Is accepting the literary canons very natural? The following article explores different aspects of the process and critique of Canonization etc.
Mikhail Bakhtin defined canonization in the following way: “Canonization is a process towards which all literary genres have a tendency, in which temporary norms and conventions become hardened into universal ones so that evaluations too are considered to reflect universal rather than culture-or time-bound values”.
Following poststructuralism we can say that it is not possible to identify the universal truth. But it is the bad luck of literature that it or the factors related to it seek for universality. Literature is highly influenced by the time when or where it is written in. With the shift of paradigm (Thomas S. Kuhn:1970) or culture it also changes its style, theme etc. So the norms or conventions are naturally temporary and culture-or-time bound. It would be very impractical if it is tried to impose universality upon certain literary texts. Literature can have different interpretations among which none can be considered the truth.
It is surprising then that the history of literature is full of canons. These canons are widely read, respected, included in university syllabus and thought as invincible. They are the one which dominate the history of literature and enjoy power over the new texts which have not become canons yet. But it is foolish to compare one text to other as there is no standard to measure art. One cannot say Delillo’s novel is worse than Dickens’ or vice versa. But it happens indirectly in reality, i.e. there will be no syllabus of English literature found that omits Shakespeare. It is as if Shakespeare was invincible in all age, his texts could provide the universal truth. For the same reason canons of different ages are included in the syllabus though it is difficult for a present day reader to understand the old-fashioned language. McArthur writes, “The language became more or less “modern” in the late 17c and early 18c. The plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre and the poetry of Milton are therefore not easy to read or listen to: […] requires interpretation, and may never be entirely understood by a present day reader”. These sorts of canons are available not only in English literature but also in literature written in other languages around the world. I am not saying that they do not have literary qualities but what my argument is these canons are the great obstacle for the new literary texts to reach the readers. Most of the readers no matter amateur or “sophisticated” usually give preference to the canons to the new texts while make their reading list. Even if they do not prefer the texts written in hundred years ago because of the unintelligibility of language, they would not take the contemporary texts either; instead they would select the texts by those authors who are famous and media, syllabus etc have already made their texts canons.
Some critics view postmodernism as an extension of modernism. It might be true to some extent as Richard Harland writes,
Postmodernist literature relates to Modernist literature in the sense of continuing the same general goal of challenging and disturbing established habits of thought. But it is post- or beyond Modernism in the sense that the challenge has now become much more radical. Whereas Modernist writers aimed to reinvigorate perception which had been deadened by habit, and language which had been staled by clichés, Postmodernist writers now questioned the very nature of perception and the very nature of language.
Here Harland finds a similarity between modernism and postmodernism in their goal though the latter is more radical. But one point that is absent here and usually omitted by many critics that is postmodernists began their act of questioning by examining the canonical position of the modernist texts. Postmodernism though sometimes is criticized for celebrating the commercial aspect of art; many critics forget that postmodernism was the first to question the “high art”- the art of the bourgeoisie that took place in the museums or university syllabus. These “high arts” were not only the art of the bourgeoisie but also they had become canons then. Modernist works of T.S Eliot or Pablo Picasso et al had become canons that were questioned by the postmodernists. The dispute was not simply ideological but more serious than that. It was the question of existence for the postmodernist art. Postmodernist art or literary texts only could survive if they were able to destroy the modernist canons. It is true some of the postmodernist texts already have become canons now but the struggle did not stop. The history of literature is the history of struggle between the canons and the new. If postmodernist texts become canons then there will surely be another movement to replace them as canons always create great obstacle for the new texts to reach the audience or reader.