I meander in and out of love with iconoclasm. As a freshman in Directed Studies, my first foray onto page two appeared as an argument for Diversified Studies, an extracurricular discussion group Rhiannon Bronstein ’11 and I had founded. We had wanted to expand our ideas of the Western Canon to questions of race, gender, class and — beyond all other questions — what of the reading we were given we should accept or reject. Although the existence of the group itself generated much discussion among the DS students of our year, we maintained it was important not to let the idea of tradition make us too reverent.
Three years later, I am a senior English major, one of the more “traditional” majors at Yale. I don’t regret the decision. But sometimes, struggling just to finish a 400-page assignment before class starts so I can talk in section, I am too tired or deluged with words to question anything. In more lucid moments, I chide myself for having stepped inside the Tradition so fully, so readily. In doing so, have I fallen away from my ideals?
Writing, like other forms of art, promotes a kind of iconoclasm. The practice of writing is one that encourages — drives, forces, mandates —originality in everything. From the expulsion of clichés to the risky experimentation that might doom your piece — or launch it — we avoid the familiar. Unlike the rest of my classes, which focus on uncovering and sifting through layers of texts and ur-texts, writing classes are always present-tensed.
I have wondered, sometimes, going down the hall from writing class to literature class, why these all fall within the same discipline. Yale makes a bold statement with its divisions — or lack thereof: The Writing Concentration and all its classes are a subset of the English major.
Yet in the end, I do not dispute that the study of literature and the study of writing are bound together. For me, this realization came through writing. Last week, I wrote about my struggle to write. This week, a mentor instructed me to start a journal with no expectations about the quality of my writing. The only requirement: each week, the days’ entries are linked by a common theme. So now not only did I have to write; I had to find a theme. This is where literature saved me.
I finally started writing about my literature classes: outlines of the lectures, my confusions, my unvarnished responses to the readings. As writing, it was unedited, rough, insignificant or sometimes melodramatic. But I was writing, which is enough of a victory for this week.
So writers must be readers. This, the underlying assumption of the Yale English Department’s requirements for all — future academics, novelists, playwrights, journalists and poets — shapes our understanding of ourselves as writers. However future-focused we are in the workshop, we have to grapple with history. Whether we are conscious or not, questioning or not, the literary tradition exists, and we exist in relation to it. The drive for originality occurs with the full weight of the English literary canon behind it.
But I still hate the idea of a “Canon,” a sanctioned group of works that, no matter how full of wisdom, always seems far too exclusive. And “canonical works,” at least for DS students, often prove less challenging than they really are when we accept without questioning.
However, I have found that the books that comprise the Tradition — regardless of what we call them (canon, or “dead white male” books) — are themselves iconoclastic. On Wednesday, in my English senior seminar, we discussed the way Becky Sharpe, the cunning, conniving heroine of “Vanity Fair,” hurls Samuel Johnson’s works out the window of her carriage. As she sets out to make her fortune, literature is thrown into a new age. This is (almost) literal literary iconoclasm. But most of literature is equally subversive, dangerously full of ideas, ideas that resist being assimilated into a boring, homogeneous collection.
When I ask myself if I’m still asking the right questions, I’m holding myself to the standard of literature. When I write, the same.