I began this discussion of the canon with the concept of the canon itself; but at several points it may have seemed that I should, instead, have begun with the concept of literature: that is, to have spoken first not of the literary canon but of the canon of literature and thus to define what is at stake in the various understandings of that term before speaking of the makeup of the literary canon. Even if one abandons not only the traditional literary canon but any canon, choosing, instead, only a pedagogical series constituted by no authority other than the intention of the one who instantiates it, one constituted by a purely demographic authority, or only by the authority of its audience's experience, still the question persists whether these texts, whatever the principle governing their instantiation, are literary texts. Fox-Genovese, for example, whose work I have cited with approval, does not concern herself with distinguishing between those texts of the canon that may reasonably be designated literary texts and those that may not—as others who would revise the canon, myself among them, on occasion do not. If we would keep the distinction between literary and other texts, whether it is one of kind or of degree, we must not only offer grounds for it but justify it as well: to ask, that is, whether the distinction between literature and other types of written discourse is possible to maintain and also whether it is worth maintaining.
The order I have adopted—canon first, then literature—seems preferable not so much for logical as for strictly empirical reasons inasmuch as one can more or less point to the literary canon, at least "as we have inherited it," whereas it is more difficult, probably impossible, to point to "litera-
ture" itself. The canon of Western literature, as this is traditionally conceived in England and America, has consisted of the texts of Homer, Sophocles, and Dante, Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Dryden, Wordsworth, Austen, Flaubert, George Eliot, Dickinson, Yeats, James, Joyce, Proust, Lawrence, Mann, Woolf, and T.S. Eliot, probably Stevens and John Berryman, along with the texts of many unnamed others—which texts, whatever their authors' names, would not significantly alter our sense of the kind and quality of the traditional literary canon. For traditionalists, to be sure, "literature"—"great" literature—is simply what these men and some few women wrote. But just as there is a challenge to the canonicity of these ostensibly "great" authors, so, too, is there a challenge to the view that their writing defines literature.
For "literature" obviously does not include everything that even these authors wrote, probably not their letters, for example. Or would it be that some of these authors wrote "literary" letters while others did not? We might possibly admit Milton's Areopagitica to literature, although that would likely not be the case with Eliot's Idea of a Christian Society, nor with Berryman's critical biography of Stephen Crane. Henry James's plays would have to be admitted as compositions of a literary kind—although these last might be considered bad literature. Do James's novels alone then help us define literature (but what of the prefaces for the New York edition?)—or is it hopelessly circular reasoning to say so? Meanwhile, we know today that all "texts," even menus, ads, and TV programs, can be given literary readings, can be read, that is, as literature or in ways consistent with the sorts of readings that have traditionally been reserved for literature. Are we approaching the time therefore when the canon of literature should open itself to the best-written ads, or is it, instead, the case that literary readings do
not literature make? And if not, what happens to such apparently nearer-to-literary texts (nearer than ads or menus, anyway) as Rousseau's or Augustine's Confessions ? It may be that we should indeed speak of the canon without qualification as to canonical type; still, if only for practical reasons (I refer to the traditional ways of mapping subject matter areas in American universities and colleges and the classification systems in our libraries and bookstores), perhaps we would do well, first, to consider what may be meant by literature. (There are also good theoretical reasons for doing so.)
In this matter there are also two opposed views that I will again state in extreme fashion; they parallel the essentialist and the instrumentalist views of the canon. On the one hand, it is held that there is certainly such a thing as literature, a type of discourse qualitatively distinct from other types, with discernible, distinctive traits and unique functions, a thing that changes, to be sure, but only within certain fixed limits (beyond those limits literature would not be literature), so that its lineaments may be traced over time with some assurance. "The existing monuments," as T. S. Eliot put it, "form an ideal order among themselves," an order "modified by the introduction of the new . . . work of art among them," but modified, it appears, only "ever so slightly" (50): for literature, plus ça change plus ça reste le même . No wonder, then, that, as a Canadian doctoral candidate in literature complained to me, according to her department head, fur-trade journals are simply not literature nor may they be studied as such for the degree. And as Christopher Clausen has recently insisted, "It Is Not Elitist to Place Major Literature at the Center of the
English Curriculum"; so to place it, of course, one needs a certain steady faith that he knows the exact nature of Literature, Majority, and Centrality.
On the other hand, literature is taken as just another socially determined category of discourse: like "greatness," what is or is not "literature" is whatever those empowered to define it say it is. Literature has no essence nor any distinctiveness of its own; it is not inherently recognizable, nor can we know it except insofar as it is institutionally defined. Just as capital gains are what the IRS says they are, so are novels or poems—so is literature—only what the publishers, reviewers, and professors say they are, only what the librarians class under one group of numerals rather than another, or the bookstores place in one section or another. Consider, for example, the opinion of those very differently flamboyant personalities, Leslie Fiedler and Roland Barthes. Fiedler writes, "Literature is effectively what we teach in departments of English; or, conversely, what we teach in departments of English is literature" (73). Or, in Barthes's words, "The 'teaching of literature,' is for me almost tautological. Literature is what is taught, that's all" (1971, 170).
For there is, after all, no single trait that can be isolated in the texts traditionally treated as literature which could unequivocally distingush them from their nonliterary relatives: neither their fictionality (lies and sensational journalism, not to mention Ronald Reagan's accounts of Libyan terrorist activities, are fictional but not usually considered literature); nor their form (greeting card verse has rhyme and meter as do the lyrics of some popular music, but the first of these is never claimed for literature, whereas the second, when claimed, meets vociferous opposition); and assuredly not the figuralism of their language or any excess of signification over semantic communication. William Labov's studies of black
American speech on the one hand, and Paul de Man's studies of philosophical writing on the other, uncover a considerable element of figuralism in ordinary or scientific discourse, but neither of these has as yet—the situation is perhaps in the process of change—been claimed specifically as literature. And as Barbara Herrnstein Smith remarks, there simply are "no functions performed by art works that may be specified as unique to them" (14). This is to say that apart from "literature's" existence as an abstract and idealized object of veneration or theorization, what we have to deal with is simply those texts that for one reason or another have been treated as "literature," literature as a strictly social category of discourse. As Terry Eagleton has claimed, a time might even come when Shakespeare himself would not be seen as a producer of literature; nor is there any fixed and intrinsic manner of determining just what sort of thing Gulliver's Travels, Our Lady of the Flowers, Glas, or, indeed, Canadian fur-trade journals might best be considered.
This is a strong position, I believe. But just as one may adopt a generally pragmatic and instrumental view of the canon without denying the usefulness of such a category as the canon, so, too, one may adopt a hermeneutically suspicious view of literature without denying the usefulness of the category itself. Though I agree that there is —ontologically, essentially—no such thing as literature, the term nonetheless embodies a very specific history and, as well, an aspiration that should not too quickly be abandoned.
We might begin by noting that historically literature was
simply the term for whatever language Western cultures deemed important enough to preserve by means of the technology of writing. Literature, from Latin littera, letter, as is well known, served broadly to indicate anything that had been written down and—to achieve a measure of social circulation—copied over. (For oral societies without alphabetic "letters," literature is whatever language is deemed worthy of sufficient repetition to assure that it will be remembered and passed along. From a quantitative point of view, oral cultures will inevitably have less literature than chirographic and print cultures.) Now, although everything written down might have at least an etymological claim to be taken as "littera-ture," poetry, the term that precedes our modern term literature, was always distinguished as a specific kind of writing different from lettered discourse in general because of its curious capacity to appeal either to the emotions, the senses, the imagination, or the fancy—the faculty posited varies with each commentator's psychological understanding and social vision—all of which were contrasted in some greater or lesser degree with the rational or analytical faculties to which other written discourse makes its primary appeal. Poetry, by its rhyme and meter, or—this is the case in literary prose—by its figures and structure, delights us; it is pleasurable beyond what can be accounted for rationally. Whether it stands therefore in opposition to rationality is the great question.
In general it may be said that all littera-ture, including the poetic part, was required to be pedagogical to the extent at least that it traditionally was expected to play a role in instructing our reason in how to be the kind of citizens valued by our particular societies. (If littera-ture did not do this it would be against the self-interest of society to preserve it in the first place.) But a type of littera-ture—poetry—which
delights us and appeals to our emotions, imagination, and so forth, may well be something, as Plato felt, that works against rationality and so against social formations presumed to rest upon rational foundations. The problem is to reclaim poetry for the state, or, less grimly, to show its social value. Aristotle's cathartic notion of what happens to the emotions aroused by tragic poetry had exactly this aim; perhaps I. A. Richards's psychoanalytic revision of Aristotle did, too. As Sir Philip Sidney summarized Renaissance thinking on the matter, poetry might be defended by emphasizing its epistemological status, its fictive nature, which permits a more abundant freedom to mix types of discourse: the philosopher must teach abstractly, by precept, the historian concretely, by example. But the poet can do both, and without being tied, in the latter case, to what actually occurred. The delight poetry produced was a kind of bonus, one that contributed to the effectiveness of its teaching—which was, to be sure, the chief reason for preserving and valuing it. Put another way, the surplus of signification, the excess that pleased, had cognitive value.
In general, defenders of poetry from Aristotle to Sidney, Percy Shelley, Walt Whitman, Matthew Arnold, I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot, Leon Trotsky, and Herbert Marcuse—let me take them as examples of some of the best-known spokesmen for (what at this point we must call) literature—have affirmed the social utility of poetry, the importance of its pedagogical function, and the compatibility of its extrarational appeal with right reason, regardless of their political
differences (and so their stance in relation to an existing society), regardless of their understanding of the component makeup of its delightfulness.
It is only recently—dating perhaps from around the mid- or late nineteenth century—that anyone has attempted to divorce literature from social utility. The argument is that poetry is good in itself, presenting beauty that needs no equation to truth; it is purposeless purpose, and so on. In the art-for-art's-sake line of reasoning (to call it that), poetry's delightfulness is deemed sufficient to justify it without any need to claim a teaching function—or any function whatever. In America, it is not so much the opinion of Verlaine, J. K. Huysmans, Walter Pater, or Oscar Wilde, mutatis mutandis, that has weighed in the attempt to isolate literature from the social, but that of Flaubert as passed through Stephen Dedalus's esthetic and expressed by the New Critics, whose poetic theory—for all their abundant concern for social questions—insisted on the literary relevance only of the tensions and ironies internally generated by or in a poem. This separation of the esthetic and the socially useful was reinforced by Roman Jakobson's specification of the poetic function of language as self-reflexiveness, and, most recently, by New Rhetorical deconstruction's insistence on linguistically generated moments of textual aporia as the ultimate horizon of literary language. Recent valorization of "the pleasures of the text," a turn to jouissance and a literary erotics which brackets if it does not overtly scorn questions of poetic functionality, may be seen as only the culmination of a determination to uphold the delighting function of literature in spite of, not as complementary to, its teaching func-
tion. In America this view animates a range of criticism from Van Wyck Brook's distinction between "art" and "expression," to Lionel Trilling's separation of "genuine" literature from fictionalized propaganda, and Richard Poirier's valorization of a stylistic "world elsewhere." Historically, however, this remains a minority view born of a dissatisfaction with the actualities of social life and a despair of political change in the interest of a transformation of social life.
The foregoing comments are intended to suggest that there are some historically urgent criteria for claiming literature as a distinct category of discourse. Granted, as Saussure said of language, literature is not a positive entity; it has no essence, no body. But it is distinguishable differentially, if only in degree, from other uses of language. The question, What is literature? then, may be answered by positing a range of texts in which the conjoint attempt to teach and delight appears, in the old, Russian formalist sense, as the "dominant." In this way we may distinguish literature (although always as the result of an act of interpretation and evaluation that is open to question) from other uses of written language that have aimed at, though certainly not achieved, instruction (philosophy, theology) or pure delight.
But is the effort to sustain the difference between literature and other forms of discourse to any point? If, as I would readily acknowledge, one can delight in philosophical discourse that is primarily oriented toward instruction; if one is always inevitably instructed by discourses of delight of whatever type, why
then labor to maintain a special category called literature, a category, as I have claimed, that would be constituted precisely by the dominance of its conjunction of the pleasurable and the pedagogical? What answer I can give depends upon an analogy to the canon: just as it is worthwhile to retain the notion of a body of texts centrally significant to a common culture, an approximation to a collective autobiography, the story of our integrated selves as participants in a common society, so too is it worthwhile to retain the notion of literature as comprised of those texts that provide instances of and occasions for the integrated self. Literature is where the affective and rational coexist and complement each other in language, where fancy and imagination press for freedom beyond the bounds of a material constraint to which proper due is given. Literature is that mode of discourse which foremost seeks to enact and perform its insights, insisting that we understand with affect, feel with comprehension. In this sense, T. S. Eliot was wrong: there is no literature of dissociated sensibilities; in this sense, Roy Harvey Pearce was right: literature is always an instance of the search for wholeness.
Let us then optimistically assume we have staked out a claim for some properly literary territory; let us say we know differentially what literature is. This only tells us which texts are candidates for the canon of literature. How to choose from all of them those that are—what? Great? best? most useful, relevant, cogent? From a purely formal point of view, considering what I will call the techné of delight, there probably are intrinsic criteria for literary excellence. The only problem is that decisions as to which intrinsic criteria to privilege turn out themselves to be dependent upon prior extrinsic or ideological determinations. And, to be sure, even if we agree upon which texts meet our particular standard of literary "excellence," our further choice from among them must rest upon the kinds of imaginative and affective appeals they make, a function of our phronetic desire (phrónesis[*], or "knowing how to act . . . knowing what a situation calls for in the way of action" [Bruns, 16]), or the kind of social pedagogy we wish to further. It is the image of individual wholeness and collective cohesiveness ("content") we approve as presented by means of those techniques ("form") we enjoy that determines our choices for the literary canon. However much we may, with Christopher Clausen, dream of value-free literary judgments, these exist—alas?—only in dreams. (And as Roy Harvey Pearce is fond of noting, in history, not dreams, begin responsibilities.) To acknowledge that in literary studies all is ideology is not suddenly to endorse the Thrasymachean-Hobbesian-Foucauldian view of the endless war of all against all I was at pains to criticize above; rather, it is to say quite simply that literature is not the first thing (nor is it the last and only thing) anybody ever cares about. It is to take my epigraph for this book to heart.
Consider first the question of form, and so the techné of
delight. At least from the modernist period up until the current postmodern reaction, subtlety and complexity of verbal texture were the intrinsic criteria for literary excellence: connotation rather than denotation, implication rather than direct statement, irony rather than the metaphoric and metonymic tropes of romanticists and realists. Degrees of subtlety and complexity probably can be determined by intrinsic tests; what kinds of subtlety and complexity—and, whether subtlety and complexity of technique necessarily mark the "best" texts—cannot be determined intrinsically. That the triumph of modernist taste represents the triumph of a masculinist bias—once more, that these intrinsic criteria rest upon extrinsic grounds—has been noted by feminist critics; what has been noticed less is that this bias represents a privileging of writing over the voice, something readily apparent to students of orality and literacy, if not to deconstructionists.
Thus, current attempts to take women's diaries seriously as types of literature or as cultural documents of more than marginal significance, for example, need to be aware that the values of these texts are not only gender- but technologically-inflected. That is to say that their techniques are not only those assumed to be appropriate to women rather than men, but as well those deemed appropriate to cultures marked by oral rather than chirographic or print modes of information storage and retrieval. In oral cultures, to be sure, these techniques are used not only by women but (even predominantly) by men.
In England—I offer a very broad generalization here—Romantic and Victorian writers, male and female, were thoroughly committed to the values of presence, immediacy, and full communicative intentionality—parole pleine —associated with oral forms, as was Whitman in America (but certainly
not Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the other "major" eastern WASPS). The sexist part of the modernist shift has to do with the fact that in leaving these values to women, and to men who write like women (curiously, D. H. Lawrence, for one!), it left them stigmatized as outmoded and subordinate. Textuality was new, advanced, and male; orality was old, backward, and female. Not only female, of course, for the backwardness of the oral encompassed the "primitive" as well: the unlettered red savage or black slave. This aspect of modernism is carried forward quite unselfconsciously by Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man: Yale School is Male School, as Barbara Johnson put it. For, although Derrida has been a strong critic of phallogocentrism, he has not extended his critique to the subject of textual complexity. To the contrary, he has reveled in every sort of textual complication as if that were not itself implicated in the Western phallogos. And, to point up the obvious, although he has been tireless in deconstructing phallogocentric/metaphysical texts, he has been completely uninterested in seeking out texts that might be Different.
In America, the new standard of technical excellence, by subordinating not only writing by women but all writing deriving from types of oral presentation, also subordinated the west to the east; Mark Twain's reputation as a major American author, for example, was not securely established until the 1950s, when the first serious critical challenges to the New Critical/modernist program began to make their way. What all this means for Native American literature should be obvious. Its earliest proponents were in fact mostly women and westerners (e.g., Natalie Curtis Burlin, Mary Austin, and Yvor Winters) or those interested in spoken models for verse
(e.g., William Carlos Williams), and their strongest case for it often invoked its primitive charm. (Lawrence's sense of the powers of indigenousness is a particular, complex version of similar notions.) At a time when institutional canon-making power was solidly eastern and male and the standard for excellence was based on capabilities apparently possible only to certain kinds of writing, clearly claims for the importance of Native American literature had to go against the grain.
Without endorsing subtlety and complexity as inevitably the stuff of literary excellence so far as the techné of delight is concerned, I should still like to take a moment to point out what may not be so well known to many students of written American literature: oral literatures, while they do not privilege ironic tropes, structures, or attitudes, are capable of a wide range of complex and subtle effects in their own right. I will let two brief examples stand here for the very many that might be cited. Consider the much-quoted remark of Maria Chona, Papago woman and autobiographer, in commenting on the fact that Papago songs are very brief: "The song is very short because we understand so much" (23). Chona is usually taken to be referring to the extraordinary degree of condensation in Papago songs and pointing out the very complex interaction between a given singer's words, the culturally defined functional context for those words, and the audience's active awareness of all this at every moment. A different instance of extreme condensation is presented by Keith Basso in relation to the Apache practice of "speaking with names," a technique used in "socially taut" situations, and one in which the enunciation of toponyms invokes "ancient wisdom" as this is contained in stories commonly known to all. As Basso summarizes it,
the expressive force of an Apache utterance seems to be roughly proportionate to the number of separate but complementary functions it accomplishes simultaneously, or . . . to the number of distinguishable subject matters it successfully communicates "about." (1988, 121)
Condensation thus turns out—and this seems to be the case for some Apache storytelling or "literature," as well—to be hand in glove with overdetermination, all of it most subtle and complex indeed. We are very far, here, from the fantasies of primitive simplicity Americans have long attributed to Native American oral expressiveness. But let us go on.
As with the matter of formal criteria for excellence, in matters of content, decisions as to which books provide the instruction we approve can only be made in reference to a reader's prior values. For example, in The World, the Text, and the Critic, Edward Said writes that
criticism must think of itself as life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse: its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom. (1983, 29)
To produce such criticism, Said may choose to study virtually any literary or nonliterary text; were he to propose a canon of the "best" literature, however, it would have to be in line
with his stated values. One further example. Terry Eagleton conceives the tasks of the revolutionary culture worker to be consistent with socialist aims. And, he writes, "Ultimately,"
the only reason for being a socialist is that one objects to the fact that the great majority of men and women have lived lives of suffering and degradation, and believes that this may conceivably be altered in the future. (1981, 112)
Eagleton has argued powerfully for no-such-thing-as-literature, and so it appears unlikely that he would ever propose a literary canon of "greats." Eagleton's position is that one's choice of texts to work with, whatever their discursive type, must and can only be determined by one's intention in working with them—culture criticism, then, in the interest of mitigating human suffering and degradation. What should be clear is that any claim to present a canon of literary excellence is inevitably a function of one's prior values and always implies a social vision; the canon proposed by William Bennett or suggested by Allan Bloom and Christopher Clausen is as fully determined by extrinsic factors as any canon Said or Eagleton or I might construct. The difference, let me put it baldly, is in the willingness of the former to produce knowledge coercively in the interest of perpetuating an order whose material effect—doubtless undesired, doubtless inevitable, and resolutely denied—is further suffering and degradation for the many. This is what is at stake in the argument over literature and the literary canon.