Breaking the Canon Of Western Lit

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by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse blog

Shakespeare, Homer, Conrad, Steinbeck, Lee, Twain. We know these names. We have known these names since before we knew the books to put their names to. These names, and many more are the hallmarks of the literary canon of the English-speaking world. Reference points, guiding principles, and inspirations from which much of literature has evolved in the western world. Yet, slowly, the so-called canons of the UK and US are being disrupted and re-evaluated by many claiming to champion causes such as race, gender, sexuality, and anti-ableism. There is a new narrative in schools, colleges, and universities, which aims to destabilize literary history. We must look into the reasoning behind the current agenda of censorship of the “classics” in order to assess whether the purging of books is a necessary evil to counter the dangerous rhetoric that may lie hidden in the pages of the books we know and love.

Before we begin to dissect the contemporary censorship movement, it might be prudent to examine the history of literary purging as a periodically common practice. In 399BC, Socrates was sentenced to death by poison as a result of the accusation that he was corrupting Athenian youth with his talk of unknown gods along with his opinionated dialogues. Rather than fleeing, he agreed to drink the hemlock poison and accept his fate with composure. While this example of censorship is not of the literary ilk we will be referring to, it is most certainly a worthy starting point for this discussion, and one that embodies the problematic nature of suppression of alternative opinions and philosophies. This statement must not be mistaken for one implying that bigamist, racist, sexist, or other discriminatory ‘opinions’ should be respected in order to keep peace. Rather, that one must not be as naïve as to think that censorship has the capability to eradicate opinions merely by destroying the mouth or pages that sound them. Moral philosophy did not end with Socrates’ death therefore one must not assume that any belief system can be dismantled by removing a single concrete aspect of it.

Carl Kruse Blog - Surreal Socrates

The sheer number of cases of historical censorship means we must resort here to a brief list of the more prominent examples that illustrate the traditions of censorship from the sixteenth century onwards: The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was introduced by Pope Paul IV in 1559 in order to ban or destroy books (and often their authors) deemed sacrilegious by the Roman Catholic Church. This was of particular importance in this period due to the creation of the Gutenberg printing press in 1450. The Spaniards continued their reign of censorship through the destruction of much ancient Mayan literature when Francisco de Montejo invaded the Yucatan in 1521. The rest of Europe followed suit; through the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, by which time the newspaper had become a prolific literary form, censorship began to extend further than religion and into the realms of politics and other aspects of societal beliefs. This was especially notable in times of war. While Milton’s passionately voiced Areopagitica (1644) affected censorship in its demands for freedom of speech, European governments were yet to succumb to allowing total expressive freedom in the press and fiction published in the seventeenth to twentieth centuries and beyond. Reasoning for censorship in both older and more contemporary cases primarily rested on these few topics: blasphemy, sex, opposing political views, and religion.

During my time at university, I encountered swathes of differing views from students who deemed some authors as irrelevant or harmful to the syllabus. A specific moment comes to mind, which I will elaborate on now. I arrived marginally late to a seminar in November of 2019, and took up a seat at the front of the class. A heated discussion was occurring on the other side of the room; one person seemed to be orchestrating the debate, and all the students in their vicinity were either cooing and nodding, or vocally agreeing in inflated tones. I caught a whiff of their dialogue:

‘How can they expect us to read such a racist book? It’s literally a colonialist text that doesn’t give any voice to the people of color in it. I’ve already asked _______ to remove it from the syllabus and she said if I can get a petition going then it’ll happen.’

I called across to the speaker and demanded to know what book they were so vehemently opposed to.

Heart of Darkness.’

From thereon, for the best part of five minutes, the speaker and I debated the relevance and benefits of literary censorship in the case of Conrad’s esteemed novel. As I expected, the speaker had no reliable backing to their argument, and simply repeated words that I suppose they believed would give them leverage, such as ‘colonialist’, ‘racist’, ‘offensive’, ‘white’, ‘patriarchy’, and ‘misogyny’. My question to her was this: what do you really hope to do by removing this book from the course? Do you think that racism and so-called ‘whiteness’ will be eradicated by doing so? Thinking back on that conversation, I do believe the person will likely have succeeded in their ‘selfless’ plea and indeed had the book taken off of the reading list. They may have then proceeded to gloat and proclaim their worthy cause on social media and to their circle of friends. My problem with this particular activist narrative is that it is entirely self-gratifying and negates the benefits to having such a book on a syllabus in the first place. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad is himself recounting the dangers and horrors of imperialism, greed, and racism at their worst. Through the medium of fiction, Conrad investigates the psychology of such beliefs, and warns of the perils of implementing these world views upon others. Yes, this work uses the ‘N’ word, but it would be foolish to suggest that the use of this word renders Conrad’s novel as inherently racist or unworthy of reading. In the context of late nineteenth century Britain, such language was commonplace, thus we should think carefully before imposing our own backwards-facing narrative of anti-racist terminology upon writers of this time, especially those such as Conrad who were actively challenging the white perspective on people of color. To erase Conrad does not mean erasing the Neo-Nazis and modern fascists of today. Rather than censoring Conrad’s literature, we should aim to create a meaningful dialogue around his use of language. In doing so, we can attempt to oppose the trends of social media that lead to misguided justice missions that may be doing more harm than good to the literary canon.

Carl Kruse Blog - Image of Joseph Conrad

I am all for reconfiguring the canon. In fact, many lecturers during my last year of university endeavored to find great pieces of literature to diversify the curriculum in various modules. However the current compulsion to completely overturn the canon itself, which is primarily centered around the fact that most authors within it are white and male, is sincerely unfounded. We do not study Shakespeare because he is white and male, but because he created a literature that encompassed a near-entirety of social, moral, psychological, sexual, and ethical dilemmas within the boundaries of beauteous poetry. When we reduce literature to politics we ignore the wonder of literature itself. Similarly, when we subject literature to bitter postmodern criticism that diminishes its values to social conditioning and hierarchical systems we miss the POINT of stories. I studied art history in my first year of university, and the overarching sentiment of the lecturer leading the class was cynicism towards many of the art movements we briefly covered. The lecturer referred to several impressionist paintings from numerous artists as testament to the prevalence of the misogynistic male-gaze, suggesting that Claude Monet’s Women on a Boat was a painting illustrating the cage-like existence of women in the nineteenth century. The lecturer failed to appropriate this jargon to similar paintings of men depicted in boats. Though this example is not focused on literature, it is comparable to the baseless arguments that have been directed towards authors of the canon.

#DisruptTexts is a movement that was co-founded in 2018 by Dominican-American writer and educator Lorena Germán, beginning with this comment posted on her Twitter account in November of that year:

“Did y’all know that many of the ‘classics’ were written before the 50s? Think of US society before then and the values that shaped this nation afterwards. THAT is what is in those books. That is why we gotta switch it up. It ain’t just about ‘being old.’ #DisruptTexts.”

The movement #DisruptTexts exploded after Germán’s tweet and was employed by young and old students and teachers as reasoning for removing literature from reading lists in universities, schools, and colleges. In 2021, English teacher Heather Levine posted on her twitter that she had successfully managed to remove Homer’s Odyssey from her high school curriculum in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The argument? That the book is sexist because Penelope is not involved in any of the violent and arduous adventures of her husband, Odysseus. To further illustrate the absurdity arising from the #DisruptTexts movement alongside this damning censorship of Homer’s epic classic, observe this quote from Germán:

“Though we enjoy reading some of the plots in his plays and acknowledge the depth and complexity within many of his plot arcs and characters, we also find that educators are often taught to see Shakespearean plays as near perfection, his characters as ‘archetypes’, and to persist in… indoctrinating students into a false notion of the primacy (and superiority) of the English language … We do not see these same problematic approaches in other plays where whiteness and the male voice are not centered.”

Carl Kruse Blog - Surreal Shakespeare

Germán’s use of the verb ‘indoctrinating’ is itself as ‘problematic’ as her accusations towards the bard. Here, Germán implies the student as a pitiful entity that must be protected at all costs against any possible ‘negative’ influences due to their apparent lack of autonomy to form their own opinions. This stance is not only offensive to students themselves, but specifically towards women, and the countless feminists that worked to dispel any arbitrary notions that fiction could be damaging to the female psyche. During the Middle Ages in Britain, only around 11% of the population was literate, and the disparity between the literate genders was evident: 10% of men and only 1% of women could read and write. Furthermore, suggestions of extending literary education to women was frowned upon; Chaucer himself wrote this on the subject: “By God, if women had written stories as clerks have written their oratories, They would have written more of men’s wickedness, than all the sons of Adam could redress” (though it should be noted that Chaucer, as a great satirist, may not have meant this statement as a negative). From about the fourteenth century onwards attitudes began to change, but the literate gap between men and women remained fairly stark up until the nineteenth century. For some sound reasoning as to why this was, observe this comment from Christine de Pizan, poet and author in King Charles VI court in the late fourteenth century: “Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it upset them that women knew more than they did.”

In her tweet, Germán disregards the historic implications of literary censorship. She also fails to expand upon her comment on the ‘primacy (and superiority) of the English language’. I have studied both world literature and English literature, and I would argue that Germán’s comment is unfounded in the case of the former. However, when one is studying ENGLISH literature in an English-speaking country, it seems natural that one should – God forbid – read said literature in one’s mother tongue: English. If you happened to speak to my mother, who studied literature in France as a native French speaker, you would find that she studied such authors as Moliere, Balzac, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Stendhal, and some Shakespeare in translation. You would not, however, find her complaining that the prevalence of the French language in her studies was indicative of the superiority of her tongue.

To expand further on the notion of ‘indoctrination’ of students, I would like to spend a moment considering Shakespeare. In the Scottish play, one witnesses many odious occurrences, including murder, deception, and dark magic. Are we to approach this tale within the milieu of intentional fallacy, and to belief therefore that Shakespeare condones lying, betrayal, and homicide? Are we to perceive these as the ‘values that shaped this nation’ of England? Likely not. In his plays, Shakespeare embraces both the strengths and shortcomings of man in equal measure, and that is what makes his work so enduringly appealing to audiences around the world. The sheer breadth of his achievements in fiction presents apt reasoning as to why he continues to be so widely read. On the subject of whiteness, yes, we might argue that Shakespeare presents us with a limited range of culturally diverse characters, and his inclusion of characters outside of the Caucasian domain are often treated with much vehemency, such as Caliban in his last play The Tempest. But rather than erasing these works, why not approach them with due diligence, and teach them with consideration for the negative portrayals of people depicted as ‘other’? We should teach these texts by referring to history books on popular culture and beliefs of the time, and approach these tales with a good dose of backwards-facing scepticism and acknowledgements of the faults we may find in them from a contemporary perspective. Shakespeare himself was and is intrinsic to the continued evolution of theatre and the English language, and to ignore this fact is to erase an entire history of literary development.

What can we hope to achieve by erasing books? A dystopian future of literature, whereupon neutrality and safety are the hallmarks of literary study? Any kind of ideology directed towards culture that revolves around censorship becomes problematic: Hitler certainly had a thing or two to say about Jewish books. No, I’m no likening Germán to Hitler, but we should think carefully about imposing any kind of political agenda upon culture. In doing so, we imply that we can ‘solve’ history, and this can lead us to become so complacent as to suggest that because we can look back through time and see what we perceive to be the flaws of literature that we have the right to remedy it. #DisruptTexts continues to rage a war against fiction, with recent developments showing that books such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and 1984 as just a few examples of the texts that have been removed from classrooms in the US during the last couple of years. I want to mention this quote from John Warner in the Chicago Tribune:

‘Education isn’t merely transmitting information; students must be taught to make meaning for themselves.’

Ay, there’s the rub! Education, by default, is merely the transmission of information, especially in the context of younger learners. And, by asking students to write their own essays whereupon they make independent conclusions about what they’ve learned, they are, by default, forming their own understanding of their learning. The #DisruptTexts movement is built of charlatans implying they can ‘solve’ education. But what do they intend to replace these texts with? The proposed replacement for The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, and The Scarlet Letter is Juliet Takes a Breath, a book written in 2016 about a ‘self-proclaimed closeted Puerto Rican baby dyke from the Bronx’ who interns with ‘legendary author Harlowe Brisbane, the ultimate authority on feminism, women’s bodies, and other gay-sounding stuff, [who] is sure to help her figure out this whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing’. I have never read this book, and my own reservations towards it are simply rooted in personal taste (I like old books. Sorry.). However, by replacing the aforementioned novels with this title, a hundred years of literary history will by immediately erased (from 1850 to 1951). What are the benefits to doing this? Well, as #DisruptTexts suggests on their reading list guide, due to the US literary canons being ‘exclusive’, they are ‘especially harmful’, particularly ‘when problematic books aim to present issues of race or racism, but are themselves racist and present characters in damaging ways. In such cases, we encourage that those books be replaced with better, more restorative, and truthful books.’ When did fiction become exclusively about ‘truth’, or ‘restoration’? I find truth in the dreamlike passages of Hemingway, and revelations in the Meditations of Aurelius, but when I read I seek new perspectives, innovative ways of looking at the world and its problems, and, above all, escape. How can #DisruptTexts suggest that Juliet Takes a Breath is ‘better’ than the other novels mentioned, when such a statement is completely subjective? And furthermore has not been steeped in time and generations of readers?

I’m not sure what else I hope to say about this topic. I could continue rambling about it, but fear I would become ever more bitter the longer I spend looking into this tenacious agenda. We are not obliged to enjoy or agree with everything we read. That is the beauty of reading, and why it can be so challenging. During my studies, I relished the moments whereby I could discuss why I disliked a novel so much. I loved every precious moment of passive-aggression between myself and other students when I would disagree with their stance on a text. I took every opportunity to dispel the notion that a book or poem could be reduced to misogyny purely from the analysis of a single character or line. That, to me, is what studying is about. Studying literature is not about catering to the whims of social media or politics, it is about finding connections with books, cultures, and periods that we may previously have thought we had nothing in common with. It is about learning what it means to be human, a feat that we simply cannot hope to achieve by solely reading texts of the twenty-first century that claim to be ‘inclusive’. It is not inclusive to erase the entire history of fiction just because someone might get offended by an author or novel. Life isn’t inclusive, fair, just, or safe, and neither should books be. 

The Carl Kruse blog homepage is here.
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel include: A Quick Trip to Cahors, A Good Night, and Brett Morgan’s Moonage Daydream.
A Carl Kruse Bio is here.

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