The Aardvark Speaks : essence, effervescence, obscurity. Established 2002. A weblog by Horst Prillinger. ISSN 1726-5320

December 13, 2006


Despite the fact that I spend a lot of time teaching my students the concept of the literary canon, I believe I may have violated it and lost some respect in the process. These things happen.

canon (noun); a collection of books accepted as holy scripture, especially the books of the Bible recognized by any Christian church as genuine and inspired

The concept of the canon, which was originally a purely religious matter, has of course since been applied to various fields of art which have also enjoyed something of a religious devotion by their aficionados, in particular literature, film, and music. Generally, it still refers to a list of titles that are perceived to be "genuine and inspired".

Of course that is also why the canon has been so strongly criticized: it will by definition always reflect the tastes of those who set it up; even if they are a many people, or even a representative group, the canon will reflect the cultural and ideological values of the society that makes it, and as these values can and will change, so that everything can become part of the canon and everything can cease to be part of it. In other words, whether something becomes literature or art depends not so much on the work itself than it depends on cultural contexts and subtexts.

Currently we could say that the concept of the canon is no longer a matter of Knowing the Truth; it has been transformed into a matter of style -- in other words, there are things that are hip and things that aren't. To be hip requires that you (a) are aware of what is canonical and (b) are aware of things that will become canonical, but especially that (c) you stay clear of things that are not and will most likely not become canonical.

This means, of course, that canons are exclusive: if you read canonical texts, listen to canonical music, watch canonical films, you are part of the "in crowd". If you so much as make one wrong move, you're out.

Or, let me rephrase the first part of the previous sentence: if you know what kind of things are canonical and pretend that you read/listen to/watch them, then you are part of the "in crowd". Because interestingly, many canonical things are not ever consumed.

Who, for example, has honestly read Joyce's Ulysses, Musil's Mann ohne Eigenschaften, Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu? Or rather, what percentage of people who talk about these books have read, understood, and enjoyed them?

Why is it that the BYG "Actuel" series of jazz records receives such universal acclaim and is most certainly canonical and still, if you mention any title in that series, for example Dave Burrell's Echo, everybody will ask you, "I hear it's great, so what's it really like?".

The trick with the canon is that it is perfectly alright to talk about canonical literature, music or films if you haven't seen them, but that you should never, ever talk about something that is non-canonical.

The problem here is that, as I have pointed out, what is canonical and what is non-canonical can depend a lot on the group of people you are with. So talking about Star Trek can be perfect in one situation and an absolute no-no in another.

And of course you have to be up-to-date as to what's canonical at the moment. Ally McBeal? Very canonical in 1999, totally unacceptable in 2006.

So what this all amounts to and why I'm writing this is that I seem to have made a total fool of myself by saying at some point that my winter depression had made me watch five seasons of Gilmore Girls on DVD. I did not say I liked it; I did not said it had worked against the depression. Everybody was simply appalled.

I had been under the impression that Gilmore Girls was, at least partly, canonical. Apparently not.

Posted by Horst on December 13, 2006 01:44 AM to books & bookkeeping | Tell-a-friend
dieter said on December 14, 2006 09:59 AM:

Wrong reference group ;-)

Jann said on December 14, 2006 02:44 PM:

Apparently so!

sabine said on December 18, 2006 06:57 PM:

being a teacher, I know the problem. does reading "Faust" with teenagers really make sense? should we not just forget about it and move on? and horst - I'm not "appalled" by the fact that you watch the "Gilmores". I just don't like them, that's all. Like - I don't like Hemingway, either.

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