Do we need a literary canon?

Jonathan Sacks is right that we need a common culture, but wrong to think it should be based on a canon. Forcing young people to read the Bible won't foster a sense of belonging. Shared references must evolve more organically
December 22, 2007
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The chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, recently wrote: "Until recently, national cultures were predicated on the idea of a canon, a set of texts that everyone knew. In the case of Britain they included the Bible, Shakespeare and the great novels. The existence of a canon is essential to a culture. It means that people share a set of references and resonances, a public vocabulary of narratives and discourse." This shared inheritance, he argues, is now being destroyed by multiculturalism and technology, satellite television and the internet in particular. But what is a canon? Do we need one? Are we suffering from "canon anxiety"? And if so, why?

The idea of a canon has a religious origin. The early church had to decide which of its texts were sacred scripture and which were not. The decision was a straight yes or no: either a book was in or it was out. There might be debates about particular texts—the Book of Esther and the second Epistle of Peter, for example, were long in doubt—but once the decision was made, it was clear-cut. Books outside the canon might be morally admirable, but only the canon had the necessary salvific power.

This religious notion in due course blended with another drawn from secular culture: the idea of genius. The idea that great poets and musicians are men apart is itself very ancient. At first the thought was that these special people received inspiration from outside themselves, from a god or muse. Later, genius was seen as a quality innate in the artist. Kenneth Clark declared his credo in Civilisation: he believed in God-given genius. Since he appeared not to believe in God, this was not wholly logical, but the belief was emotionally compelling enough to override strict reason. Again, the idea is an absolute one: genius is something very distinct, and a creative artist has either got it or he has not. The same thing seems to be implied by the title of a new survey of classic works from Homer to Goethe, The Great Books (Icon), by the philosopher Anthony O'Hear. One notices the definite article: it is as though the great books form a clearly determinate class.

For all its emotional appeal, this idea looks unlikely in the cold light of reason: it seems more plausible to suppose a more or less continuous spectrum of creative ability than a sharp division between genius and the rest. But if this is so, we may wonder why we are so drawn to the notions of genius and canon. The answer may lie in our need for heroes.

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Here the particular situation in which we find ourselves at the start of the 21st century comes into play. We live in a world without heroes. The one exception is Nelson Mandela, and his canonisation testifies to the void which he helps to fill. The middle of the last century saw men such as Churchill, Mao and De Gaulle who, for better or worse, were big figures. Two decades ago there were leaders like Thatcher, Gorbachev and again Mandela. Today, on the other hand, it appears that not one of the nearly 200 nations of the world is led by a person of truly exceptional quality. Perhaps we are fortunate to live in an age that calls for technocrats rather than titans, but something has been lost.

We lack cultural heroes, too. Isaiah Berlin used to say in his last years that there were no geniuses left in the world: no great novelists, poets, painters or composers. That judgement may or may not be true, but it surely expresses a general perception. On the surface there is a good deal of chatter about young British artists or brilliant novelists and filmmakers, but deep down we feel that nothing very large is coming to birth. Architecture is the main counter-example: Santiago Calatrava seems to me clearly a genius, Frank Gehry may be, and perhaps there are others. But architects are less crushed by the burden of the past than artists in other fields: modern technology opens up to them forms of expressive possibility unknown to earlier generations. Writers and painters do not share this advantage. I remember in the 1970s a distinguished person passing the Listener to me and saying, about The Old Fools, "There is a poem that will last for 500 years": it was Philip Larkin's latest. It is a sentence that one cannot easily imagine being spoken today. The present standard of musical performance, by contrast, is astonishingly high, but it is significant, again, that the best interpreters of our time receive the kind of veneration that used to go to composers: it reveals an absence.

In earlier ages, there were men who were recognised by their contemporaries as among the supreme imaginations of all time. The people who first entered Chartres Cathedral or looked up at the ceiling of the Sistine chapel or heard Beethoven's 9th knew that they were at the birth of creations that equalled and perhaps surpassed anything of their kind that had gone before. That is not an experience that has been available to anyone in the last 100 years. (There is one 20th-century megastar, Albert Einstein, but he is not an artist.) None the less, modernism was a mighty creative force, and 50 years ago people still felt that there were giants upon the earth: Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Le Corbusier. Perhaps not all these reputations will stand the test of time, but the question is one of perception. Our age lacks living cultural heroes, and it should be no surprise if this leads some commentators to lay more weight on our inheritance from the past—that is, on the canon.

Another reason for canon anxiety may be a feeling that the political and media elite have either lost interest or lost their nerve. Here the official attitude is curiously double. On the one hand, everyone pays lip service to the value of the arts: perhaps surprisingly, the sturdy, no-nonsense voice declaring that spending on culture is a waste of honest workers' money is no longer heard. On the other hand, government makes the case for the arts only in terms of economic advantage and social utility narrowly conceived. Beauty and glory are not terms in the political vocabulary. And not only are our politicians reluctant to defend the value of the arts for their own sake, they seem actively to avoid showing an interest in them. It is difficult to know whether this is a local British phenomenon or a wider characteristic of our world, and if it is local, how much it is the result of the particular natures of a few people who happen to have been at the top in recent years. (Ever since the death of Prince Albert, the royal family, with the notable exception of Prince Charles, have been notoriously uninterested in the arts, despite the excellent educations which the younger among them have received: it will be a glad day when William and Kate are snapped leaving the Wigmore Hall.)

That photograph of one of the Gallagher brothers in 10 Downing Street regarding an adulatory prime minister with amused contempt expresses the ethos of our age in more ways than Tony Blair intended. None the less, the invitation itself was a matter of deliberate policy: the message was that pop music was what mattered and Brendel could wait. But the Blairs' indifference to culture, somewhat surprising in well-educated professionals of their generation, does seem to have been perfectly sincere, and it is apparently shared by David Cameron. When he was standing for the leadership of his party, he allowed a gadfly television journalist to follow him around, pestering him with questions about pop groups, which he answered with easy authority. It was not always thus. The high culture enjoyed (or affected) by the Kennedys was part of their glamour, and Ted Heath felt no need to conceal his passion for classical music. Churchill and De Gaulle both saw themselves as literary artists, and Churchill painted too.

The present tone of politics has created the suspicion, justified or not, that there has been a trahison des clercs: that whatever they say, at heart our governors are anti-intellectual. That is evidently O'Hear's belief: he protests about a system of education that "deprives ourselves and our children of the ability to read classic authors and the opportunity to love them." The chief rabbi, for his part, is more concerned with the coherence of society and the place of ethnic and religious minorities within it. However, his argument connects at least two and probably three different things, which may be related but which are in principle separate. The first is the importance of shared experience—he is explicitly attacking multiculturalism. The second is the importance of high culture. Significantly, the examples Sacks gives of texts which everyone once knew are Shakespeare and the Bible—with which, as we know, every decent desert island is equipped—and the great novels. The great novels, note; by implication, a shared experience of Agatha Christie or Ian Fleming will not do the trick. And Sacks may also be hinting at a third idea: that it is important for us to understand where we have come from, to know the texts which have formed the beliefs and behaviour of the world in which we live. If we know nothing about the past, or even if we know only about the recent past, we are fated to misunderstand the present. This is certainly part of O'Hear's case: "We are cutting ourselves and our descendants off from our cultural roots," he has said. "It is an unforgivable form of intellectual and spiritual suicide."

It is easy to make exaggerated claims about the canon. Take Don Quixote—as it happens, the one among O'Hear's great books that I have not read (well, have you?). That may be my loss aesthetically, but I doubt whether it has wounded me in any larger way. We all know about the dotty knight and Sancho Panza and the tilting against windmills (curious how the famous parts of that very long book come so near the beginning), but we have learnt this indirectly, and it is surely debatable whether reading Don Quixote is essential to a deep understanding of our culture. None the less, O'Hear is right. The greatest loss, of course, has been knowledge of the Bible: it is not rare these days to find professors of English literature missing allusions that humble people would have picked up 150 years ago. The literature of Greece and Rome, too, remains or ought to remain essential to us, not only for its intrinsic quality but for the ways in which it has helped to shape our own world, from the middle ages onward.

Sacks is right, in turn, to say that a society needs shared references and resonances, but there is no inherent reason for these to be high cultural ones. It is surely vain to suppose that poorly educated and disaffected young Asians can be brought to a stronger sense of belonging in Britain by a diet of Hamlet, Middlemarch and the Psalms. The truth is that shared references and resonances mostly need to evolve naturally, that most of them derive from popular culture, and that many of them are like family jokes. Television has had enormous power as a unifier; this power is now declining with the proliferation of channels and new media, but in their time Morecambe and Wise did more than Milton and Wordsworth to make us feel one people.

To understand how a canon is formed and how it can be socially useful, we might look to another kind of canonisation, that of individual men and women. The earliest and most durable saints were not created by the Pope: they were canonised by a process in which church and people somehow shared. Similarly, it is an obscure collaboration between the clerisy and the people that has canonised the great writers.

Consider the most striking literary canonisation of our times. Jane Austen has always been esteemed, and FR Leavis sanctified her as one of the bearers of the "great tradition," a sort of doctor of his secular church. But in the past 15 years she has turned into the English novelist, an inescapable part of the public consciousness, more universally present than any other writer bar Shakespeare. Some people think she owes her current prominence to popular fantasies of tight breeches and bosoms heaving beneath empire-line dresses. This does not seem likely: if that is what people want, they can get it more readily from Georgette Heyer. Another view is that she has benefited from nostalgia for a safer, quieter and more decorous world; but the idea that the world of her novels is cosy and comfortable can hardly survive the reading of them. Most of her modern popularity is the result of her actual merits, and in a broad sense the highbrows and the lower-middlebrows are admiring the same things: well-made plots, perceptive depiction of character and the acute study of social interaction. It is a genuine popular canonisation. Or take Larkin, again, the last poet to have entered naturally into the general consciousness: people came to find that his words, his lines, his distinctive way of seeing and feeling had become part of the furniture of their minds, part of the common inheritance.

Does this mean that we can do nothing about our cultural condition? Must we just leave things to take their course? Not entirely. There is a good deal we can do about the way in which we teach literature, though here there is a nice balance to be found between drawing the young in through the works that may most naturally appeal to them and stretching them with works that may seem less attractive. We should also teach the development of a personal taste: the risk in stressing the canon too much is that it can seem to require that we dwell always on the upper slopes of Parnassus, and that we should always like what we have been told to like; yet without personal predilection, there is no true cultivation.

The political class should proclaim the value of culture for its own sake. Those of them who have cultural enthusiasms should bring them out of the closet, and the rest might at least pretend. This would be the right thing to do, and I doubt that it would lose votes. People do not, in the end, want their leaders to be exactly like themselves, and whatever they say, there is plenty of evidence that the public still likes a gent. All of us, politicians included, should cease to search for a "highest common factor" culture, and instead affirm that our culture is grounded in a distinct history: in Christianity and the Bible, Greek and Roman antiquity, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

The chief rabbi is right to say that multiculturalism has been a disaster. For one thing, it is actually monocultural: it is the demand that all countries should be like America (though without America's devotion to nation and constitution). For another, it inhibits the robust and confident expression of the majority culture, although such robustness and confidence provide the best conditions for minority cultures also to flourish. The millennium dome has been so ridiculed that it may seem cheap to drag it up again, but its utter vacuity has been instructive. It would have been more popular and enjoyable, as well as more worthwhile, if it had celebrated high culture, taken pleasure in our history, and not tried to conceal whose two-thousandth anniversary was actually being marked. We should indeed assert the importance of historical memory, of ancestry and rootedness. This is something which immigrants do not share, but the answer is not to pretend that it does not matter, but to offer new citizens a kind of historical memory by proxy. That is more or less what happens in the US.

Meanwhile, television could do with a stiff dose of Reithianism (radio is in better condition). Cultural programming on the main channels is now usually a feeble mixture of cringing and condescension, and we have even seen the rise of the professional ignoramus—the presenter chosen because he lacks knowledge of the subject and can play the role of innocent abroad. The political world and the media alike seem to treat the public with an unpleasing blend of obsequiousness and contempt. Why not try flattering them instead? It should be the aim of public policy to change the tone. If we could do that, the canon could perhaps be left to look after itself.

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