A Country without a Canon? Canadian Literature and the Esthetics of Idealism

By Lecker, Robert | Mosaic (Winnipeg), Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

A Country without a Canon? Canadian Literature and the Esthetics of Idealism


Lecker, Robert, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


In a recent review of Charles Altieri's Canons and Consequences, Bernard Harrison poses some important questions about the relation between canons and culture. He asks:

Can a culture survive without a system of values rich enough to preserve

it from eventual disintegration through mere alteration of manners and

ways of thinking? ... And can such systems of values exist without canons:

without bodies of works, in literature, history or philosophy, generally

regarded as "important": works to be brandished, sniped at, accused,

devalued or revalued, which by manifesting the values of the tribe in each

succeeding generation permit the renewal of a living sense of both the

scope and the limitations of those values? (25) While such questions have been central to discussions of canonicity outside Canada, the study of canons and canonicity in English-Canadian literature has been less productive than one might have hoped, mainly because the relation between culture and value (the central canonical matrix) remains largely unexplored. Although the 1980s produced some scattered commentary, and even a few direct challenges to what was perceived as canonical authority (see MacLaren, Powe, and Stuewe), the first book on the topic did not appear until 1991 (Canadian Canons, Lecker, ed.), and there is still no sustained consideration of how a (shifting) Canadian canon--if such an animal exists--can be seen as historically contingent, politically self-serving, ideologically generated, and culture-ridden. As in most discussions about Canadian literature, there is no sense of debate, by which I mean a focused and disruptive exchange of ideas on a topic considered worthy of dispute. Even the most pointed challenges to what has been called the Canadian canon have been met with indifference rather than hostility. (I think here, in particular, of the challenges posed by Metcalf and Weir.)

This indifference contrasts sharply with the conditions prevailing in France, the United States and Great Britain, where for years critics have been engaged in what John Guillory calls "a legitimation crisis with far-ranging consequences" in which "pressures conceived to be extrinsic to the practice of criticism seem to have shaken literary pedagogy in fundamental ways" ("Canonical" 483). Writing in 1990, Paul Lauter asserts that "Today, canon study is perhaps as popular a subject for academic disquisitions as post-structuralist |theory'" (144). It is precisely because the range of "canon study" outside Canada is so popular and extensive that it cannot be summarized with ease. In his review of Canons--the influential collection of essays that comprised the September 1983 issue of Critical Inquiry-Louis Renza noted that "Recent critical trends clearly suggest that ... canonical self-certainty is on the wane. Almost daily, it seems, critical articles and scholarly works appear informing us that we have wrongly overlooked the value of this or that writer's work because the inherited, pedagogically assumed canon has simply seen fit to relegate them to the status of |minor literature'--or has even forced them to disappear from canonical consideration altogether" (258). For Renza, revisionist arguments about the canon, which constitute "a declaration of intellectual guerilla war against canonical thinking or cultural imperialism" (268), are encountered "Almost daily." For Canadians, even today, it is "almost never."

Indeed, the very desire to bring this debate to Canada is seen by some theorists as an expression of a "colonial cringe" (Godard 12) that is rooted in "an idealization of critical practice in other countries, particularly that of the United States" (Davey, "Critical Response" 674). What seems overlooked, however, is that the debate about the canon outside Canada--and especially in the United States--is grounded in non-American, poststructural attempts to "theorize power, action, agency, and resistance" (Bove 61). …

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