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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Vanity, all is

The erudite laudatortemporisacti.blogspot.com has a post today from one of my faves, Samuel Johnson. It is one of his more interesting periodical pieces from The Rambler in which he discusses writers and fame, etc. Here is the link for the post.

In addition, I would add David Hume's comments on the subject from his essay "On the Standard of Taste" (if memory serves). As I am working from memory, you must forgive my inaccuracies and misquotations, but Hume says mostly the same thing: only those writers who deserve to be remembered are remembered, and there are many who are artificially popular, owing to party, vogue, etc, but their fame does not last more than a few years (anyone who has been to a vulgar bookstore in recent years can name more than one author who was considered the next big thing but who has since sunk into oblivion). Conversely, Hume says "the same Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome 2000 years ago pleases us today in London and Paris." This was true 250 years ago, and among the literate persons of the world, still is.

I was recently speaking to my supervisor-to-be, and we touched on the subject of forgotten authors, etc. After his many years of reading, teaching, and researching, he has come to the conclusion, and one I agree with, that "there isn't a lot of forgotten gold out there." Yes, there is the occasional mistake in the process of canonization, but forgotten authors who deserve not to be forgotten often break out of their slumber eventually.

People, especially literary feminists, will bring up an example like Aphra Behn (for the record, I think her one of the great British female writers). She was popular in her lifetime, but then fell into oblivion in the following century and especially the 19th, only to be resurrected recently. This is taken as evidence that the canon is thoroughly unsympathetic towards female writers. Then what about someone like John Wilmot, known as the Earl of Rochester? He was an incredibly bawdy writer who similarly was only resurrected a few decades ago, and most still do not read him. Is it a conspiracy? No. It is merely a product of the times: the later 18th and 19th centuries discountenanced ribald humour, to which the Restoration period (1660-1700) was so conducive.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: if the canon is a conspiracy by white men, then dead white men have suffered the most at the hands of it.

To close, I would like to quote the inestimable Samuel Johnson on the same subject, but from a different paper: "There is nothing more dreadful to an author than neglect, compared with which reproach, hatred, and opposition are names of happiness."

2 Comments:

Blogger Dr J said...

Agree in principle with you, but I think you may be a little too glib when you say that "if the canon is a conspiracy by white men, then dead white men have suffered the most at the hands of it." It's true in a way-- a lot of male writers have been discarded, junked, undervalued, etc.--- but it also seems to me a statement that sound better than it means. After all, there's no track record of male sexuality ever having proven a reason the exclusion of specific writers from the canon and/or its periphery. (Until, of course recently, when being dead, white and male became a reason for academic dismissal.)

The issues of canonicity inevitably remind me of Frye's metaphor about writers being treated like commodities on an imaginary stock exchange, with moments of bearishness and bullishness. The writers, of course, don't change; it's merely criticism that changes, usually reflecting the concerns, anxieties and neuroses of any given period. The irony (and the hypocrisy) looms, naturally, that we live in an age that likes to prattle on endlessly about authorial neuroses, but seldom to consider its critical ones. *shrug*

7:33 AM  
Blogger Pious Labours said...

Yes, Dr. J, I'm willing to admit that my "analysis" is somewhat reductive, but I'm merely pointing to a perspective that is not really considered.

By the way, I never thought I'd see the day when you would argue the opposite viewpoint :-)

Yes, Frye's metaphor with the stock exchange is very accurate, BTW, and I remember coming across it years ago (Anatomy?).

11:21 PM  

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