The Eternal Olive Branch: A Statement for the Case of Classics and Canon
They’re curious, the small things we chance upon in our lives that seem insignificant in their impact at first, yet whose presence always continues to haunt our step like a small seed planted in our minds that we scarcely notice coming into blossom, a small seed whose fruit we continually imbibe as the years go by.
These become what are often referred to as ‘classics’.
One such formative little chestnut for me is an old, obscure episode of ‘Question Time’, (aired June 14th, 2012, to be precise), specifically the less than 2 minutes worth of discussion surrounding the importance of poetry, and the answer given to said topic by journalist and professional pessimist, Peter Hitchens.
These small interactions form a microcosm, hitting the same beats as the many experiences in my life which inform the writing of this article. A middle-aged man begins the discussion by scoffing at teaching poetry in schools, demanding to know if any of the panel can recite any poems in full, or have utilised any in their careers.
The audience, including a teacher, concurs, swiftly followed by the panel. A Labour politician ratifies the complaint, lampooning Michael Gove for trying to bring it in, claiming we have “moved past” that sort of education. Hitchens alone fires back, reciting, as per request, ‘Into my Heart an Air that Kills’ and then firmly admonishing those who would trample over their cultural roots and forbid future generations from enjoying its gift.
Years later, I too can still recite that Housman poem and am haunted by Hitchen’s line about “furnishing (one’s) mind with beauty”. I would continually trace the same contours of that discussion.
At university I found my second-year political theory module gutted in the name of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ to rid us of those dreaded “dead white men”, which is in practice a rather transparent excuse to trim the syllabus of difficult thinkers.
Ironically, amongst those culled was Hannah Arendt, a Jewish woman who penned some of the most scathing accounts of imperialism to date. Even now, in writing this, I came across a New York Times article, detailing how Classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta was willing to take the next logical step and dismantle his entire field in the name of exorcising the spirit of “whiteness”.
All these episodes represent something in common, something that goes beyond race or the stuffy halls of academia. An attitude, one towards that of authority and pedagogy, which supposes that the older and more imposing a figure or work is, the greater nuisance it becomes, like an infernal itch which can never be scratched quite hard enough. I would like to repudiate this by espousing the value of canon and classics of the old and the venerated. I propose that these figures in fact invigorate a flourishing of the fields and mediums they inhabit.
Now, in doing this I will have to disarm the concerns of those opposed to the classics so as to make my own case. And, of all the aspersions heaped upon canonical works, the concern that is undoubtedly most often raised is that audiences, or pupils, or whomever might be the recipient of such works, do not respond to classics. They are too difficult for them to handle and thus we shouldn’t bother with them for fear of alienating newcomers. To insist upon adhering to classics is gatekeeping and exclusion, or so they say.
I would respond with three retorts:
First, I disagree with the notion that people are unwilling to be challenged. People are not overburdened with pantheons, quite the contrary there is a great hunger to be inculcated into a tradition of belonging, the fact that there is a veritable cottage industry dedicated to the publishing of curated lists of greats in media (‘1001 albums you need to listen to before you die’, etc.) speaks to this.
Furthermore, the slurry of mediocre remakes of film and media attest to the fact that people are seeking the spark of old constantly. I think it’s an insult to proclaim that people are too stupid to be expected to seek this on difficult or unfamiliar terms.
Second, I ask, what sort of state would any medium be in if it refused to challenge the expectations or capabilities of its audience? Naturally, the response is that the audience will move onto denser material after first getting their bearings with stuff that is nice and digestible and serves as a catalyst for further interest.
Initially this doesn’t seem too unreasonable. Even Hawking had to learn his ABCs before he could have a crack at ‘Principia Mathematica’. But I find the underlying assumption that this will naturally blossom into more difficult undertakings to be faulty. Once one gets in the habit of never exerting oneself, it becomes all the easier to become accustomed to idleness.
Part of being able to figure out if you like something is trying something with the expectation that you might not. Deprived of these experiences, the soul becomes atrophied, and even with sincere effort, what might have been merely tricky is now unreachable.
Third, I would add that the difficulty of classics is very much overstated. Indeed, usually the very nature of a ‘classic’, something that is enjoyed by lots of people over hundreds of years, makes it incredibly unlikely that it will be the most obscure or arcane piece of work in the medium.
In music, for example, it is more often than not the case that a band’s ‘classic album’ is not their most experimental (though neither is it their most simplistic), instead it is one that contains aspects of what makes their work challenging, presented in such a way that is impactful for new, or first-time listeners. ‘OK Computer’ by Radiohead is a great example of this – it’s the bands ‘classic’ album, yet it is neither as experimental as ‘Kid A’ or ‘Amnesiac’, nor as simplistic as ‘Pablo Honey’.
Moving on, the other criticism I hear nearly as frequently as that of difficulty is this: canonical works are “old, boring, and outdated”, made by those awful “dead white men” who reek of obsolescence. Far better, it is said, to replace them with something that is more “current”, work that is relevant to us, here and now, alive today. Again, I shall address this criticism that classic pieces of work aren’t relevant to us anymore.
This argument has one critical flaw, and that is its normative foundation – the idea that to be relevant is a good thing. I’m not so sure it is in this instance. For if art is to be seen as current, or relevant, it has to have some degree of concurrence with our present.
Thus, if a classic is irrelevant, it must be different to our current reality. From this we can only deduce (that since not being relevant is bad), that to engage with a perspective different to ours is also bad.
Now, when you consider that such proclamations against canonical works are usually made in the name of ‘diversity’, the self-defeating nature of the argument becomes apparent.
Beyond this, valuing a work on its ‘relevance’ reveals to me an appreciation that is thoroughly artless and repellant. Sunsets on a summer sky, the lines on your grandfather’s face, snippets of majesty glimpsed in the lines of Homer, these are all things less relevant to your existence than, say, a diagram of an AC plug or your ability to blink. But that wouldn’t stop you treasuring your memory of the former and shouldn’t stop your veneration of work made by men who scornful philistines have deemed irrelevant.
If you persist in needing a justification for classics that will immediately bear obvious fruit, however, don’t let me convince you they can’t deliver just that. A canon is an olive branch that extends throughout time. It ties you not only to those great men and women and their sublime and delightfully alien thought, but also to many human beings existing, quite alive, in the here and now.
If any interloper of a given medium or genre is expected to consume a certain set of canonical pieces, then whenever such person encounters another with similar tastes they immediately have a heritage in common, a collective bond unshaken by differences of class, gender, race, age, all are washed aside like inane scribblings on the beach purged by the oncoming tide. You can have the privilege of taking part in a conversation heard round the world by simply picking up a prescribed set of books.
Tearing this branch down isn’t constructive. It isn’t even rebellious. All you’re doing is guaranteeing your descendants are more impoverished than your ancestors. I cannot think of a greater evil.
Ultimately, I think this fad comes from an ill-conceived notion of artistry and genius. People think of genius as Archimedes’ declaration of “eureka” as he ran naked down the streets of Syracuse, or Newton’s sudden realisation as a lone apple bounced off his skull – that singular moment of inspiration.
But what such stories forget (and it is why I have a distaste for them) are the hours of brewing and ruminating on years of collective knowledge that came before this tipping point.
Art is no different. ‘Star Wars’ was inspired by black and white film serials, and ‘Lord of the Rings’ by Germanic and Norse mythology. When one sees the Friedrich painting ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ they see only the single individual contemplating on the blankness beneath, but what they forget is that such a view is made possible by standing atop antediluvian giants. The ancient rocks underfoot grant his ascension, even if it is by his own wit and ability he learns to navigate them.
You can’t reject the conventions of the world before you if you were simply never taught its existence. There’s nothing punk and subversive about the gutter without the metropolis that towers above it.
Written by Sam Harland.
Illustration by Hollie Joiner.
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