A Personal Canon

tumblr_opa7lamDgA1qgqrwho1_1280A number of book bloggers are posting their personal canons. They are very fun: see here, here, and here, for instance. (It reminds me of the “literary pillars” exercise inspired by William H. Gass; see Samuel R. Delany’s here and Brian A. Oard’s beautifully comprehensive one, starting here.)

I thought to do the same, but the problem is that when it comes to imaginative literature (i.e., fiction, poetry, drama, and related) I have no personal canon, or my personal canon just is the canon. Greatest writer of the modern west? Shakespeare. Greatest English novel? Middlemarch. Greatest twentieth-century novel? Ulysses. My favorite lyric poem, I tell you no lie, is the “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” My favorite living American writers really are Roth, DeLillo, and Morrison. In the last twelve months, I have made the staggering, unbelievable discovery that Mann, Pushkin, and Walcott are great writers.

Granted, I have revealing and sometimes even perverse preferences among the pantheon—these days, at least, I will take Dostoevsky over Tolstoy; I like Hawthorne, Dickinson, and James better than Melville, Whitman, and Twain; I have even lately been toying with a preference for Cather over Faulkner—but not even the slightly more outré among my well-liked books (Nightwood) or writers (Cynthia Ozick) want for general appreciation. My favorite comic book writer is Alan Moore, for the love of God!

I have never been a great hunter after literary obscurities, a comber of small-press catalogues, a seeker into the unjustly uncanonized, a devourer of rare translations from heretofore-unheralded national literatures. This undoubtedly marks me a bad person—small-minded and complacent, a Little-Englander of the soul. All the same, Emerson has a good if questionable passage on this theme in “Experience”:

[I]n popular experience, everything good is on the highway. A collector peeps into all the picture-shops of Europe, for a landscape of Poussin, a crayon-sketch of Salvator; but the Transfiguration, the Last Judgment, the Communion of St. Jerome, and what are as transcendent as these, are on the walls of the Vatican, the Uffizii, or the Louvre, where every footman may see them; to say nothing of nature’s pictures in every street, of sunsets and sunrises every day, and the sculpture of the human body never absent. A collector recently bought at public auction, in London, for one hundred and fifty-seven guineas, an autograph of Shakspeare: but for nothing a school-boy can read Hamlet, and can detect secrets of highest concernment yet unpublished therein. I think I will never read any but the commonest books, — the Bible, Homer, Dante, Shakspeare, and Milton.

Then it occurred to me that I could rescue the project of a personal canon by focusing strictly on works of non-fiction that have formed my thinking. As far as non-fiction goes, I tend to read literary criticism and theory, philosophy (not as much as I should), and, broadly speaking, political thought. Every year I resolve to read more history, biography, and science, and every year I remain as ill-informed on these subjects as a young-earth creationist. On the other hand, I make no apology for my wariness of memoir and autobiography; VIPs’ autobios are ghostwritten, and literary types who want to dilate half-imaginarily upon grief or education or illness or family life should just write novels like the rest of us. (Obvious exceptions leap to mind—please don’t think I fail to admire Frederick Douglass, to name only one—but in our memoir-glutted age I stand by my point.)

Anyway, here follows, on this endless rainy Sunday, a lightly-annotated list of some non-fictional books that have meant something to me over the years. I have slightly cheated by leaving out works that I once found persuasive but now feel myself, rightly or wrongly, to have outgrown (e.g., John Berger’s Ways of Seeing or James Wood’s The Broken Estate, to say nothing of historically local political polemics that are now in the proverbial historical dustbin where they probably belong). The following books have not so much convinced me of something, so that I can be unconvinced of it later, but have provided me with models for how to think about anything.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae. Perhaps the most controversial item on the list. I read it in my senior year of high school. While I do not agree with its every willful provocation, it articulates a thesis that remains foundational for me: there will always be a nightside to our lives, always something dark and destructive in our desires, and art (or criticism) must not neglect this truth out of some misplaced faith—Christian, liberal, or otherwise—that incorrigible humanity could ever be totally enlightened. Also, even if she does, we should not let Paglia-the-provocateur stand in the light of Paglia-the-supreme-close-reader, particularly of lyric poetry, painting, and sculpture.

Roland Barthes, S/Z. The first and in a way last piece of “French theory” to blow my mind in college. I read it in a junior seminar alongside a selection of contemporary world novels, such as The Remains of the Day, The English Patient, and True History of the Kelly Gang. Barthes’s subtleties eluded me—especially all the seeming Lacaniana about castration—and I have never revisited the book (please don’t ask me about the “five codes” Barthes posits), but its argument on behalf of a literature that requires the reader to make a writerly effort remains one of the most appealing defenses of artistic difficulty I know: “The writerly is the novelistic without the novel, poetry without the poem, the essay without the dissertation, writing without style, production without product, structuration without structure.” On reflection, this strikes me as a witless antinomianism, suggestive less of modernist experimentation than of process-not-product poetry slams, but what can I say, I needed to hear it at a certain time in my reading and writing life; probably everyone does.

Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel. The first and in a way last work of literary theory to blow my mind in graduate school, read in my first semester. In a sensible world, Lukács would be more controversial than Paglia. Of all literary theory’s problematic faves, he was the only one, to my knowledge, who actually ordered men to be killed (as if to demand, “Top that, Paul de Man!”). This book dates from just before the unpleasantness of his communist years, though it is clearly the work of a man at the end of his tether, trembling on the precipice of some kind of religious conversion. The dense but lyrical language of this grand little essay as it charts the historical missions and destinies of the great literary genres from epic to novel is strangely moving: Lukács wants so badly to believe in literature. In the end, he had to find something he thought larger to believe in, already implicit here: History. The rest of us are left with this book’s doleful, dead-end wisdom: “Irony, the self-surmounting of a subjectivity that has gone as far as it was possible to go, is the highest freedom that can be achieved in a world without God.”

John Gray, Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern and Straw Dogs. A pattern: I am a latecomer to the primary sources. As I read Lukács before Hegel (and don’t ask how much Hegel), I read Gray before Schopenhauer (don’t ask etc.). With the later Lukács’s left-Hegelian faith in historical progress waning in me early in graduate school as I contemplated the ruins of Bush’s right-Hegelian America and of leftish academe, it was fortuitous for me to discover a philosophical pessimism, a conservative anti-humanism, that was very nearly humane, or at least pacific. I admired Gray’s insistence that precisely because humans were not special and were not capable of progress we should care for each other and the world—though cautiously, much more cautiously than Hegel’s stormtroopers, whether the Marxist totalitarians of the twentieth century or the twenty-first-century neocon imperialists in Mesopotamia, lest we destroy what beauty and order we have actually managed to create.

Plato, Phaedrus. I told you I come late to the primary sources! Sure, I had read the Apology and the famous parts of the Republic and even—with the late Heda Segvic, an extraordinary lecturer—the Protagoras, not to mention some of Derrida’s characteristically impenetrable Platonic commentary in Dissemination, so I knew a little about Plato (not enough; I still don’t). I took up the Phaedrus, alongside the Symposium, in this Hackett edition with its weirdly sexy cover—if you want a “sex sells” cover for your Plato on Love book, it should probably show two men in bed together—mainly because I was writing a dissertation chapter on Wilde and wanted to know more about his Platonism. I was not prepared for the infinite regress of this self-devouring dialogue, a written polemic against writing, an erotic argument against eros, a supreme demonstration of the identity of opposites on the highest level, despite its, or Socrates’s, overt advocacy for one side (idealism, chastity, speech) over the other (materialism, lust, writing). If irony is our substitute for a transcendence we can neither attain nor cease from believing in, this is its Gospel.

Northrop Frye, Anatomy of CriticismI should have read it in high school; alas, I got to it only after the Ph.D. The way my teachers talked, you’d have thought all criticism before 1968 was either naïve or vicious. Frye’s total vision of literature—as a mobile ensemble of modes, symbols, myths, and genres, like some perpetual motion sculpture of the Ptolemaic cosmos, embodying the entire life cycle of the human person and the human collective—proves that at least one body of pre-cultural-revolution criticism was at once immeasurably sophisticated and boundlessly hopeful. (A Christian, Frye saw his cyclical narrative paradoxically culminating in comedy, but this is no less arbitrary than having it culminate it tragedy, like Gray, or in irony, like the young Lukács; the question is when you stop spinning the wheel.) It is probably true that this vast system slights the complexities of any one of its constituent elements; using Frye to “read” a poem would likely end in a nightmare of insensitive reductivism. But considered as a poem—an authentic twentieth-century epic with literature as its voyaging warrior—Anatomy of Criticism is unforgettable.

Gillian Rose, Love’s Work and Mourning Becomes the Law. An unexpected conclusion, for two reasons: the first book is a memoir (read circa 2010), and the second I am reading currently. Love’s Work, Rose’s deathbed testament (she died in middle age of ovarian cancer), is a staggering meditation on how to live and think in the midst of agony and evil: “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not,” she counsels, quoting St. Silouan. Mourning Becomes the Law is a collection of philosophical essays arguing against the manifold forms of despair offered by contemporary art and thought, from deconstruction to pragmatism; returning to Plato, she shows that if we had no transcendent vantage, we could not criticize the here and now in the name of any value, whether justice or love or beauty. That we can find no warrant now for such a vantage is, she implies, no excuse. She converted to Christianity in her final days.

The previous entries in this private canon perhaps gather here, now arrayed in a pattern leading to Rose: unable to avoid our dark side (per Paglia), we must labor to reinterpret it (per Barthes) in a light disclosed by the ironic apprehension that all is not as it should be (per Lukács) or is even nothing in itself (per Gray), compared to some paradisal totality (per Plato), some divine comedy (per Frye), that we can imagine but not directly experience. This is too neat a narrative though, so I provide one more entry, out of the previous temporal sequence (I read this book between the Barthes and the Lukács, at around age 24) and not so weightily metaphysical:

J. M. Coetzee, Stranger Shores. Nobody is supposed to outgrow anything anymore—you should love Batman at 47 as much as you did when you were 11—but I feel I am always getting too big for at least some of my prior reading; so it is with Coetzee’s novels (Disgrace excepted, I assume, though I’m too scared to go back and reread it). His early work is the highest literary expression liberal guilt has ever received, and his later work is an Eliotic cry to God, but his dryness and his spareness come to feel more and more like, if not a gimmick, then a disqualifying limitation. The dryness and spareness of his criticism, though, is a tonic for someone like me, an eager-to-impress cultural parvenu reared early on showboating critic-essayists (not only Paglia, but also Bloom, Sontag, Hitchens, and Vidal). Coetzee never showboats; he describes the work under review patiently and precisely, adding context, explicating difficulties, and carefully noting strengths and weaknesses. These essays are so free from heavy weather that, compared to the grandeur above, they scarcely seem written at all. And the last piece in this book, “What Is a Classic?”, must be one of the twentieth century’s great literary essays: it testifies that after you have charted every material determinant and political injustice underlying your experience of art, you will still be left—if the art is strong enough—with an experience of otherworldly grace, near-Platonic transcendence, and that the passing on of this experience (or its means) through education defines the classic.

Weightily metaphysical after all, and neatly narrative too: if all goes well, your personal canon becomes a public one in the end.


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  1. Great list and very enjoyable to read. John Gray and his notion of the human as animal was someone I was grateful to delve into as someone whose interest in economic and other forms of justice has never amounted to a normative set of “beliefs”, as one who recognises his inherent conservatism without quite having established whether it is an immanent manifestation or failing of personality, hormones etc. or a matter of ideology, and as someone who also finds the reactionary mentality despicable, hypocritical and rather a touch too “alpha” for my tastes, notwithstanding my own instinct for reaction to the bland/blind march of “progress”.

    I wasn’t quite clear as to whether your identification of a personal fictional canon was based necessarily on an agreement with the general objective assessment of what are the greatest works (Shakespeare, Ulysses) of literature or if you were suggesting that those books which are generally accepted as greatest and your favourites were also those which were closest to your heart or which you were, on the whole and with the benefit of hindsight, most excited to read. Some of the other bloggers doing this seemed to adopt a more personal approach albeit while identifying the works as great.

    When I reflect on some of my favourite books, I notice that while they are also considered works of literature, if not perhaps the very greatest, I have generally been attracted to or felt a kinship with the mentality which appeared to inform them. I am thinking of The Leopard and At-Swim-Two Birds for example, which had huge effects on me. I also notice that as someone from a small and culturally distinct nation (Ireland), I find myself reading steadily over the years into my national literature, in particular its modernists/post-modernists,(Joyce, Banville, Flann O’Brien, Beckett, Aidan Higgins etc.) as well as, and with a somewhat separate ambition, into the general canon of writing from the Anglo-American, European and other cultures.

    I cordially disagree with your view on memoir and your stricter view of what does or may constitute a novel or literary work of fiction. I think Geoff Dyer talks somewhere about the origin of the word “fiction” being in the Latin word “fingere” meaning to shape or to mould. That shaping or moulding is a defining characteristic of memoiristic writing which to my mind places it in the family of literary fictions. But I may just take that view because I am not so big on plotty novels.

    Kind regards.

    • Hi Ger, thanks for commenting! You put Gray’s appeal very well; it is sometimes just a relief to read political and philosophical speculation that does not so neatly fall into the left/right binary without also being some bland “centrism.”

      As for the personal fictional canon: it isn’t that I like all objectively canonical material equally—I am completely indifferent to some indisputably classic writers (for instance, Mark Twain, whom I named in the post)—it’s just that most of my durably favorite novels/poems/plays do happen to be largely agreed-upon classics and a list of those would not seem very personal. Also, as I said, and maybe this a character flaw, but I really don’t go out of my way to read obscurer literature when there is already so much glaringly famous literature that I haven’t read yet! I like to read the reports, though, of people who do more regularly or rigorously take up small-press and/or newly-translated stuff, like (in the blog world) [P] at booksyo or Melissa at The Book Binder’s Daughter or Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed.

      In theory I agree with you and Dyer about memoir (perhaps I was trying too hard to be provocative in my post!), but the genre does seem unduly and symptomatically trendy today, unless I am just being curmudgeonly. The other thing is that I appreciate a certain inventiveness in fiction, even verging on the surreal or the fantastic (as in Hawthorne or Dostoevsky or the Brontes or Woolf or Morrison—or Joyce or Beckett), that is much less likely to show up in memoirs in my experience. I am with you on plotty novels, though!

      • I didn’t mean to imply you appeared to suggest a liking for all objectively canonical material equally, rather I wondered to what extent you were suggesting your canon would be personal. I can see that they co-incide.

        On memoir, I note at the link to Mindful Pleasures the reference to Herr’s Dispatches, a book I absolutely loved for its incredibly sustained style and voice as “a work of aestheticized memory”, which I think is perfect. Of course, I am five books into Knausgaard and loving it. But that might be a Generation X thing (I am five or so years younger than him and remember moshing to Fugazi and stuff.)


      • Thanks! I could not get into Knausgaard; I don’t think it’s just generational, though I was born in ’82–more that I could not handle the colorlessness of the prose and the thought of thousands of pages of such before me. (I had the same feeling from the 20-30 pages I read of Ferrante, though I probably owe her more of a chance.)

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