You know, Ben Franklin was the one who really started it. His relentlessly folksy “Almanacks” and his calculating “Autobiography” made him the ready midwife in the birthing of the venerable American practice of cynically manipulating the terms of public discussion to suit one’s own self-aggrandizing purposes. Franklin exploited the persuasive power of the resonant image at the expense of whatever real-world implications of the campaign might be. All of Franklin’s pithy homilies slight the development of internal moral character and address themselves instead to the value of the appearance of industry and virtue for the purpose of securing other’s trust and money. As he says of his own capacity for humility, “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.”
The Franklin lesson on the utility of appearance has taken deep root in the American consciousness. It is of course most obvious in pop culture, from Andy Warhol’s manipulation of commercial icons to Andre Agassi’s firm conviction that image is in fact everything, and the artisticocommercial complex continues to exploit our cultural fetish for a manufactured reality more exciting, sexy, violent, emotional, and beautiful than any lived experience to the tune of a billion dollars every year. All right, so movies, TV, pop music, etc., have always been in the business of selling illusions. This practice degrades our own imaginative faculties but it yields invaluable glimpses into the collective networks of desire that fuel the American psyche and may even occasionally serve to prod people to a deeper acquaintance with the society they live in. Rap music, for example, has probably educated more white teenagers about the realities of urban life than the most brilliantly conceived school programs could ever have done.
The primacy of the appearance in politics is more pernicious because of the obvious influence lawmakers exercise over our lives. But it yields no comparative advantage to any political group because the techniques of image manipulation are equally available to all sides, and they tend to cancel each other out. Moreover, the images that seem so powerful during a campaign, for example, seem to have a way of haunting their proponents when the realities of public responsibility prove more complicated that the process of getting elected. George Bush’s notorious fondness for the pledge of allegiance in classrooms becomes a poignantly ironic contrast to his meager steps to remedy the actual problems that afflict American classrooms. What seems like gold in a campaign quickly becomes lead in the alchemy of implementing policy.
Rap music has probably educated more white teenagers about the realities of urban life than the most brilliantly conceived school programs could ever have done.
Unfortunately, we can also perceive the Franklin doctrine at work in the raging debate in academic circles over the composition of the “canon of great literature.” It is the appearance of thought rather than genuine understanding of literary history which prevails among all sides on this ersatz issue. After ten years of battle, it is time we called all parties to task for the ideologically-motivated, self-aggrandizing postures they strike in the name of “bettering” the moral character of readers. Seeking to impose their visions of literary order, they have fought it out over reading lists and required courses and anthologies in the absurd belief that any of these have anything to do with the course of literary history. Instead this sham battle is merely a smokescreen for the recruitment of minds and souls that each side believes will help it to save the world. Yet if anyone involved in this ridiculous debate were to take a moment’s respite from their headlong production of rhetoric to study the actual material over which they are struggling, they might see that the monolithic canon they are fighting about does not exist now and never really has.
As Jorge Luis Borges says of Franz Kafka: “each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” After reading Kafka, earlier writers suddenly begin to seem Kafkaesque to us because of the peculiar alchemy Kafka works on our way of reading, making his truths seem so pervasive. Literary reputations undergo continual reappraisals as the values we bring to literarure are revised by the changing character of contemporary culture. After all, who was William Faulkner until Malcolm Cowley got a crick in his neck from Yoknapawtawpha County that he just couldn’t get rid of? Yet to hear either side of the debate say it, the “canon” is only a bit less immutable than the Ten Commandments.
The right believes the “canon” is a transhistorical vessel of the moral and aesthetic truths that have put western society on the good side of God’s own history and insured our victory over the red devil of communism. Strangely, these same truths insist that we are a society of no convictions more sacred that the freedom of individuals to be whatever they chose. Of course this freedom is in fact nothing but the freedom to conform to the right’s strange ideology and mouth mindlessly the platitudes of “freedom” that actually bind us into ever more constricting homogeneity. But the Right has world domination on its mind, and can’t bother to heed soft-minded suggestions that our freedoms might be less liberating than we think. We’ll be free as long as we all think alike, they say.
On the other side of the argument, the left levels charges of systematic racial, sexual, and economic oppression against the fictitious canon, wielded in the name of solidifying the power base of white, middle-class, European males. With the help of the “canon,” the true nature of the oppressed objects of the demon white European male thought have been squelched, and their individuality can be resuscitated only by demolishing the power structures that have enforced their silence. For example, Homer is charged with racism, because the only non-white characters in The Iliad are slaves, and of sexism, because the Trojan War is implicitly started by a woman, Helen, who asked to be abducted by Paris and brought back to Troy. For these reasons, we are to banish it from the “canon.”
Presumably the new “canon” will have non-whites and non-males represented only by paradigmatically positive characters who will resemble human beings about as much as the idealized worker figure featured in ideologically sound socialist realism. Such brazen reductivism not only ignores the historical context which provided the subject matter for the work, but also imposes a stifling dogma on the process of reading which obliterates precisely those individual aspects of literature that make it last. Forcing works through a valorizing gridwork of race, class, and gender sifts out the actual blood and flesh of literature that allows it to breathe and to challenge us as readers.
Both Right and Left seek to destroy the individuality of literature while pretending to fight for the survival of the individual in society. Of course the “individual” both seek to preserve is a highly abstract figure that simply embodies the political agenda which underlies both sides of the supposedly literary nature of the debate. In presenting the appearance of debating the “canon,” the unctuously puritanical neo-conservatives on the right and the strident, single-issue, new tribalists on the left are dueling it out for nothing more than the appearance of control over literature. Ben Franklin would be fascinated. But in the mean time literature itself goes its merry way, obeying the imaginative dictates of those who produce it and the always evolving cruelties and wonders of the world, leaving the ideologues jabbering away in the dark over who controls the uncontrollable “canon” of literature.