According to chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks, our shared cultural inheritance—“predicated on the idea of a canon, a set of texts that everyone knew”—is being destroyed by multiculturalism and tecnology. In his essay this month, Richard Jenkyns questions the need for a strictly defined canon—where “the great books form a clearly determinate class.” Society does need shared references, he argues, but these need not be high cultural: “In their time, Morecambe and Wise did more than Milton and Wordsworth to make us feel one as people.” Disaffected young Asians are hardly going to feel more “British” after being force-fed Hamlet, Middlemarch and the Psalms.
Nevertheless, Jenkyns identifies a growing “canon anxiety” among contemporary intellectuals, and attributes this partly to the fact that our age lacks “cultural heroes”—giving rise to the tendency to venerate our inheritance from the past; indeed, to canonise it.
Yet heroism is itself a problematic and highly subjective term. Much as we might define the canon differently, might we not also find more “heroes” if we broaden the terms of reference? Or are both of these endeavours vain attempts to compensate for what, as Sacks argues, is being lost? Let us know what you think.