Monday, January 3, 2011

The Politics of the Great Conversation

In the introduction to the Great Books series--matching volumes of classic literature published during the 1950s--Robert Hutchins proposed that the books he and his team selected were "offered in no antiquarian spirit."  As he continued, "We have not seen our task as that of taking tourists on a visit to ancient ruins or to the quaint productions of primitive peoples. We have not thought of providing our readers with hours of relaxation or with an escape from the dreadful cares that are the lot of every man."  Instead, he believed that reading texts from the Western Canon could improve our lives.

Great literature for Hutchins happened only because of the discourse of great minds communicating with each other across the centuries.  And their dialogue with one another was one we could overhear by studying the writings of these outstanding minds.  And every time we read a work of classic literature, we are not only eavesdropping but participating in the Great Conversation.

Hutchins is sure his project is not political.  "Since the set was conceived of as a great conversation," he writes, "it is obvious that the books could not have been chosen with any dogma or even with any point of view in mind. In a conversation that has gone on for twenty-five centuries, all dogmas and points of view appear."  A collection of "great errors as well as the great truths" could be found in his treasured books.  "The task of interpretation and conclusion is [the reader].  This is the machinery and life of the Western tradition in the hands of free men."

It is impossible now for us to pretend that any project seeking to define the canon is anything but political.  Systems of power and privilege allowed certain authors--white males with education and enough money, usually--to produce more literature than those in society who had less leisure time and often less education.  And the fact that their books became the literature studied in the schools of the day set an example to others.  Their works merely served to reinforce the traditional hierarchy.  As we moderns have searched through the literature of earlier times, we have found an almost surprising number of works by "outsiders."  But what is in our canon--and part of that centuries-long conversation Hutchins is talking about--is likely to reinforce conservative ideas about social order.

We can read these books with an eye to exposing all the prejudice and oppression that lies in their pages.  That kind of analytical work is valuable--but it is not at all what I want to do in my own reading of these classics.  Let me come out right now and acknowledge I am a flaming lefty.  Despite the seeming barriers, I am interested in making a new Great Conversation--one that is more inclusive and more critical, perhaps, but also fundamentally concerned with what we can get out of the text the authors put in front of us.

Recognize the flaws--and even point them out when you must--but remember that when our own words are read by the people of the future, they will be shocked by all of our blindnesses.

Despite Hutchin's almost naive belief that the canon is apolitical, his introduction is actually quite liberal.  I won't go into all the details here, but I encourage you to read his entire essay (which you can download from the above site for free).

One of the most powerful things Hutchins writes is that "the goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue.  The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry.... Nothing is to remain undiscussed.  Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities" of the human species.

Let us engage in that dialogue together.  Let us start the Great Conversation.


  1. I'm not so sure that you'll find Euripides, Plato, Job, Cervantes, Rabelais, etc. to be all that "likely to reinforce conservative ideas about social order."

    The canon is chaos.

  2. You said, "Recognize the flaws--and even point them out when you must--but remember that when our own words are read by the people of the future, they will be shocked by all of our blindnesses."

    And I just want to say I couldn't agree more with that sentiment. I would even go further and say that we in the 21st century have blindnesses that those in the past did not have, which is one of the great things about reading works from the past.

  3. AR: Terrific! I haven't read them yet, and I do hope I'll agree with you. On the other hand, the idea that these classic works really disrupt the social order doesn't quite make sense to me yet. Since they are part of the canon, they have already shaped the world that exists, no?

    Teresa: How right you are that reading works from the past can sometimes remove some of our blinders! Thanks for the fascinating comment.

  4. They weren't canonical when they were written!

    Euripides is sometimes expicitly anti-canon - anti-Homer, for example. The motto - a motto - of Rabelais is "Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law."

    That these spitting, yowling, laughing works survive, that they become part of some vague thing we'll call the canon, is perhaps an irony. Powerful pieces of literature shape the world, yes. But sometimes they shape it by undermining the social order, creating a new one.

  5. I'll back Amateur Reader up on this. His example of Job is another good one: yes, it's in the Hebrew Bible (the canon of canons!) but it goes directly against the Wisdom literature, which suggested that if you lived right, nothing bad would happen to you because God would protect you. The canon contradicts itself, the canon is anti-canonical. It undermines what is and makes what is not. What fun!

  6. A flaming lefty huh? I love it.

  7. AR: I was talking about supporting the social order today--the "new one"--rather than the one at the time. But your comments about the spitting and yowling work get me even more excited about reading these works and writing about them. I'm so glad to have found you and others who believe so intensely that these works and alive and vivid.

    Jenny: What a terrific comment you make when you say "the canon in anti-canonical"! I think this will have to go up on the bulletin board in my study. And thanks to you, too, for sharing your love of the classics as something exciting and immediate.

    IngridLola: ...even to the point of using my left hand as much as possible... :>

  8. The Slow, Plot-Driven ReaderJanuary 05, 2011

    If it is okay to share some pillow talk (I have the priveledge of sharing a bed, a home, and a life with the LifetimeReader), I agree that we need to distinguish between the Ancients and the more recent additions to the canon. When considering the Ancients, the canon is most everything we have (in the case of Sappho this sometimes means a single word of a lost poem). The act of including a work by Homer or his colleagues is as much practical as political. When considering adding more recent works to our reading lists or the canon, say from the 18th or 19th centuries, I think we need to be aware that we are indeed making a choice and that when we are building the canon the choice is indeed political. As readers, the choice is not so much about to read or not to read, but rather about remaining aware of the context in which these books were written. I agree with Amateur Reader, "they weren't canonical when they were written." Perhaps our greatest challenge is to remember that the Classics pose questions rather than providing ultimate answers. Reading the canon offers value through challenging us to find the truth in both what is written and what is missing.

  9. Slow Pillow-Talker: The part of your comment that really stands out to me is that we should always be aware of the context in which these books were written.

    As a historian, I find it almost instinctive to read older texts not for pleasure but for insight into a historical culture. But what I want to do here with this project IS read for pleasure--that is, to see what pleasure I can get out of books even when they feel dated or not "policitically coorect" (which is an idea that is already very very dated).

    Can't wait to share more pillow talk about these books with you.


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