The Canon and the Syllabus

On September 1, 2019 by admin

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Life is short and there are many books to encounter. How does one underline the ones that are worthwhile? More importantly, how do whole societies and traditions take up certain readings as important and dispense with others at any given moment of time? If we keep aside the absolutely subjective element involved in any choice of reading, perhaps guesses can be made as to how certain texts gain authority over a period of time and then lose their power of suasion and magic in another age. Some others come to be called classics and thus turn ‘timeless.’

On the other hand, the formation, approval and implementation of a syllabus in a programme housed within an institutional framework are part of a wholly different story, of a much narrower scope. On the surface, there are more academic reasons for a syllabus to take shape in a particular way. But those academic reasons are always offset by partisan interests that stoke the fancy of the stakeholders, like politics or shifting trends or utilitarian reasons like employability.

Reliability is perhaps the foremost criterion that helps inculcate canon consciousness. A set of texts become reliable over a period of time because it is able to provide generations of scholars a testing ground for certain principles of a knowledge base that tallies with the internal logic of an evolving  discipline, which may be jurisprudence, theology or literature. This is what David Hume meant in ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ (1757) when he argued that in the final analysis the canon consists of “those works that have survived all the caprices of mode and fashion, all the mistakes of ignorance and envy.” Hume marries a collective idea of epistemological reliability with the notion of timelessness. The earliest formations of the canon therefore arise out of a text centered epistemology which the practitioners and the connoisseurs would hermeneutically unseal and bring forth. The guiding principles of the earliest texts were in fact based on interpreting revelation, emic reception of ritual application and deciphering natural philosophy. This scope of encountering the divine utterances (and deciphering the oracle/sutra)simultaneously gave canonical texts the stamp of a mystical authority, and also opened up possibilities of interpretive scope. For instance, the interpreter could argue that behind the apparent narrative of the gods and their actions lies another level of hidden meaning. A redemptive tradition of textual interpretation comes into being. In other situations, the mystery or sublimity of a poetic utterance or the symbolic nature of a painting gives rise to the restive and libertine tradition. But the basic idea remains the same: to consider form and excavate meaning, dwell in analysis and expand the ambit of the art object by means of imagination. Whatever is concealed in form and meaning (connotation, subtext or undertone in later times) is what the scholar or the connoisseur tries to seek out. But once you have a space for interpretation, the esoteric baseline of the canon opens up and becomes subject to divergent ways of analysis and imaginative interpretation.  What started as rarified and mystical becomes evolving and dynamic. Reliability still remains a fundamental baseline but an argumentative tradition begins to emerge out of the enigmatic,as multiple interpretations of a text or a problem begins to blossom.

Ineke Sluiter, the great Dutch scholar of the classics, used to say that obscurity is a disguise in blessing. The very act of writing a commentary or engaging in various textual practices tacitly acknowledges the fact that the text is not clear and therefore requires certain exegetical endeavours to unlock it. In fact, it would be impossible to think in analytical terms unless the text or the art object is obscure enough. There could be various reasons for obscurity to emerge in the most complicated movements and styles of literary and artistic production, say, in the classical world, the romantic movement or in the whole of modernism. Obscurity may also be a way to avoid obscenity or dogma and also a method for matching a hard subject matter with a certain style of expression (the epigram, the riddle and the parable are the earliest of such forms, leading eventually to figura and allegoresis). Obscurity may also be a stimulus for the readers and the students to delve deeper and make some serious effort to appreciate the nuances of various situations and problems that an art-object or a problem throws up. This will also keep the less motivated students outside of the purview. The canon is one way of initiation into degrees of difficulty, by which the would-be-specialist is thrown in at the deep end of the pool right at the onset. Besides, veiled messages in a text are also a way of protecting the author and the interlocutors in times of social turmoil. Most importantly, obscurity gives elbow room for a slow and gradual interpretation, rather than quickly trying to diagnose and move on with a text.

One the other hand, textual particles of literature also sometimes emerge as sudden erruption of thought and then do not go anywhere. These we call fragments or trace. The romantic and certain forms of modernist art are fundamentally about such fragmentary erruptions.  Freed from classical constraints, such works present the partial whole—“either a remnant of something once complete and now broken or decayed, or the beginning of something that remains unaccomplished.”If we care to expand confines of the idea, we shall realize that letters, excerpts, gnomic statements, speeches, epigrams and mythologies—all would lose crucial vitality without their fragmentary nature. Fragments let us retrieve and recast the whole if we so wish. The exercise would be somewhat like cracking a jigsaw puzzle.  But the more daring prospect is to leave the trace as is and place oneself by the side of the composer and encounter a similar emotion of the partial whole every time one reads or listens to the fragment. Engaging with the fragmentary is also revelatory in a deeply secular sense.

Canon formation is always relational in nature. This is because the story of the formation of a canon is also the history of those works that did not enter the circle, and that of competing canons and scholarly traditions.It is for this reason that the canon and its other—the apocrypha (the marginal and the inauthentic) cannot always be strictly separated since the very obscurity and esoteric nature of those texts that have been set aside as inauthentic suggests that the exercise requires further study and interpretation. Apocrypha always conceals traces of the canon within it.  In this sense the canonizer as much consolidates reliability as she prefigures newer options, keeping in mind that what has been left out might eventually demand our collective attention. But the admittance of the new passes through a system of judgment that closely scrutinizes the irreducibility of the intrinsic content of that work. Populist clamour will not do. Frank Kermode, in Forms of Attention, has shown how Botticelli’s elevation to the canon was made by certain appraisals which themselves were discredited as spurious, once serious scholarly attention was applied to his works.  But the whole process was a way of scrutinizing by which, in a manner, scholars were saying that “here are a set of artworks that need further study.”And with time Botticelli was elevated. The elevation happens not because the canon is a matter of the application of a set of formal rules, but because we closely look a certain works whose rules are being sought, discussed and rigorously sifted.

The preceding discussion is germane since we are living in a strange and reactionary time where “ex-theorists are going after theory,” in the pregnant phrase of Marshall Brown. This means we are living in a most dangerous time when those who ought to deal in rigour and abstraction are themselves revolting against intellect and against whatever constitutes possibilities of engaging in analysis and imagination. Dare we say that it is such an impulse that had led to the trial of Socrates? There are deep seated vigilante and barbaric schema in such times which scream that we shall no longer look into difficult texts and intricate human relationships since those are recondite, nihilistic, paradoxical or grandiose. In other words, we must all collectively relinquish the world of ideas and the ways of examined life. Indeed, all we need to do is share memes and tweets, indulge in despair and schadenfreude, and then join evening soirees and poetry reading sessions to console ourselves and confirm our prudence to none other but ourselves. Therefore Brown asks: Could there be a critic without having the capacity to generalize and think in abstraction? Can there be a literary scholar who just reads?

The English department of the University of Delhi has begun teaching a new postgraduate syllabus at a time when the very idea of criticality and imagination is under severe attack from various quarters, including its own fideistic and partisan practitioners. The polarized war in the outside world is often thrust upon the syllabus and generations of students bear the brunt of narrow and sectarian interests that often drive such righteous and short-lived coteries. With such a backdrop, the consultations that took place over the past two years especially stressed the necessity to rise above restricted, trendy interests and keep the ship steady as much as possible. The sense of profound irrespect that ought to mark any humanities climate is indemnified by certain stabilizing and even sanctifying mechanisms. This stabilization is necessary in times of partisan and vindictive diversions. That would not only mean creating the possibilities of a wide ranging foundational base for the incoming MA student, but also mean firmly reestablishing the authority of an open-ended canon, by playing it off against our presentist concerns and populist anxieties.

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