The Fraying Of America

When a nation's diversity breaks into factions, demagogues rush in, false issues cloud debate, and everybody has a grievance

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One example is the inconclusive debate over "the canon," that oppressive Big Bertha whose muzzle is trained over the battlements of Western Civ at the black, the gay and the female. The canon, we're told, is a list of books by dead Europeans -- Shakespeare and Dante and Tolstoy and Stendhal and John Donne and T.S. Eliot . . . you know, them, the pale, patriarchal penis people. Those who complain about the canon think it creates readers who will never read anything else. What they don't want to admit, at least not publicly, is that most American students don't read much anyway and quite a few, left to their own devices, would not read at all. Their moronic national baby-sitter, the TV set, took care of that. Before long, Americans will think of the time when people sat at home and read books for their own sake, discursively and sometimes even aloud to one another, as a lost era -- the way we now see rural quilting bees in the 1870s.

The quarrel over the canon reflects the sturdy assumption that works of art are, or ought to be, therapeutic. Imbibe the Republic or Phaedo at 19, and you will be one kind of person; study Jane Eyre or Mrs. Dalloway, and you will be another. For in the literary zero-sum game of canon-talk, if you read X, it means that you don't read Y. This is a simple fancy.

So is the distrust of the dead, as in "dead white male." Some books are deeper, wider, fuller than others, and more necessary to an understanding of our culture and ourselves. They remain so long after their authors are dead. Those who parrot slogans like "dead white male" might reflect that, in writing, death is relative: Lord Rochester is as dead as Sappho, but not so moribund as Bret Easton Ellis or Andrea Dworkin. Statistically, most authors are dead, but some continue to speak to us with a vividness and urgency that few of the living can rival. And the more we read, the more writers we find who do so, which is why the canon is not a fortress but a permeable membrane.

The sense of quality, of style, of measure, is not an imposition bearing on literature from the domain of class, race or gender. All writers or artists carry in their mind an invisible tribunal of the dead, whose appointment is an imaginative act and not merely a browbeaten response to some notion of authority. This tribunal sits in judgment on their work. They intuit their standards from it. From its verdict there is no appeal. None of the contemporary tricks -- not the fetishization of the personal, not the attempt to shift the aesthetic into the political, not the exhausted fictions of avant-gardism -- will make it go away. If the tribunal weren't there, every first draft would be a final manuscript. You can't fool Mother Culture.

That is why one rejects the renewed attempt to judge writing in terms of its presumed social virtue. Through it, we enter a Marxist never-never land, where all the most retrograde phantoms of Literature as Instrument of Social Utility are trotted forth. Thus the Columbia History of the American Novel declares Harriet Beecher Stowe a better novelist than Herman Melville because she was "socially constructive" and because Uncle Tom's Cabin helped rouse Americans against slavery, whereas the captain of the Pequod was a symbol of laissez-faire capitalism with a bad attitude toward whales.

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