18 March 2009

On Great Books

Hopefully I will soon be writing about the current literary bent to my thoughts. At least, I hope to soon write a bit about a few of the most important books for the literature of the West, other than the Bible. But before I do, I wanted to briefly discuss the idea of "great books".

In my own time, the idea of "great books" was never brought up in any class, except to deride it as an outmoded, outdated concept. Unless, of course, there was some new work the professor particularly enjoyed, and then that work would be declared great, and woe to anyone who thought otherwise.

I came up in the university around the height of what was called the "canon wars". This was a debate over the nature of the list of great books, and it grew to be incredibly heated at times. It also gave rise to many tedious papers and presentations given predictably punning names such as "firing the canon". Since no one ever bothered to discuss the concept of 'canon' to me except to mock it, I had a rather skewed idea of what the canon was. To me, the canon was the books taught at a university. To my mind, changing it should have been a simple thing. But only in my mind. To everyone else, this was a hotly debated point.

Like many ideas that get out of control, the canon debate started with a simple observation: Why is it that all the great books of Western Literature were written by Dead White European Males (DWEMs for short)? Were there non by women? or any of the other races? or even by the living? Simple, but rapidly it got out of control.

To my mind, there were three possible answers. The first was No. The Canon is what the Canon is. These are the greatest books, the ones that have survived the test of time and their status does not change. That they are written by DWEMs should come as no surprise, because for most of our history the only people in the West who could write were white men. Case closed.

The second answer, which was the one I favoured, goes a little like this: There is something to that. Perhaps there are more kinds of greatness than we know, the greatness of the DWEMs. Perhaps there are greatnesses out there in ways unfamiliar to us, which we should seek out an understand, and as we need to expand our ideas of greatness, and allow the canon to expand with it.

The third answer was basically another question: What is a great book anyway? When the very idea of greatness was questioned, the idea itself tended to vanish away. There obviously is no such thing as greatness. That is a judgement, an opinion. When a professor says "this is a great book" what he is really saying is "In my opinion this is a great book" which is not the same things as greatness at all. In this sense, greatness has no objective existence, because to the practitioner's of such thought nothing at all exists in reality, nothing is ever definitive, nothing is ever certain, and there's no two ways about that.

For the most part, it was answer three that won out. Pity, that. Also rather insulting. Were I a minority, or a women, I would feel vaguely insulted that it is only after the idea of greatness is abolished that we may now study the works of these people. We now, for instance, study an ever expanding number of women writers, but not one of them will ever be recognized as great, because nothing is great. Their works can not be recognized as great. They have not been lifted up among the great. Rather, everything has been pulled down to their own mean level, down to nothing, and this was called progress. Congratulations.

So when I speak of greatness I am talking about an old idea, one that goes back into time, lasted for thousands of years, and was only recently dismantled. When someone spoke of a 'great book' years ago, they believed they were stating a fact, and not an opinion. Objects and works of art were commonly held to have an innate and objective nature that could be discerned through proper training, and in fact, a large part of classical education was teaching the student to react properly, and to give the various works of art the respect they deserve. Thus a student would be expected to understand why Milton was a major poet but Marvell a minor one, or why Paradise Lost was a greater work than Paradise Regained. It is, as I said an old idea. It is also a difficult one. There were many, many books written on aesthetics, and beauty, and the sublime, and ultimately they all say that the qualities they discuss are ultimately indefinable. To say there is a greatness and prove it, is very hard. It is far easier to say there is no greatness, and then talk about other matters.

So I will be speaking about great books, and not books that I think are great. Why would I talk about books that are great solely in my own opinion, when I could speak of works that Aristotle and all who followed him called great? Why be in line with the bright lights of the last forty years, when I can follow three thousand years of the greatest thinkers who ever lived? And yet, for all this, I am still a creature of my time. I was never trained to think in terms of the great, but of other matters. So I cannot define the great, other than to say it is beyond definition. Much of what I say will be about more mundane concerns, such as influence and transmission.

So I will begin in a little while at the beginning and start my little piece by discussing the ramifications of the first word in all of Western literature.

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