Aiming the Can(n)on

Is there any value to debating what gets counted as a major literary work? Scott McLemee didn't think so -- until he saw the news from China.

December 21, 2005

If we could retire for good one old expression from the Culture Wars, I’d like to nominate "the literary canon." Is there anything new to say about it? Has even the most gung-ho Culture Warrior seized a new bit of territory within recent memory? It looks as if all the positions have been occupied, and the battles fought to a dull standstill.

On the one side, Bill O’Reilly and his ilk passionately love Shakespeare. Or rather, they at least enjoy the idea that somebody else will be forced to read him. And on the other side, the fierce struggle to “open the canon” usually looks like an effort to break down an unlocked door.

Checking the entry in New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society -- a reference work recently published by Blackwell -- I learn that the canon is, by definition, always something open to revision. Which would, of course, come as a really big surprise to many generations of rabbis, priests, and imams.

But perhaps that underscores the real problem here. The term "canon" rests on an analogy between an established set of cultural masterpieces, on the one hand, and the authoritative body of scriptures, on the other hand. And the problem with this comparison is that, deep down, it is almost impossible to take seriously. "Canon" is not so much a concept as a dead metaphor -- or rather, perhaps, a stillborn one.

If you are a full-fledged resident of secular modernity (that is, somebody accustomed to the existence of a deep moat of separation between sacred and worldly institutions) then the strongest original sense of “the canon” is just barely imaginable.

And if you have rejected secular modernity altogether -- if you believe that God once broke into human affairs long enough to make perfectly clear what He has in mind for us -– then the notion of secular literary works as having some vaguely comparable degree of authority must seem absurd. Or blasphemous.

Once in a great while, a writer or thinker reframes things so that the expression seems to come back to life. The late Northrop Frye, for example, took seriously William Blake’s aphorism calling the Bible "the Great Code of Art." Frye worked out a theory of literature that, in effect, saw the entire DNA of Western literature as contained in Judeo-Christian scripture. And then there is the example of Adonis, the great Lebanese author, who has pointed to the challenge of creating poetry in Arabic. How can you obey the modernist imperative to "make it new" in a language deeply marked by the moment in time it was used to record the commands of God?

But Frye and Adonis are exceptions. Usually, when we talk about "the canon," it is without any strong sense of a complicated relationship between literature and authority. Between words and the Word.

Instead, the debates are really over the allocation of resources -- and the economy of prestige within academic institutions. To say that a given literary figure is "part of the canon" actually means any number of profitable investments have been made in the study of that author. Conversely, to "question the canon" is a strategic move with consequences for the bottom line. (As in, "Do we really need to hire a Miltonist?")

But that means we’ll never get rid of that expression “the literary canon” -- if only because it sounds more dignified than “the literary spreadsheet.”

Is that too cynical? Can’t we assume that works defined as canonical possess some quality that places them above the give-and-take of institutional horse trading?

As a roundabout way of thinking about such questions, let me point your attention to a seemingly unrelated item that appeared in The Washington Post over the weekend.

It seems that there has recently been an intense discussion on an Internet bulletin board in China devoted to the work of Lu Xun, an author who lived between 1881 and 1936. The exchanges concerned one text in particular, his essay "In Memory of Ms. Liu Hezhen” -- a work unfortunately not available online in English, so far as I can tell.

The essay appeared in April 1926, a few weeks after government troops opened fire on a demonstration, killing 40 students. One of them, a 22-year-old woman named Liu Hezhen, had been a devoted reader of Lu Xun’s literary magazine The Wilderness and attended his lectures on Chinese literature at National Beijing Women's Normal University.

She was, Lu wrote “a student of mine. At least, I used to think of her as one.... She, as a young Chinese woman who has dedicated her life to the nation, is no longer a student of a person like me, who still lingers on superfluously in this world.” (All quotations are from the translation appearing in Women in Republican China: A Sourcebook, edited by Hua R. Lan and Vanessa L. Fong, published by M.E. Sharpe in 1999.)

It is a moving essay, and there is now a substantial body of scholarly commentary on it. But as the Post article reported, the sudden interest in Lu Xun’s essay suggests that people are using it “as a pretext to discuss a more current and politically sensitive event -- the Dec. 6 police shooting of rural protesters in the southern town of Dongzhou in Guangdong province.” Despite the official news blackout and the Chinese government’s efforts to censor the Internet, it seems that information about the Dongzhou massacre is spreading.

This development raises complex questions about the role that new media play in developing countries, and under authoritarian regimes. This being the age of high tech, people always want to discuss it -- and, of course, we’d damned well better.

But to be honest, I found it a lot more interesting that people were using Lu Xun’s essay as a reference point. It points to questions about the relationship between literary power and political authority. That Chinese citizens are using the Web and instant messaging to execute an end-run around official censorship is certainly interesting and important. But so is the classic author they are rereading while so engaged. 

It is hard to overstate the role that Lu Xun has played in Chinese culture over most of the past century. His martyred student Liu Hezhen was only one of thousands of young readers inspired by his work in the 1920s. He did not join the Communist Party, but drew close to it in the years before his death in 1936. And after the revolutionaries came to power in 1949, Lu was “canonized” in the strongest sense possible for a completely secular regime.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution (when, as a friend who lived through it once told me, the morning class in elementary school was math, and the afternoon was Mao), the selected quotations of Lu Xun were available in a little red book, just as the Great Helmsman’s were. And even after Mao’s own legacy was quietly downplayed in later decades, the field of “Lu Xun studies” continued as a basic part of Chinese scholarly life.

The novelist Ha Jin, professor of English at Boston University, gives some sense of the author’s continuing prominence in his introduction to a recent edition of Lu’s short stories. “Hundreds of books have been written on his life and writings,” he notes, “and several officially funded journals have been devoted to him. There are even papers on his real estate contracts, the aesthetics of the designs of his books, the rents he paid, and his favorite Japanese bookstores. Novels have appeared based on different periods and aspects of his life, not to mention movies, operas, and TV shows adapted from his fiction.”

All of this might look like evidence for the simplest model of how a literary canon is formed: An author gives voice to the ideology of the powers-that-be -- whether dead white property-owning European males, or revolutionary communist Chinese bureaucrats, or whatever. And those powers then return the favor by making the author a “classic.” All very clearcut, yes?

Actually, no. It happens that Lu Xun gained his prominence, not as an ideologue, but as a writer of great power -- a figure embodying both moral authority and a capacity for literary innovation.

His earliest work was written in the classic or high style of literary language. He gave an important course of lectures on the history of Chinese fiction, and was a master practitioner of the “eight-legged essay” (a very formal structure once used in civil-service exams for the Imperial bureaucracy).

But at some point in his 30s, Lu Xun had a creative breakthrough. He published a series of classic short stories combining sophisticated fictional technique with colloquial language. I don’t know Chinese, and must rely on the accounts of those who do. But even scholars disgusted by the official Maoist cult around Lu Xun admire his profound effect on the literary resources of the language. For example, in his book Lu Xun and Evolution (SUNY Press, 1998), James Reeve Pusey writes that the author “ ‘found himself’ in the creation of a new language, a highly literary, iconoclastically erudite, powerfully subtle vernacular that no one has since used with such mastery.”

And some of his power comes through even in translation. One of Lu Xun’s classic stories is “Diary of a Madman,” in which the everyday corruption and brutality of village life is seen as refracted through the mind of someone sinking ever deeper into paranoia. The narrator becomes convinced that the people around him practice cannibalism. His only hope, he confides to his diary, is that a few young people haven’t tasted human flesh. The final line of the story reads: “Save the children....”

Around the time government troops were shooting down students in 1926, Lu was drifting away from fiction. He instead concentrated on writing what were called zagan (“sundry thoughts”) or zawen (“miscellaneous writings”) -- short, topical prose compositions on whatever caught his attention. The state of his country worried him, and he poured his anger into hundreds of short pieces.

Not everyone liked this phase of his work. Have a look at the following bitter comment from 1931, by a critic who disliked Lu Xun’s later writings: “Zagan compositions, limited to a paltry thousand words, can naturally be done in one sweep of the brush. You catch at a thought, and in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette your thousand words are produced....There is just one formula for zagan compositions: either heated abuse or cold sarcasm. If you can append a word or two of cold sarcasm to the heated abuse, or insert some heated abuse amidst the cold sarcasm, that is all to the good.”

In short, Lu Xun invented the blog entry. (I’m sure that somewhat anachronistic thought has already occurred to people in China, who are discussing recent events via commentary on his work.)

His topics were as ephemeral as any newspaper article. But there is enough wordplay, historical allusion, metaphorical resonance, and heartfelt passion to make them something more than that. A whole scholarly industry is devoted to analyzing these essays. Indeed, by the late 1980s, the field of Lu Xun studies had become so “professionalized” (as that favorite expression of the MLA has it) that one young scholar was worried that it had become completely disconnected from anything of interest to the average reader.

So Lu Xun remains, by any definition, part of the Chinese literary canon, to use that word once again. (And if you see the revolutionary ideologies of the 20th century as continuing the old Gnostic heresy of “immanentizing the eschaton” -- as one school of conservative thinkers does -- then I suppose even the quasi-scriptural overtones might also apply.)

But does that mean that it would mean that China was democratizing only if Lu Xun lost his place? Or to put it more broadly: Are cultural and social power necessarily related? Don’t literary authority and political regime tend to be mutually reinforcing?

Those are open questions. But I can’t help thinking of another question – one that someone reportedly asked Mao in the late 1950s. What would Lu Xun’s role be if he were still alive? Mao answered that Lu would either remain quiet or go to jail. (And this from the man who canonized him. )

Rereading “In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen” this week, I was struck in particular by the second of the essay’s seven parts. The translation is a little stiff, but the passage is worth quoting in full:

“A real hero should dare to face the tragedy of life and look unwaveringly at bloodshed. It is at once sorrowful and joyful! But the Creator has determined for the sake of the ordinary people to let time heal all the wounds and to leave behind only slight traces of blood and sorrow. It is in these traces of blood and sorrow that people get a humble life and manage to keep this woeful world going. When shall we see the light at the end of such a tunnel, I do not know.”

Imagine how much has been written about that passage over the past couple of weeks. And think of all the questions it must raise – about the past, about the future.

If I were a Chinese official with some interest in the long-term welfare of my own hide, then I might have a strong interest, right about now, in “opening up the canon.” (Or abolishing it.) Perhaps literature is an unreliable way of shoring up the established order and transmitting stabilizing cultural values. It might be a good idea to discourage the reading of Lu Xun, and get people to watch "Fear Factor " instead.


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