The war of the canon

Some study literature to discover themselves. But the task can be painful, George Watson argues, and the outcome nebulous

July 16, 2009

It is not as obvious as it should be that English is a subject. It is even darkly rumoured that there are academics who doubt it.

Years ago I taught in a Midwestern department of English somewhere west of the Great Lakes, and it had recently polled students on why they were there. Why, for instance, had they chosen English? The answers were surprisingly consistent. Nobody said that the first language of global communication was bound to need teachers all over the world. Nobody mentioned William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens or any other great writer. Almost nobody hinted at an ambition to become a writer. What prevailed was a faintly agonised narcissism, a hunger for self-knowledge: "I wanted to know who I was."

Professors were widely understood to believe in a canon of great authors and great works, and duly taught them, but the adolescent mind viewed all that (at best) as a matter of remote anthropological interest. And yet the university I taught at was in no way avant-garde; nor was the age. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, parents were rumoured to vote Republican, and if deconstruction was mentioned at all it was only by workers on building sites.

The experience was representative. It was echoed a year later in New York and later still in British seats of learning. Professors believed in a canon of great works: students had other views. By the late 1950s a youth culture was rapidly forming throughout the Western world - the first in history - based on affluence, leisure, pocket money and television. It was an intergenerational war fought out, peacefully at first, in music, fiction, films, dancing and eventually politics; and by the early 1960s, with the advent of the Beatles, youth had conquered. It hardly needed arguments, since professors looked moribund and sounded reassuringly polite, even collaborative. The Me Generation had arrived.

Self-discovery proved more problematical than its pioneers ever imagined, however, and it is time for the survivors to take stock.

"We don't teach grammar, we teach children," one of the slogans went. Shortly afterwards the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space, and suddenly the word was that the Cold War was being lost. Communism disciplined its children, after all, as Nazism had once done: could it succeed where Nazism had failed? The education debate still rumbles on between teachers who want to be liked and parents who want the young to be disciplined.

Students, meanwhile, take one position in committee and another in private conversation. In the former they parrot the jargon of advanced opinion; in the latter, in lowered voices, they ask that syntax and metre be explained, since no one has told them about parts of speech or what a sonnet is.

You can learn the basics of English metre in less than ten minutes, but nobody has thought it worth spending those ten minutes, and first-year undergraduates' ignorance can survive years at a university. It would be a brave teacher now in school or college who explained the difference between blank verse and heroic couplets or what a participle is.

Self-knowledge, meanwhile, proved a lot sadder than anyone expected.

I once watched myself being interviewed on television, sitting at home next to my own teapot. It was a shock. I recognised the teapot before I recognised myself, and I am still trying to believe that the voice I heard was mine. Those who are curious to know who they really are should think longer and harder about what it can cost. The experience can be life-shattering and terminally humiliating, and it can gravely destabilise any ability you have to live in the world at all. To know yourself, often enough, is to wish you did not.

What, in any case, does self-knowledge mean? Description does not much help, in or out of psychoanalysis. In Resurrection Leo Tolstoy remarked that attempts to describe people are commonly a delusion. Nobody, he argued, can reasonably be described as kind, wicked, stupid, energetic or apathetic. "People are not like that. We may say of someone that he is more often kind than cruel, wise than stupid, energetic than apathetic or vice versa; but it could never be true to say he is kind or wise, wicked or stupid."

A man is like a river, Tolstoy goes on - forever changing and flowing, broad, clear, cold, muddy or warm - and everyone embodies all the qualities there are. Mankind varies not in its elements but in their proportion. To live is to be everybody, at least for a moment, and nobody is a character to himself.

Characters in fiction exemplify the point. Shakespeare's Hamlet is perhaps the most compendious: there is no single character-description you could apply that would not be true, none that would be complete. But Hamlet commits Tolstoy's mistake when he calls Polonius a tedious old fool, which cannot really say everything that needs to be said about Polonius; he presumptuously teaches marital duty to his mother - "Go not to my uncle's bed" - out-rants Laertes at the funeral of his own sister and, in the final act of the play, parodies Osrick to his face. All that makes it easier to dismiss Polonius' simplistic advice to his son: "This above all - to thine own self be true/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man."

No convincing source in ancient philosophy or Elizabethan moralising has yet been found for this egregiously silly advice, since the famous Greek adage at Delphi, "Know thyself", concerns the whole species of mankind as much as any individual. Tolstoy is surely right: any brief description of a character is certain to be misleading, and in any case there is no sense to be made of Polonius' glib conclusion about being false to no one. A card sharp as he fleeces his victim might claim to be true to himself: he is someone who cheats at cards. He is nonetheless false to any man.

Self-knowledge, in any case, plainly involves knowledge of others. There is a chilling moment in the first scene of King Lear when the two wicked daughters discuss their father's dire mistake in dividing his kingdom and disinheriting Cordelia for refusing to flatter him. "He hath ever but slenderly known himself," Regan tells Goneril, who has just remarked on his poor judgment. Self-judgment involves judging others, and youth culture since the 1950s has not been open to the charge of ignoring the point. In its passion for gregarious living it may rather be said to exaggerate it. Peer approval is never stronger as a craving and a need than in adolescence. It is also a weakness, and parroting beliefs because they are fashionable is perilously easy.

An old lady who had voted Conservative all her life once told me that she had been a communist in her undergraduate days because all the clever men she knew were communists, and that had been her only reason. It is the worst of luck for literary studies that they commonly overlap the conformism of late teens. An ideal student would not admire Samuel Beckett because he is fashionable: he would admire him because he was admirable, and see why he was.

The 20th century was the first to esteem individual self-knowledge highly and encourage it widely, and in a new century and a new millennium it may be worth contemplating the outcome.

The chief literary effect has been biographical, even autobiographical, and no century ever wrote and published memoirs as abundantly as the 20th. Parisian critics may confidently proclaim the Death of the Author, and did, but in Fulham and Chelsea they know better. In the English-speaking world lives sell and biographies command hefty publishing advances. So do autobiographies, journals, diaries and collections of letters. As Mark Twain would say, the report of the death of the author was greatly exaggerated. In my neighbouring bookshop, new lives-and-letters crowd tabletops and shop windows, but you have to ask your way to the poetry section and may meet with a baffled response if you do. Far more know about the troubled love life of Ted Hughes than ever read his poems.

It was not always so. Lord Clarendon (1609-74), historian of the Civil War and minister to Charles I and (after the Restoration) to Charles II, wrote an autobiography that was not published at all until the 18th century, composed in the third person. Before the 19th century no autobiography of any English man of letters ever saw print in his own lifetime. The French were a little earlier - Michel de Montaigne's essays, if not an autobiography, are highly autobiographical - but on the whole authors did not write extensively about themselves or publish when they did. The diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn did not appear before the 19th century. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (1817), where the first chapter at least is autobiographical, met with cold neglect and was left unread even by his friend William Wordsworth, for whom it was written, and John Ruskin did not know it existed at all until middle age.

In an earlier age, Samuel Johnson had written Lives of the Poets (1779-81) because a group of publishers had commissioned it, but he paid little attention to how life affects art and even less to how art affects life. Wordsworth withheld The Prelude from the printers until his death in 1850; an earlier and more revelatory version of the poem remained in manuscript until 1926. No one who knew Shakespeare bothered to write his life story, although his acquaintance was wide, and Ben Jonson's conversations in 1619 with William Drummond lay unprinted until Victorian times.

The promotion of self - one's own and others - is recent, and it is by now so wildly popular that no case against it is likely to be much heeded or heard. Nonetheless there is a case to be made. In 19 a sexagenarian called W.B. Yeats, in Sailing to Byzantium, denounced the modern age as no country for old men and called for a return to the canon, "monuments of unageing intellect". That sounds like a cry of despair. A generation later, W.H. Auden, nearing 50, delivered his inaugural lecture at the University of Oxford in June 1956, "Making, Knowing and Judging", later published in his collection The Dyer's Hand (1962). He startled a donnish audience by praising them for being donnish and editing texts. They had just elected him professor of poetry, so it may have been an expression of gratitude, but the tone was far more than merely polite. The undergraduate lecture that had most deeply influenced him, he announced, was on compulsory Anglo-Saxon, which years before had led him to a lecture hall where J.R.R. Tolkien had read from Beowulf. It changed his life as a poet: "This poetry, I knew, was going to be my dish." The gangster ethic of the sagas, as he called it, had saved him as a creative force.

He owed that revelatory moment to the compulsion of a syllabus, but that is a possibility educationists rejected a long time ago and do not wish to be reminded of. Compulsion can be a blessing. Reading what you like is all too likely to disappoint - after all, you know it already. To explore a canon of great works, by contrast, can enliven the mind and enlarge the spirit.

In short, it would not be amazing if the potent fashion for project teaching and student choice were now drawing to a melancholy and disappointed close. Years ago, in The Western Canon, Harold Bloom argued that masterpieces are so crucial to the survival of a civilisation that no generation can afford to ignore them. No generation, on the other hand, can read them unaided, which is why Auden provocatively argued that democracy should by rights belong to the elderly. That openly outrageous demand was made in his "Americana", collected along with his inaugural lecture in The Dyer's Hand. "What the United States needs are puberty-initiation rites and a council of elders," he said. He was bravely calling time on the cult of youth, but he left out of his account one of the most cogent reasons of all.

The young are old-fashioned. They are at once in thrall to the past and largely ignorant of it. The examples multiply. In the 1960s young men revived a Victorian fashion for beards, which should have been advance warning. Then they took to Marxism - not the mature, late-flowering kind, but an early version of the 1840s warmed by the autumn glow of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who had influenced the young Karl Marx and died back in 1831. In the 1970s feminism was revived, another 19th-century relic, along with semiotics, which was mentioned by John Locke in his Essay of 1690. Literary studies made the same backward journey. I recall Shakespeare classes where retired scholars quoted radically innovative arguments from recent learned journals to baffled undergraduates who still thought G. Wilson Knight the latest thing. It was little different in politics, where the New Left clung to Clause Four long after their elders had noticed that nationalisation enriches the rich by driving stock markets up with compensation funds.

Meanwhile Ken Livingstone spoke up for the hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic age and E.P. Thompson, tiring of Marx, sadly tried to revive a 17th-century sect called Muggletonians. The Nouvelle Critique looked nouvelle only if you had missed reading Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, which admittedly a lot of people had. So Yeats may have missed the point when he said the modern age was no country for old men. The old and the middle-aged can do very well in it if they have the audacity to call old ideas new.

The young are old-fashioned because they do not know the choices that are available; but as a teenage Auden once discovered, Beowulf is new if you are hearing it for the first time. You thought the canon was dead and needed only to be buried. But it can surprise and excite.

The surprise lies in discovering a forgotten past - forgotten, often, by those who are fearful (and with reason) that what they would find there might prove subversive. Much of what passes for advanced thought is mutton dressed as lamb. Semiotics is centuries old. The class war is in Aristotle. The first history of socialism in any language, Alfred Sudre's Histoire du Communisme (1849), thought it a con-servative idea, and alliteration has been used as a structural device in English verse for more than 1,000 years. Discovering who you are, against all that, can be a sad and sorry business. The case against the canon, in any case, is self-refuting. If you think Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene overrated, no one will attend to you unless you have read it. So the conclusion, though daunting, is plain. Read it.

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