On Poetry and Culture Shock

The Canon as interpreted by the Library of Congress

I went to the Library of Congress on a guided tour, so I didn’t have time to see much, really. Something must be said about Americans: our guide said that the Library is such an ornate, beautiful building because when it was built, this was a very young country and the Congressmen wanted an splendid building that Americans could be proud of. The Pharaohs built tombs, European kings built castles, and early Americans built a library.

So. There is a ceiling decorated with names that represent what the builders of this paradise considered the peak of Literature. Nowadays, to that we add Western Literature, because we are aware of the existence of The Monkey’s Journey to the West, or Issa Kobayashi’s haikus, and other masterpieces not from Europe or North America. When the Library was built, they didn’t know or care much about those things.

It was fascinating to see the designer’s version of the Canon (the Canon is the list of works or authors that an expert considers classic). A few names are lined up together without a heading, so the watcher has to guess that each wall is dedicated to a genre. This is what they have:

Novel: Miguel de Cervantes, Victor Hugo, Walter Scott, James Fennimore Cooper.
Poetry: Henry Longfellow, Alfred Tennyson.
Epic: Dante, Homer, John Milton.
Drama: Goethe, Shakespeare, Molière
Philosophy: Bacon, Aristotle.
History: Moses, Herodotus. Edward Gibbon and George Bancroft are put next to Longfellow and Tennyson.

In the choice of genres, I’m surprised there is no lyrical poetry. Where are Catullus and Petrarch? (Someone mention Bécquer and I’ll puke). Now about the choice of authors. First, the inventor of novels and someone American are a given. Cervantes is definitely in, but then, what about the American? Who cares about Cooper these days? That’s not a rhetorical question. Herman Melville is a lot more relevant nowadays, and Hawthorne… well, I have a soft spot for Nathaniel Hawthorne. So, if the designer was trying to see the future, he failed a bit there. Or maybe he had a preference for historical novels.

I cannot say anything about Victor Hugo. The idea is to take novelists from different countries, good idea, but then, what is Walter Scott doing up there? Representing Britain? Where is Jane Austen? Where is George Elliot? Americans in the 19th century had mixed feelings about Charles Dickens because he satirised them very harshly, so I understand his absence. Maybe is just my feminism (or my love of novels of manners), but Scott up there instead of Elliot or Austen, oh please.

The poetry one is funny because although Longfellow and Tennyson were wildly popular a bit more than a century ago, no one reads them anymore outside universities. And again, Petrach and Catullus??

Of course, the only thing I have to say about Epic is that if there were four columns instead of three, Ovid should’ve been in there. And Drama… what the heck were they thinking of when they left Sophocles out? Come on, Oedipus Rex, guys!

The Philosophy wall is too presumptuous. How can anybody pretend to choose just two philosophers to represent the best of human knowledge? Why not Kant and Plato? And History… Moses is just stuck up there in the ridiculous assumption that he’s the author of the Pentateuch (should I say, the Torah), and only the fact that he’s next to Herodotus suggests that he is considered an historian. Smash down that mosaic and put Caesar or Herodotus instead. And who are Bancroft and Gibbon? I don’t think I had ever heard of them before! The whims of fame and time are very cruel to some people.

So that’s it. Rather than just giving my opinion, I wanted to show how arbitrary the Canon can be, and how anyone that takes up the task of devising one is often doomed to (partial) failure. Blogs are very ethereal things, just bytes on a plane outside space, but if my entries were preserved somehow for someone to read in a century or two, I wonder if they will think me naïve and presumptuous.

No, actually, no “if”. I wonder in what aspects they will consider me naïve and presumptuous.

0 comentarios