The West, etc: Reimagining the Canon for a Global Era

Image: books piled up with people browsing on either side.

In an increasingly connected world, we have more opportunities than ever before to explore the cultural and aesthetic works of people and peoples from every corner of the globe, from antiquity to modernity. Such an opportunity is an immense privilege; but it has given rise to a great error in the way we conceptualise and categorise literature on a global scale. Namely, there has appeared in the past century a dichotomy of English (read: White) and ‘World’ Literature. Canonicity is in itself not the problem. Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare and Joyce are not so widely studied and appreciated arbitrarily – they have survived so long and influenced our culture so greatly because of the profound humanity and universality of their works. Every text exists in a spatio-temporal context, but the great authors, those preserved over centuries, are those who break free of local restraints and present us literae Humaniores, ‘more human literature,’ that resonate with the human spirit. Preserving and valuing these texts is a gift to the future – a gift that is marred by the false construction of a ‘Western Canon’ vs. ‘Everything Else.’  

Last time I checked, the ‘West’ exists as part of the world. So why treat it as separate and different? Many argue that literature as we know it today developed out of Europe and what exists elsewhere owes its existence to the Colonial exportation of writing and textuality, and that this allows for a shift from orality to textuality. Yes, it might be that the earliest written literature is a product of North Africa and Mesopotamia, and yes, literary traditions have existed for thousands of years in South and East Asia, but it is ultimately ‘Western’ literature that ought to take the spotlight. After all, there’s more of it, it’s more widely studied and appreciated, and English is quickly becoming the default ‘World’ language. The concession to the East’s rich literary history is supposedly undermined by the eyebrow-raising ‘but’ that we see so often in Western apologist rhetoric. ‘Well of course the rest of the world matters, but…’ Not to mention ‘well yes, discrimination is wrong, but…’ A three-letter connective cannot continue to justify and perpetuate Western primacy. The other option is a two-letter excuse: ‘If we start caring about ‘World’ literature then we’d have to learn other languages!’ God forbid. I have even had the luck to hear the ignorance of an Oxford English student (wearing tweed, no less) in rhyme form – ‘If we don’t separate the West from the Rest then how will we know what’s the best?’ Here’s how. 

We begin by clearing up some assumptions. Orality is not inferior to textuality; it is possible that the Homeric texts spent most of their existence as orally transmitted poetry. As did most of the mythology that laid the ground for so much of the collective human oeuvre. Given that the priests and acolytes (to butcher Bloom) of the Western canon so enthusiastically point out that ‘World’ literature mostly exists due to the exportation of Western writing and literature, one would think they would appreciate that the Western canon exists only because of hundreds of years of poetry, mythology, and folklore through oral transmission and the mixing of one culture with another, one tribe with the next. We also challenge the idea the West influenced and supported the Rest; but not vice versa. We remind ourselves that the Byzantine Eastern Empire is the reason for the preservation and reintroduction of the Literae Humaniores into Europe. Much of the Spanish and French poetic canons grew out of oral chansons and romances, the latter having been profoundly influenced by the Moorish presence and literature in Medieval Iberia. South and East Asia have literary traditions that date back to before Europe had a name. Modernist and Post-Modernist classics have been influenced by (and have, of course, influenced) an uncountable number of textual and oral traditions from every corner of the world. 

The problem is not that we preserve and reify the Greats and the Classics as part of our cultural heritage, but rather that we have created a literary hierarchy of interest and appreciation from an arbitrary distinction. There exist, of course, hierarchies with substantial meaning. Some texts are more universal than others, and some texts are more beautifully written than others; to use spatio-temporal facts as a proxy for genuine and substantiated literary evaluation corrupts and diminishes value of literary criticism and canonisation itself.  

We are not mistaken in reading and studying the canon, but we are mistaken if we fail to expand and diversify it.

We follow this shift in viewpoint with a shift in behaviour, by reimagining and re-expanding the literary canon actively – choosing to read outside of the Western tradition and, more importantly, introducing these works into our cultural consciousness and academic milieus. We are not mistaken in reading and studying the canon, but we are mistaken if we fail to expand and diversify it. To literature students, I recommend doing your best to draw links between canonical works and the works (be they post-colonial, oral, or classical ‘non-Western’ texts) that have influenced or have been influenced by them. Don’t just read widely outside of your academic studies but find ways to include non-Western texts and criticism in your writing and revision – this is not a matter of rebellion against academic criticism but rather a way to enrich and expand the horizons of our learning and research.  

This goes for reading outside of an academic context too: changing the racist and colonial narratives of the past requires a broader understanding of the world. In this sense, expanding and diversifying the canon will play an important social role. There is a kind of intimacy that can only be achieved through union of reader, text, and author, and in an increasingly interconnected world, this intimacy is beneficial not only to the reader, but to society. Diversity is nothing without understanding, and literature, whether textual or oral, provides us with such an understanding. It is often imaginary fictions that move us the most, forcing us to reconsider or reimagine our notions of how the world – and its people – work. Reimagining the world, to me, is a key step in dismantling the colonial racism of the past, and what better way to do so than the greatest testament to the human imagination! 

Diversity is nothing without understanding, and literature, whether textual or oral, provides us with such an understanding.

It is often said that our capacity for language is what makes us human; it allows us to communicate, transporting a feeling, an idea, or entire worldview from one heart into another. Literature takes this capacity for understanding and unity and preserves it in something that can last for hundreds or thousands of years. So let us reimagine the world through imagination, replenishing and revitalising the canon as we go along. Not only are we growing in our own understanding of the historical and modern globe (rather than continent), but preserving, without prejudice or exclusion, the whole range of humanity and human thought for future generations.  

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