The Fall of the Western Canon

Canon Wars: Joseph Haynes gives his analysis of the fall of the Western Canon in contemporary academics, and whether or not it can be resuscitated.

The Western Canon has been under attack for the last half-century. The ideologues who have infiltrated our education system have done the students of our society a disservice, denying them basic knowledge of the great works that readers once relished. Since the commandeering of education by what Harold Bloom labels the “School of Resentment”– primarily composed of the Marxists, New Historicists, Postmodernists. – students have been taught wave after wave to “read in reception of ideology” rather than read for enjoyment. This, alongside the dominance of literary theory in English education, has deprived students of a passion for reading, resulting in them “not reading at all,” as Bloom observes. 

The Western Canon is an anthology of literary works from Western countries, be they in verse or prose, that history has remembered; however, there is debate about why. Ostensibly, they are remembered for their expansive influence over ways of writing and reading. The Western Canon comprises of Shakespeare, Dante and Cervantes to name just a few of the West’s greatest literary influences but can be organised in a number of variations depending on personal tastes. 

Of course, the whole notion of there ever being such a thing as ‘Western culture’ has been debated for decades. As philosopher (and Resenter) Kwame Anthony Appia, writing for The Guardian postulates, “there is no such thing as Western Civilisation” because for people like Herodotus and Chaucer ‘the West’, as we understand the term today, did not exist. Natalie Wynne of ContraPoints goes further, proclaiming that Western Civilisation is nothing more than an “origin story.” This is all very well. But it seems deeply unfair to assert that the society we have come to know as ‘Western’ is “non-existent” simply because what constitutes the idea of ‘the West’ presently does not align with the term’s past meanings. Would any civilisation or culture live up to this bizarre standard?

Appia’s argument is one of many which must fall when setting out to save the Western Canon from a society that has strangely turned against it, the very society it has served for centuries – the free, democratic West. But an article against Appia and his vein of thinking is not the first step in saving the Western Canon. What must happen first is an understanding of what the Western Canon is, and why it is must be reclaimed as a revolutionary and enthralling collection of great literary works in spite of what the Resenters may say. 

The influence of this group is not to be dismissed as merely superficial. They have taken over the Australian Curriculum, and the HSC marking centre, and have ensured that much important literature goes unstudied. Like all thought regimes, they speak in coded language, emphasising those most troubling words of “context,” “theme” and “identity” when writing their rubrics. Most Resenters set out with two intentions: one is breaking the monoculture that teaching only the Canon in schools creates, the other is allowing a plurality of literary perspectives. But these revolutionary ideas have been betrayed, with Postmodern and non-canonical literature far outweighing the classics in our present-day system. They have eliminated books that are stylistic and cerebral, with Don Quixote and even Hamlet being absent from the English Advanced course.

What must be understood is that the Western Canon is itself revolutionary. It is a living sequence of literary development over Western history, from as early as The Epic of Gilgamesh to as late as Julian Barnes. Embedded within its pages are the words of authorial geniuses, who saw reading as having the potential to expand human consciousness and to enable us to think for ourselves. It is a series of aesthetic influences that have permeated throughout our society, and that continue to be the literary traditions simultaneously embraced and transcended by modern writers. To throw this away, as our curriculums perhaps tempt at, in favour of works more “relatable” to the next generations of readers is a disaster that does not provide young readers the opportunity to actually “read widely.” Instead, the Resenters are narrowing our education in reading to only highly political and ideological writers such as George Orwell and Harper Lee. Yes, these are brilliant authors of course, but they are too often the only great authors our students know in-depth. Thus, if our educators were truthful to their goal of “diversity”, they would not malign the Canon but introduce students to all styles of literature, rather than focussing on the political. 

This is not saying that the youth must learn to love the Western Canon and the Western Canon only. It is merely saying that reading the great works is something that should be encouraged at a young age and not left to “later in life” when it seems simply too late for any sort of profound impact to arise. Of course, some schools do this, but their fees are often astronomical, and their practices are stifled by the fact that they must prepare their students for the HSC exams, which the Resenters design, or face the wrath of displeased parent bodies. Thus, we can see that a system has been created in which the paramount importance of the final exams alone whips the rest of the educational process into line. Moreover, to support the Western Canon is not to say that contemporary fiction and non-canonical works haven’t a place on our reading-lists – of course they do. But it is imperative that students are given the option to learn about all types of literature and its artistic origins within the Canon so that they might have a more holistic aesthetic understanding and formative pedagogical experience.

To replace the teaching of the Canon with more “relevant” works is to imply that the Canon itself is somehow irrelevant. It only affirms the attitude common to most in their child and teenage years that if a text is old then it is somehow alien. Tragically, this is a sentiment held in most generations of our society, or at least those that came after the era of Postmodernism. Of even greater concern is that this mind-set is exactly the same as that which is prejudiced against any ideas or culture perceived as ‘old-fashioned.’ This surely is exactly the insipid attitude that we see as the antithesis to a tolerant society that judges a person, an idea and even literature on its character rather than traits that are inherent to its existence. Whether books were published last week or six-hundred years ago, should be of little importance in the way they are read. Of course, context is significant, especially in understanding why certain works appear in certain periods and not in others, but to equate literature with context is to remove any power the author has in transcending his age. It only tells young readers that books from the past are somehow impenetrable. New Historicists, for example, insist that a piece of fiction is somehow completely tied to the context of its publication and render literature to be nothing more than the mere manifestation of a period’s ‘social energies.’ To put it simply, we are increasingly putting up barriers between the author and the reader, preventing young readers from actually being able to enjoy classical literature for themselves. Education’s increasing emphasis on theoretical and political mediation as being necessary in reading, is also preventing young readers from being able to enjoy being taken on a story by the author, causing many to desert reading at a young age. One poll found that the amount of people that read for pleasure daily dropped from 26% in 2003 to just 15% in 2017 .

Education has created an intellectual veneer around reading that has alienated many from the pastime. Instead of the Canon being seen as a collection of books that can be enjoyed by the ordinary person, it has become objectified into “texts” that can only be analysed by a qualified academic elite. This goes back to why it is crucial to provide the opportunity for students to read and learn about the Canon at school. By introducing the reading of the Canon at a young age, literature would not be seen as a dry intellectual’s game but instead could be read by anyone. Ironically, almost all the Canonical works – The Canterbury Tales, Henry IV Pt. 1, Odyssey, etc. – were revolutionary partly in that they could be enjoyed by every member of a society, yet now are only read by a highly educated minority. If we do not return these works to their intended audience – the ordinary person – intellectuals will increasingly be allowed to tell us what to think these works are about. It is through reading well and broadly that we learn to think for ourselves. 

The term ‘revolution’ has come in and out of fashion within the English language, especially in political contexts. But in the case of the Canon, what makes it revolutionary is strictly apolitical. This is another of the Canon’s many refreshing qualities: it is essentially unideological. Indeed, the Canon is not a manifestation of works based on their political message. Rather, it is a serialisation of the great aesthetic developments throughout literary history, a compilation of innovative styles and techniques, not of moralities and ideologies. Of course, this is not to say that Canonical works cannot be ideologically charged, some most certainly are, but it is to say that the presence of ideology in itself is not what the Canon is remembered for.

But this brings us to the main point: the Western Canon is inspiring because it is essentially a disconnected lineage of great literary works, each of which have separated themself from their rivals by displaying an extraordinary and revolutionary individual talent. The Western Canon beckons its Readership to read for enjoyment of the tales it tells and compels them to understand the revolutionary aesthetics of literature, allowing them to read more broadly and exploratively. It is for this reason that the Western Canon should be embraced for what it is; revolutionary writing that unlocks our potential as readers.

It is foreseeable therefore, in a world where ‘Death of the Author’ has come to dominate the way we are taught to read, that the true value of the Canon has become mystified. We have abandoned reading as a relationship between writer and reader, instead reading to project our own meaning onto a text without giving the author a chance to guide us. More concerningly, Postmodernists have taught us to view writing as only a mechanism through which political influence can be spread. While Postmodernism’s theories may be valuable in some instances, they are no way to teach literature as a whole. Rather, it is the Canonist’s belief that great authorship is so much more than politics. It is that Canonist’s belief that great writing is revolutionary – not in the political sense of the word, but revolutionary in how it can cause a dramatic change in artistic aesthetics. 

Despite what we are relentlessly told by loud voices in media and education, we cannot sever the Western Canon from our reading-lists by being prejudiced against books simply because they were written by old people from the past. Instead, literature must be valued for its merit and for the wonders that reading the great works does to our minds. Literature must always belong to the people of a society, not the Resenters who have carved themselves out as an intellectual elite that get to tell the rest of us how to read. If we want to save the Canon, a re-understanding of the revolutionary aesthetics within the great works is due or our civilisation risks losing something of extreme significance. 

This is not the position of a stubborn tweed-wearing traditionalist but surely of anyone who values good literature and the potential it holds in granting us a richer culture. We should look forward to the Canon’s ranks being extended by new generations of great and revolutionary writers who will once again expand our aesthetic limitations.

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