where is the real proof that the western canon is truly made up of the best works that exist? A common argument is that Shakespeare, Dante and Milton have survived the “test of time” – they must be good, because hundreds of years after their lives we still read them. And of course, lasting appeal is definitely one aspect that could explain their longevity. But also inertia. And access control and gas lighting, at an elite academic level.

This article would not be the place to give historical accounts of how different writers have been canonized over time, but I will give a hypothetical overview. A writer (usually white, usually male) achieves commercial success, for example, in the early 20th century. Their works have such popular appeal in recent public memory that, even after their death, critics (again, mostly white and male) are still interested in their body of work, and it is also featured at some key academic institutions. full of impressionable (and white). , and boys).

In large part, these students take in, as truth, that this particular writer is worthy or special above others in some way. And when some of them become critics, scholars and educators themselves, they replicate what they know.

And so on, for literal decades. Never mind that some of these highly regarded writers are now irrelevant or eclipsed by more contemporary authors. Or that, simply by continually offering entire courses on individual canon writers, educational institutions have provided clear evidence that the canon is largely inaccessible to readers without a fancy degree.

Even today, the mindset of incoming students is ruffled by the larger, ‘elite’ education system. New students convince themselves that Tolstoy, Dickens, or Joyce must have been the greatest writers who ever lived, because otherwise why would whole classes be devoted to them? They learn to suppress their own instincts and potential discomfort with the cannon, because if they don’t, they’re often faced with the implication that they’re just not as dazzlingly smart as everyone else. And with their already inflated impostor syndrome, this problem will be most severe for minority groups – the very people most likely to bring new insights.

Canonization thus engenders a culture where it becomes increasingly difficult for young and diverse people to give their true reflections on the art and literature that surrounds them. It’s almost an academic chicken game, where the yield cost potentially seems dumber than your peers.

But even if we discard all of the above and blindly accept that every work in the canon deserves its place, that still wouldn’t solve the fundamental problem: art is infinite. And good art – even the “best” art – is something that will always surpass, challenge, and be irrelevant to the very idea of ​​a “canon”.

Art is made every. Only. Day. And while some critics and scholars may be horrified to hear this, good art – whatever it is – can, in fact, be found anywhere and from anyone. (You can read my last article to see what I mean about this). All of this means that erecting a canon of the so-called “greatest” art goes against everything art should really be.

In other words, we can “extend” the canon as much as we want. But we won’t take the right path until it grows so much that it ceases to be “canon” at all.

Lina HR Cho ’23 is a comparative literature hub at Dunster House. His “Bad Art” section appears every other Monday.

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