This weekend, a professor at my university is hosting a discussion group on literature and literary language. The prospect has gotten me thinking even more about literature as literature: what it is, and what it means to study it.
As I’ve read further, I encountered one thoughtful perspective from Andrew Kern of the CiRCE Institute. It starts with this post, What is Literature Anyway?. Kern asks,
“Are there any schools that self-consciously regard themselves as carriers of that tradition, who deliberately set aside the relative trivia of the modern curriulum, and who teach their children deeply to contemplate those few masterpieces that sustain civilization and nourish our souls?
What am I dreaming about? A school that teaches its students only a few books and teaches them how to read them with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength. They read them, they translate them, they discuss them, they imitate them, they write about them, they live in their wisdom.”
Here Kern addresses the question of canon and “Great Books,” about which I have mixed feelings.
To me, setting up a select few works as “great” literature involves claiming an absolute standard that is, in its relationship to literature, vague and imprecise. Like it or not, these definitions are also closely linked to systems of power, and focus almost exclusively on the literature of the western world.
It seems to me that if great literature is based on great truth, that truth will not emerge only in the West, or, to quote the cliche, in the writings of “dead white males.”
On the other hand, without some judgment of what is true and valuable, meaning becomes generic, nothing more than an arbitrary construct; and I find that conclusion no more satisfying than the first.
I wonder if there is a place for acknowledging the presence (and absence) of quality writing, truth, and beauty in literature without categorically eliminating works that range outside the traditional canon.
As usual, my next question is, if so, what would that look like?
Lots of food for thought here. More to come…