The most recent Yale Daily News Magazine cover story (“The New New Criticism,” March 31) recapitulated the familiar critiques of the Western canon. Dead heterosexual white men? Check. Students blindly consuming “canonical texts without questioning why they are, in fact, canonical?” Welcome to Directed Studies!
This seems like a fair reconstruction of the contextualist thesis. The humanities are about human beings; gender, race and other “identities” are essential features of these creatures. As such, it calls for students to probe the sociological and political factors that produce texts and influence their canonization. The contextualist thesis operates in opposition to “New Criticism,” a school of thought that holds that we should read texts in a vacuum independent of their social and political context. It’s an approach widely popular in introductory literature courses at Yale, including DS.
No one in Yale’s English department will dispute that an author’s experience shapes the work he produces. Nor will they call the underrepresentation of marginalized groups anything but lamentable.
But the typical attacks against the Western canon and the way it is often studied commit three fallacies. First, they disregard the pedagogical benefits that close reading and only close reading can provide. Second, they oversimplify the Western canon to the point that they obscure or distort the contents of the texts. Lastly, they undermine the very assumptions that make cross-cultural dialogue possible.
Most scholars of the “great” authors, from Chaucer to Milton, have studied the relationship between what these men wrote and when they wrote it. Entire books are dedicated to these connections. But most Yale undergraduates don’t start out at this level.
We go to college to learn how to analyze literature, whose basic unit of communication is the written word. Close reading develops the skill set necessary for this endeavor, by enabling us to pull out the interesting words, phrases and syntax that create meaning. An understanding of these devices does not detract from an appreciation of sociological context. On the contrary, when deployed appropriately, close reading can expose hidden and pernicious cultural assumptions. Once students can identify and relate interesting textual nuances, they can explore how the work’s broader political and social context informs these details.
Critics of the Western canon invariably comment on its lack of diversity: Emerson did not understand what it is like to be a black man living in America. Virgil had no conception of queer theory. To a certain extent, that’s all true.
But what these polemics fail to mention is that the Western canon is, in fact, multicultural. They forget that Islamic scholars in Medieval Spain preserved and modified Aristotle’s thought. They forget that the Iliad has no single author, that Greco-Roman culture understood homosexuality far differently from Judeo-Christian culture. And they forget that many scholars read Virgil’s poetry as a critique of Rome’s colonial foundations.
This does not mean these works are devoid of problematic themes. But it does mean we should be careful of labeling these works as “racist” or “sexist” without reading them very closely first. Not only have such narratives inexorably shaped the modern world, they have grappled with race, sexuality and inequality. And they haven’t all come to the same conclusion. Distilling seminal works of literature to ethnic categories ignores their immense complexity. It erases an important, variegated story.
What is more, the claim that Yale’s teachers of “dead white men” do not value other voices is patently false. Harold Bloom may revere wealthy, educated white authors such as Emerson and Thoreau. But he also predicts many non-white, non-male authors of the 20th century will come to occupy a place in the Western canon. He lauds Zora Neal Hurston and ranks Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” among the greatest novels of the 20th century. An admiration of dead white men does not preclude an admiration of non-dead, non-white and non-male authors.
By placing dominant cultural narratives in tension with marginalized ones, opponents of the canon reject a necessary assumption for cross-cultural dialogue: that of a universal ability to understand or at least sympathize with other points of view. If I cannot access the experience of a gay black man, and he can’t access mine, what’s the point in either of us reading about the other? People study the humanities to get exposed to new opinions and ideas, not choke on their own. When we reduce everything to questions of race and gender, we forgot that words have meaning, and that human beings are complex individuals, not diffuse tribes of labels.
It’s fine to encourage readers to branch out and explore race, gender and sexuality through alternative perspectives. But that can only happen when we accept the intelligibility, complexity and value of all literature, including the West’s. It can only happen when straight men can understand queer women, and queer women can understand straight men. And that can only happen when people know how to read well.
Aaron Sibarium is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .