Key Thinkers and Canons
Now that’s funny. Made me do one of those loony blurts of laughter at the computer screen that solidify one’s feeling of creeping insanity. No but really, it is funny. The Guardian has a really exceptionally irritating smug knowing comment in a leader on our debt to Derrida. My point is not to quarrel with the late Derrida, whom I haven’t read; my point is to quarrel with this particular remark in this particular rather silly piece in the Guardian.
What was important was that deconstruction held that no text was above analysis or closed to alternative interpretation. It is no coincidence that it came into vogue in the 1960s and 1970s, when many cultural and social institutions were being challenged. As a result, Derrida became popular among those willing to question the sterile idea of a “western canon” who wanted to expand literary discourse so that writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon could sit alongside the Brontes. Thanks to Derrida, many new voices were heard.
Sterile? Sterile?? Sterile in what sense, you, you [takes deep breath, starts over]. For one thing, there is no ‘western canon’, that’s a straw man. Yes yes, I know, Harold Bloom called a book that, but that’s because of all the people droning about the sterility of this non-existent western canon. There is no fucking canon. Okay? There isn’t. What there is, is a lot of reading lists for university literature surveys, especially in the US where people don’t get much of the kind of thing in secondary school. But that’s not a ‘canon.’ That’s a pejorative people came up with to get people to stop reading Shakespeare and read other people instead. Reading other people is fine, if they’re good (and if they’re not, if that’s what you want to do), but actually discouraging people from reading Shakespeare, by sneering about canons, is another matter. For a second thing, if there were a ‘western canon’ (which there isn’t), why would it be sterile? What’s sterile about reading, say, Homer and Euripides and Thucydides and Montaigne and Byron and Austen and Hazlitt? Eh? And for a third thing, what does ‘could sit alongside the Brontes’ mean? Anything? No, but it implies something – that thanks to Derrida, we now get to think that Mary Elizabeth Braddon is as good as Emily Bronte (not ‘the Brontes,’ since they are two different writers, after all, not a unit). Well guess what – she isn’t. Not even close. I haven’t read Derrida but I have read some Braddon, and she is mildly entertaining, but she is not within shouting distance of the author of Wuthering Heights.
The funny bit is that I was going to do a N&C to say exactly that, and then I saw that A C Grayling had got there first. Good.
Your leader express a gratitude to Jacques Derrida for impugning the idea of a literary “canon” (October 11). What deconstruction and its postmodern allies, in theory, actually do is abandon standards of judgment, describing these as tools of snobbery and exclusion, and thereby making it a criterion of excellence that a work’s author (his or her intentions, of course, aside) has an appropriate gender, ethnicity, or geographical origin.
The good reasons why these latter considerations should count in giving a hearing to traditionally suppressed voices should not be confused with the question of what constitutes the highest critical standards: it is part of the damage done by Derrida and his kind that the latter have been replaced almost wholesale by the former.
Exactly. The bit about snobbery and exclusion is what really gets up my nose. That’s the bit of cultural work that word ‘sterile’ is doing – that’s what I mean by ‘discouraging’ people from reading Shakespeare. It’s false, it’s stupid, and it’s harmful, and I wish people would knock it off. It is not ‘elitist’ to read or to like Shakespeare, and the sooner that idea gets drummed out of the ‘canon’ of right-on ideas, the better. Go, Anthony – tell ’em!
It was also amusing to see the Guardian’s idea of key thinkers. snicker, snort. Alain de Botton and Julie Burchill? gasp, wheeze.
Anyway, when I spotted the article, the first thing I thought was, I wonder if that Baggini fella we keep running into is one of their key thinkers. So I hit the down button, and sure enough. He’s everywhere, that guy. Even here.
Update: You know the best thing about Derrida? People who read him learn not to be so dogmatic! So they tell us, anyway.