The Western Canon
is a theoretical list of all of the great works
that have had a significant impact on western thought
, and the development of western literature
. The list is theoretical
because the terms that define the western canon are somewhat nebulous
, so it is impossible to produce an absolutely definitive list to meet the definition. However, the concept that such a canon
of literature exists is a useful one.
The usefulness of the western canon rests in its ability to perpetuate our memory and appreciation for the great works of art produced by literature's greatest minds. Until recently, the concept of the western canon had major significance in determining the curricula in our Universities. However, Liberal political trends, an increasing interest in contemporary pop culture, and rebellion against the supposed elitism implied by the canon have undermined the canon's privileged place in academia. The canon's fall from grace has been so precipitous that it has been forced to pack its bags and go tramping. Now, the responsibility for the preservation of the western canon has fallen on those to whom it has always been most significant anyway: those who read for the love of reading, those who read great books, not because they have to write term papers and earn grades, but because they enjoy reading such books as Don Quixote, Clarissa, and Gulliver's Travels.
Certain definite things can be said about the canon. There is no question as to whether the works of Shakespeare or Homer are included; they definitely are. There's also no question as to whether the works of Douglas Adams or Mary Higgins Clarke are included; they definitely are not. As for such American Beat authors as Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg... well, only time can tell, though it seems likely that their accomplishments will be devalued through time, and eventually forgotten.
The older a work is, the easier it is to evaluate its place within the canon. If a book is very old, and it is still widely read, then chances are it is a part of the canon. This includes The Bible and The Quran, as well as The Golden Ass and A Tale of A Tub.
Of course, there's the matter of "westernness." Most, but not all books in the western canon have been written by authors of Western European descent, or who have been greatly influenced by the Western European literary tradition. The Quran, as mentioned above, does not seem to meet this too narrow definition. But the Quran has had an unmistakable influence upon the culture of Europe, and in fact the culture of civilizations all across the world. The national origin of an author is not most significant. Most significant is the question of whether the author has been influenced by, and/or has shown a corresponding influence upon the western notion of what literature is. This last part, the part that suggests a canonical work should show lasting influence, is the reason why it is easier to evaluate older works. Who can know for sure which of today's authors will have the greatest role in defining the literature of the future?
The Dream Of The Red Chamber may be a great novel. It may be the most significant book in the history of Chinese literature. But it is not a part of the western canon because it is not widely read in the west, it is born from a separate literary tradition, and it has had little influence on western authors. This judgment is not elitist. It is simply meant to suggest that Chinese and far eastern readers and writers are better able to judge the value of their own literary traditions, without having to be judged by western standards.
Yet, it is this narrow scope, its focus on the literary culture of western Europe, which has been the principal reason for a reevaluation of the canon's usefulness within academia. The powerful forces of multiculturalism and feminism that have come to reign supreme in our universities have rejected the canon because it predominantly includes "old white male European" authors. But note that this reevaluation is based strictly on an ethnic/gender bias, not on an informed judgment of the aesthetic value of the works. In fact, it has become increasingly apparent that aesthetics have been thrown out in favor of politics in the academic evaluation of art, to such an extent that it can be dangerous to even suggest that aesthetics should have a role in the appreciation of art.