Friday, May 27, 2016

at Slate Katy Waldman says the English literary canon is racist, sexist, homophobic (etc) but you have to read it anyway, especially if you're an English lit student

I want to gently push back, too, against the idea that the major English poets have nothing to say to students who aren’t straight, male, and white. For all the ways in which their particular identities shaped their work, these writers tried to represent the entire human condition, not just their clan. A great artist possesses both empathy and imagination: Many of Shakespeare’s female characters are as complexly nuanced as any in circulation today, Othello takes on racial prejudice directly, and Twelfth Night contains enough gender-bending identity shenanigans to fuel multiple drag shows and occupy legions of queer scholars. The “stay in your lane” mentality that seems to undergird so much progressive discourse—only polyamorous green people really “get” the “polyamorous green experience,” and therefore only polyamorous greens should read and write about polyamorous greens, say—ignores our common humanity.  [emphasis added] 

But even if you disagree, there’s no getting around the facts. Although you’ve written that the English department “actively contributes to the erasure of history,” what it really does is accurately reflect the tainted history we have—one in which straight white cis-men dominated art-making for centuries—rather than the woke history we want and fantasize about. There are few (arguably no) female poets writing in Chaucer’s time who rival Chaucer in wit, transgressiveness, texture, or psychological insight. The lack of equal opportunity was a tremendous injustice stemming from oppressive social norms, but we can’t reverse it by willing brilliant female wordsmiths into the past. Same goes for people of color in Wordsworth’s day, or openly queer people in Pope’s, or … 


I am not arguing that it is acceptable for an English major to graduate from college having only read white male authors or even 70 percent white male authors. But you cannot profess to be a student of English literature if you have not lingered in the slipstreams of certain foundational figures, who also happen to be (alas) both white and male: In addition to the majors listed above, Jonson, Shelley, Keats, Pound, Auden, and Frost. This is frustrating, unfair, and 100 percent nonnegotiable. (But hey, try to have some fun reading Frost? You could do so much worse!)

The canon of English literature is sexist. It is racist. It is colonialist, ableist, transphobic, and totally gross. You must read it anyway

A corresponding complaint that Japanese literature is racist, sexist, etc does not seem to come up so much.  The reason seems fairly straightforward, they don't have and haven't had the kind of globe-spanning empire the English had and that the United States has. 

I've been thinking about how there seem to be two contrasting impulses or convictions about what the arts "ought" to do.  Whereas a lot of people have mused upon the Apollo and Dionysius polarity I think lately that there's another polarity--there are those who want art to sum up "our" aspirations and anxieties in a way that becomes art.  But the other impulse is to want to see art REFLECT what is going on in some way.  This gets at Oscars so white or whitewashing casting in adaptations of manga.  It gets at concerns about cultural appropriation that is ... well ... I don't recall a ton of people complaining that somebody like Bubber Miley "appropriated" a Chopin riff for an Ellington piece.  The concern about cultural appropriation might be more accurately expressed about the concern that colonialist/imperialist assimilation seems bad to folks on the left.  Okay ... but all art is appropriation and assimilation.  Nobody as any truly "new" ideas and cultural appropriation isn't always "imperialist".  When the author of Ezekiel riffed on the literature that venerated Marduk in his Gog and Magog oracle was it "bad" to appropriate that set of tropes? 

So it seems that there are those who want the canon to be bigger or for there to be no canon.  It isn't possible for there to be no canon, though.  We've had the sum of human history to discover that anywhere there's any kind of empire an artistic canon of some kind emerges. 

The thing is, humans have a long history of scapegoating.  If we get rid of the customs of rejecting as unsuitable for "mainstream" society one set of people we won't stop "othering" people, we'll just find other groups to alienate or scapegoat.  One of my favorite macabre observations has been Richard Taruskin's observation that it doesn't matter how far left or right you move in European history over the last few centuries, you find they could agree on killing Jews.  If Christians in the contemporary West have fears that they could be next progressives have been saying over and over again that, well, kinda they deserve it.  The idea that what a bunch of white people transformed Christianity into so as to serve ideological and political expansionism may not have corresponded with a historically orthodox Christian faith isn't going to be on the table for the people who have already made up their minds. 

Of course the history of empires seems to be full of people who say the ideals and practices of the empire reflects the highest and best of what is common to all of humanity.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition this can be known as Babel or Babylon, that impulse people have to create empires by which we will not be scattered and will not be forgotten. 

As a former Mars Hill member one of the unforeseen advantages of steeping in the Western literary canon and religious scholarship can be discovering how much stuff gets recycled.  Every generation has to in some sense reinvent the wheel and rediscover fire but the learning curve can be faster if more and more of it is vicarious and observed rather than in the swift path to an untimely death colloquially known as "I learn by doing".  I hear this is a pattern of education encouraged by Middle Eastern Jews and Jewish followers of some guy named Jesus.  If whites benefited from steeping themselves in the literature of non-white authors from millennia ago perhaps taking the best and leaving the rest is kind of what education is supposed to be about. 

We seem to have reached a moment where the politics of identity representation have emerged in reaction to the injustice of a presumed universality that was not-so-universal.  My lineage is not entirely white so it's not like I can't "get that", but Waldman is right to point us in the direction of remembering that just because the liberal, individualistic ideals of a ton of white writers in the last five or six centuries fell short of living out those ideals at many social levels doesn't mean the baby has to go out with the bathwater.  And just because a bunch of white guys in America are obviously the top dog empire now doesn't mean they always were. 

The irony of the "stay in your line" progressive discourse is that it is the photo-negative of the insular hegemony it has critiqued.  The difference may be as blunt as on which side of "mainstream" or "empire" the groups are on but if that's the primary difference then we need all the more to remember that when tables occasionally get turned today's scrappy upstart quester of justice can become tomorrow's imperialist who thinks that his/her/they have the ideals everyone ought to have.  It will happen again because that's just how people are. 

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