Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Western Canon

Some people are concerned about a tendency in higher education to abandon Western literature and indoctrinate students with, I'm not sure what, other genres I guess. That sure would be a shame.

I went to an engineering school, and perhaps we were behind the times, but I saw nothing to worry about. Our literature courses were staunchly supportive of the Western Canon.* The lecture halls rang with immortal names: L'Amour, McMurtry and Gray, Wayne, Eastwood and Leone. The idea of glum foreign pantywaists like Socrates, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Joyce, Truffaut and Fellini displacing the Western classics in the hearts and minds of Americans is just plain silly. It'll never happen.

*I'm not sure where cannons come into it, except as a grandiose academic label. Small arms are the order of the day in nearly all of Western literature. Artillery is much more prevalent in non-Western literature: Hemingway and Tolstoy, for example.


Blogger HA HA HA said...

duude! i gotcher insithgtful comantery on teh western canon right he're baby. u gota ctrl+f an search for "leone" bacuase they messed up teh anchor tags. waaranign! whne u read it u may expariance covnlusions resulting in phyasical pain.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Project WANNABE said...

lolol ol ol l ol ol l l olo l

11:13 AM  
Blogger Desargues said...

You tend to dismiss the force of the mighty canon all too easily, WNB. At the time when the idea of a Western canon coagulated, the fearsome Dicke Bertha was the coolest toy around. Plus, etymologically, a canon was a cane rod to slap disobedient pupils on their fingers. Serves them right, I say.

Yet I can't help but think those pansies Joyce and Proust are no match, in a face off, for the grim determination of Willa Cather and Cormac McCarthy. Them thar Western people are hardy stock, really.

8:32 PM  
Blogger Project WANNABE said...

You're right. Talk about a cannon. Though in fact it came from the east. Hmmm. I think we have to call Big Bertha a non-Western cannon, which, I learn from Harold Bloom, means that it was not up to snuff. Basically it wasn't a particularly impressive cannon. I think we can assume that it got into the war, not on its own merits, but because a bunch of whiners insisted that it be included. That's what "non-western" means in this context.

McCarthy is pretty cool, he takes wildly overblown prose and makes it work for a living. But I haven't read more than a few pages of Willa Cather. She bores me beyond belief.

But then again for sheer terrifying deadly boredom I would put her up against any fiction outside the western canon. Edmund Spenser, Arthur Miller, Musil. Boring, yes, but world class boring? Do they DEFINE our idea of what is boring? No.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Desargues said...

Fat Bertha may have been too Eastern and somewhat superfluous, but it was ultimately the Western part of the Western canon that came up with the fearsomest... erm... cannon. Check it out (scroll down for footage of the actual atomic shot).

The boredom Robert Musil inflicts on his determined readership is at least double -- there is, first, the tedium of making it to the end of the Mann ohne Eigenschaften (no small enterprise at 1632 pages in the Adolf Frisé edition); I never make it past page 200 or so. Then there's the inexorable annoyance of having to listen to bien pensant assholes, none of whom ever made it beyond page 200 either, extolling the manifold virtues of the entire Meisterwerk. Somebody shoot me, please.

For an unexpected, harsh light on what may be the redefinition of boring, try Nabokov's review of Sartre's literary bumbling. Take that, American college hipsters!

7:46 PM  
Blogger Project WANNABE said...

Good point. Born 'n' raised in New Mexico and Nevada. The Arms Race is in good hands.

But maybe I need to rethink the Boredom Race. The translation of Man With No Penises* that I have turns out to be only the first two "books" or so, less than 400 pages. Way more than I'll ever need. Apparently even the translator couldn't take any more. Or else it was obvious that 360 pages was more than a lethal dose. Being more cost-conscious than the nuclear weapons industry, the publisher figured why pay for overkill?

What leads a man to write something that boring? At some point he must have said "Wow! What a great idea for a story!" When he realized how wrong he was, what made him keep going?

*The pedantic plural alone should have tipped me off.

4:51 AM  
Blogger Project WANNABE said...

As usual Nabokov is hilarious.

At one point in my twenties I found N so brilliant and interesting that I finally overdosed and had to read comic books for a year to recover.

4:56 AM  
Blogger Project WANNABE said...

"One has no special quarrel with Roquentin when he decides that the world exists."

5:00 AM  
Blogger Desargues said...

Does that comic books thing work when you're in withdrawal? Maybe I should give it a try. I spent my late adolescence pigging out on the Argentinian and the novelist-cum-entomologist, and now I can't go back to average fiction. Tastes worse than stale Milwaukee's Best.

If you click on the link in Arlington's comment, it'll take you to an online magazine that hasn't been updated since 2000. Now I'm wondering whether to be in awe at his vast memory or feel a bit unsettled that he reads shit that old. I guess 3H is anything but predictable.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Project WANNABE said...

Heh. I'm not sure, but give it a try! Too much intelligence can make you stupid! My recent comic-book replacement was the Patrick O'Brian "Master and Commander" books. In case you haven't read them, they're actually very good writing IMO but you don't always have to have your eyeballs bugging out every minute NOTICING how good they are. So they work as light reading.

I hadn't noticed how old that Suck was! Arlington reads a lot and seems to retain it all, but then again maybe he just Googled Leone and Spaghetti Western or something.

1:21 PM  
Blogger HA HA HA said...

no i raed taht thign in suck back in teh day an just remembrad it. its memerable u gota admit.

>"Operation: Upshot Knothole"! woww! noww thats a oparottoin!

2:49 PM  
Blogger HA HA HA said...

infactx i retain virtaly nnothing but the few bits i do rettain are so bizrrely irelevant that people thinnk i must rememembar everything if i remamber that. not so!

2:51 PM  
Blogger HA HA HA said...

btw. nobakov snirks at satre for misidentafying the songwritier at the end but tahts a typiciil exapmle of his one grate flaw which was a tendenncy (er ok a complusion) to focus on fine tdetail whiele mising the point. aparently as a entamologyist he was a wonderfuly complete and pracise observar, and dascibed things so wel that it was easy for his coleuages to see where he (almost invarably) went wrong in intreprating what he saw.

point beign its absoalutly irelevant who wroate the damn song. the point is what teh poor forg imagins abuot it. its the carhacter not the author thinkign that rifght? so pfffft!

mind u i went on a yerslong nabokoouv binge myself in my 20s.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Project WANNABE said...

Yeah I thought it was a little unfair about the songwriter too. It's clear that N was feeling very ornery. Still, maybe it's just me, but I'd rather read N's book reviews than S's books.

7:23 AM  

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