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In the last set of comments,  Robert said that we come to literature and its interpretation through academics–so let’s start there.

When I said that I wasn’t talking about English departments, I meant it.  It’s not that I think we shouldn’t study literature at the university level.  I do.  It’s that I think almost all literature study in the universities for the last forty years has been just plain wrong, and that close to all of it was just plain wrong in the forty years before that.

The late Forties and early to mid Fifties include a number of figures who did serious and admirable work in literary studies, but I think they did it in spite of the university system, not because of it.  And when they were gone, they were gone.  There are a few people left with similar talents and inclinations–Steiner, again, and maybe Harold Bloom–but for the most part the study of literature in universities is counterproductive.

In the first place, the PhD is a research degree, not a degree in “interpretation.”  Let’s pass over the fact that it’s not “interpretation’ that has been the subject of debate here, but valuation (deciding which books are good and which are bad), the simple fact is that research is never about interpretation primarily. 

Honest research in the humanities concerns things like placing works historically, investigating language to improve the accuracy of translation, researching the lives and historical contexts of writers, even tracing allusions where possible.

But none of this has anything to do with papers like “Innocense and  Brutality in the Novels of Herman Melville”  or “The Concept of the Real in Three Jacobean Playwrights,”  which is what most English professors write about, when they aren’t writing about completely silly things (“Transgression and Tergiversation in The Color Purple”). 

The modern American university is a hybrid of the nineteenth century German research university with a lot of American notions about “pragmatism” and “equality” that nobody ever thought all the way through.  As a model for research in the sciences, it has a lot of merit.  As a model for research in the “social sciences,” it’s failed to keep them honest, never mind bring them up to the level of actual sciences.  But as a model for teaching the humanities, it’s mostly been a disaster.

For one thing, Robert is right in the allusion–the first canons were religious.   And the first exterprises in hermeneutics (interpretation by close reading) were also religious–Jewish commentary on the Torah, for instance, and the medieval  European attempt to come to some final, irrefutable, undeniable interpretation of the Bible in the effort we now know as Scholasticism. 

Robert points out that he comes from a  Protestant tradition that assumes that every man can interpret the work for himself, and that is, I think, the problem that has plagued the study of literature for over a century.

First, the obvious.  Protestantism may have assumed that every man could read and interpret the Bible for himself–it didn’t quite, because Calvin and  Zwingli were just as willing as any  Pope to execute people for heresy–but in no Protestant tradition I know of is it legitimate to add or subtract books from the canon of Scripture. 

In other words, the normative function of literary criticism–deciding which books are to be included in the canon–has been done for once and all in the  Christian tradition.   Luther desperately wanted to get rid of the Epistle to James and wrote reams of essays and sermons on what was wrong with it, but the  Epistle stayed in the New Testament in spite of that. 

So what Robert objects to most in the literary canon–its exclusion of works he thinks are worthy–would be exactly the same if the model of interpretation were closer to the Protestant one he suggests than the Catholic one he implies. 

But the Protestant model of interpretation isn’t exactly heaven on earth, either.  For one thing, it’s led to some rather odd readings over the course of time, right down to present day “mainstream” Protestant churches that see the recognition of gay marriages as a Christian mandate and modern theologians, like Bishop Spong, who think the resurrection is metaphorical, not actual, and that nobody comes back from the dead.

Faced with such variant interpretations, the Protestant tradition has not been one of simply saying, “well, all everybody has the right to interpret for himself.” In fact, quite the contrary.  Traditionalist believers have been adamant that the social gospel and “inclusive” readings of the New Testament are just plain wrong, and likely to end the interpreter in Hell for all eternity.

The fact is that if you get a bunch of people in  one place and tell them to interpret literature, sacred or profane,  what you get is a spiralling morass of variant “readings” that do nothing to advance understanding of the works involved and often retard such understanding.

What’s more, you inevitably end up in a place where the “interpreters” are desperate to add new books to the canon so that they’ll have something else to talk about.  That’s the real reason why so much time and space in English departments these days is taken up by contemporary literature–so much has already been written about Shakespeare and  Joyce and James that it’s hard to find something else to say.

What goes on in English departments in universities these days is not usually the study of literature, but the study of the study of literature.  And that’s in the best departments, with professors who actually understand the work.  In mediocre and bad English departments, what goes on is mostly self-important blather, the necessary foundations of which the professors involved are completely clueless.

Art–all art, painting and music as well as literature–is a separate language, and nobody ever completely understands it except the people who make it.   George  Steiner says that the best interpretations are imitation and performance–Ulysses is not only a modern novel but a reading of The  Odyssey, Yo Yo Ma performing a Bach concerto produces a reading of that concerto in his performance, as does a theater group presenting a new production of Hamlet.

The second best interpretation is the writing of artists themselves on art.  Van Gogh’s letters to his brother about the progress and intent of his painting, T.S. Eliot’s essays on everything from Greek epic to the Divinia Commedia

It’s not that nobody else ever writes well about interpretation.   It’s that people who can do that with any real insight who are not themselves artists are few and far between.  And that means that most English professors, being neither artists themselves nor particularly talented at interpretation, are mostly just churning out “productivity” to make their resumes look better.

What’s more, this careerism results inevitably in the canon being interpreted, in English departments, as “those books that are good to teach.’  And books that are good to teach are under no circumstances books that are the best written, or with the most impact on the culture.   Books that are good to teach tend to have lots and lots of allusions, whether these allusions are to any purpose or not.  They tend to be “ironic,” whether the irony serves any purpose or not.   They tend to be ambiguous, which gives rise to more need for interpretation.  And  English departments do not care if that ambiguity is necessarily inherent in the work or if it’s just bad writing indicative of authorial confusion.

But absolutely the worse thing about university English departments is what they have done to the wriing of contemporary fiction.  Well into the 1950s, American writers, no matter how “literary,” had to make their way in the world.  They wrote books that sold or not.  If the books didn’t sell, they got jobs on little magazines or in insurance offices.   What they didn’t do was become writers in residence at universities.

And it’s not hard to understand why they started to take up that kind of work–it paid better than most of the alternatives, it gave them more time to write, it even accorded them a respect they weren’t used to in the outside world.  The flip side was in the pressure, subtle and never stated outright, to write “teachable” books, that is, to muck up their work with the kinds of allusions and ambiguities teachers like to teach. 

The result has been a subgenre we now call “literary fiction,’ which is not particularly literary and is often barely fiction.   There are no tip sheets for literary fiction, but the form is rigid nonetheless:  characters drawn from the educated upper middle class; lots of angst and  living lives of quiet desperation;  the complete inability of people to connect with each other on an emotional level; end with alienation and meaninglessness.

Literary fiction is not literature.   What it is is teachable, which is why university English departments like to assign it to students.  It’s also contemporary, so in a university system that has become a business first and an arena for the life of the mind fifteenth or sixteenth, it’s easier to sell to students because it doesn’t require them to know anything to read it.   Give them the poetry of John Donne and you have to fill in all that stuff about Christianity and the Trinity.  Give them The Aneiad and you have to fill in lots of ancient history and explain the place of the epic in Greek culture and why the Romans wanted one of their own and…

You see what I mean.   You’re faced with classrooms full of students who are patholigically resistant to learning anything that “bores” them, and literary fiction is a lot less trouble than actually teaching them anything about literature.

I’m not talking about English professors when  I talk about the canon, and I’m not talking about the curricula of various academic departments.

In fact, if the humanities are going to survive at all, if we’re going to be able to hold on to Western civilization, doing an end run around the academic departments is imperative.

Written by janeh

December 1st, 2008 at 6:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Canon'

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  1. “Traditionalist believers have been adamant that the social gospel and “inclusive” readings of the New Testament are just plain wrong, and likely to end the interpreter in Hell for all eternity.”

    And don’t forget that the modernists are equally adamant that failure to adopt their views on the interpretation of the Bible and Christianity will mean exclusion from the knowledge of/presence of God ie eternity in Hell.

    The Protestant approach to Biblical interpretation hasn’t fostered much in the way of Christian unity, but I think you’re right; in most cases they don’t add to the canon. Well, except for Harpur’s conviction that the pagan tales of virgin births etc are also tales of Christ, and various people’s recommendations of the Gospel of Thomas, and even these aren’t additions to the canon as much as moving out of the canon, although I suspect some people would like to add to the canon as well, or, better yet, destroy it.

    “Honest research in the humanities concerns things like placing works historically, investigating language to improve the accuracy of translation, researching the lives and historical contexts of writers, even tracing allusions where possible.”

    This, I’m familiar with (at a very elementary level). But it seems to me that you’re drawing a very arbitrary line. Surely placing things historically includes things like understanding what was mean by innocence, brutality etc in the world of the book and/or in the society in which the book was written? I wouldn’t want to go too far down this line because I’ll end up trying to support the kind of academic writing in which all the words mean something other than they usually do, except for the words that are official jargon. I had to look up ‘tergiversation’, which seems to be a good match for ‘transgression’, which appears to be an extremely popular literary term that I may not be understanding properly.


    1 Dec 08 at 8:01 am

  2. Calvin and Zwingli? Well, fair enough, but I was actually thinking more along the lines of Oliver Cromwell–a staunch Calvinist and pretty well the foundation of English reliious tolerance–and of 18th Century Methodism–weak on doctrine but fanatical on study. As Jane has pointed out, the person who pioneers an idea may not have worked through all the logical consequences.

    As for the Biblical canon, I note my KJV seems to be short 1st and 2nd Macabees, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom and a couple chapters of Daniel–doubtless an oversight, corrected in my Jerusalem Bible. The point, I think, is that it does no harm to look even at books felt to be divinely inspired every 500 years or so and make sure our predecessors got things right.

    So too with our secular canon. The trick here is to rate some books higher than others for explicit reasons–which can then be debated–and not to create another group of sacred texts. I think we need a few gadflies asking why particular books are not more highly rated and whether certain old standbys are really the best expression of certain ideas or still the best exemplars of their type. My ideal would be slow change, but not fossilization. “The Canon According to Jane” (advert.) includes a number of books not written when Jefferson opened UVA’s doors, and rightly so. For my part, count me as a gadfly when it comes to 19th and 20th Century literature, and a defender of the Canonical establishment otherwise.

    And I am indebted both to proper literary research and to real interpreters who have helped me to better understand and appreciate some well-loved texts.

    None of which is meant to take away from the thrust of Jane’s argument, which I think is accurate and insightful. I understand when there was first discussion of offering Nabokov a position in the English Department at Columbia, it was vetoed with the comment that “the Zoology Department doesn’t hire elephants.” We should have stuck to that.


    1 Dec 08 at 7:36 pm

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