Thursday, July 21, 2005

What are the prerequisites for a "national literature"?: An initial response

I got a couple of responses to this earlier post, and in the interim I've been doing some thinking about the question as well--especially, surprisingly (to me), in connection with Show Boat. I'll develop that more fully in a separate post.
In my earlier post asking about the grounds on which a national literature is founded, I purposely left out a substantive part of the conversation between Mrs. Meridian and me so as not to color the responses. I'll add some of that now by way of addressing Rene's first comment:

I think, that, at it best, a national canon should reflect the culture that gives rise to it. This is very complicated, by teh way.

For example, take the famous (I hope she's still famous on the other side of the border) Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. In Mexico, she's considered Mexican and it's central to our canon, but since she wrote during the colonial period, she could be considered Spanish (as Bloom considers in his canon).

Rene's example of how to "read" Sor Juana's nationality (in the case of my own country's literature, I would use the example of Cabeza de Vaca) as a writer is an excellent example of what vexes those who seek to establish the beginnings of a canon of a literature of the Americas, one that, as Henry James famously observed in his essay on Hawthorne, does not appear to vex English writers. James argues that, good as Hawthorne was, he was ultimately stunted as a writer by the fact that the United States has no substantial body of myth on which to found a national literature. The English have Arthurian legends (this was before Taine came along to establish Beowulf(!) as the foundational text of English literature). Through no fault of his own, therefore, Hawthorne's art, though fragrant, is a "modest nosegay."
National literatures would thus seem to require, before all else, a myth of cultural origins. And that's where the Americas are left in the lurch: our foundings are not mythical or legendary but historical. October 12, 1492 was a Friday.
It's a measure of how my field's canon has changed over the past 30 or so years that the first text in most American literature anthologies used to be excerpts from John Smith's General History of Virgina and, now, usually is a sort of double beginning combining Columbus's first letter to the Spanish monarchs describing his initial discoveries with various creation myths from native American tribes. And note that last plural: a fairly recent, well-received book and PBS series on native Americans was titled 500 Nations.
Nietzsche, in his "The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music," famously said that only a horizon ringed with myths can unify a culture." So, when Rene says that a national literature should reflect the culture that gives rise to it, he's absolutely right . . . but, at least for citizens of the U.S. (I can't speak with authority on Mexicans, but maybe Rene or others would be willing to) that begs the question of what a myth for this country would look like, one that, most would agree, contains some essence of what we could call a culture of the U.S.
[Aside: it occurs to me that my nation's constant appropriation of the name "America" for itself might be a symptom of our sense of a lack of a cultural identity--that "America," more so than "United States of America," signifies the themes of hope and self-reliance and freedom that, ideally, transcend politics and in any event are constants of my nation's political and social rhetoric.]
Now, on to "Anonymous's" comments:
I take you [that is, Rene's] point, but isn't it the case - wasn't it always the case - that works have influences beyond the borders in which they are produced? To create a "national literature" or "canon" is to identify a shared tendency - albeit strong - to the detriment of other, perhaps equally strong characteristics.

Well, yes: no matter how inclusive a canon is, it inevitably excludes someone, though the grounds for exclusion from a canon can shift, depending on the criteria you're talking about. As I've been thinking about Show Boat, it's become clear to me that it is a very "American" novel, as I understand that term, and so is canonical in that sense. But is it canonical in the sense that it's "essential reading" for someone who wants to be conversant in "American" literature? That's a very different question. And, along the lines of Rene's example of Sor Juana: I know of some people who have no qualms talking about Shakespeare's The Tempest as an "American" text, even though it's set in the Mediterranean. What to make of such a notion as that?
And THAT leads me to your second point:
And what does it mean to be in the canon? I'm sure that, right below Shakespere, Paradise Lost is in the canon of my country but will it ever be read beyond the university? Is this wrong? Is this a shame? Personally I don't think so.

Since I don't know who you are, I'm curious to know what your country is. Perhaps you'll return and let us know in a comment. At any rate, your statement reminds me of Mark Twain's joke that a classic is a book that nobody reads. But I think you're right: I personally would prefer that all people have a nodding acquaintance with at least a few central authors, that they not become relegated to the ashheaps of the academy but are part of a popularly-held cultural memory, but I do take some comfort in knowing that those writers and their works are widely available to any and all, either through education or through direct and indirect reference in print and visual media.
In my next post on all this, I'll want both to address any comments that might come this way and pursue an idea I have (which, knowing my luck, is just a rehashing of stuff others have said, and said better, in the past) regarding a central prerequisite for my country's literature.

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René López Villamar said...

Cultural myths are a very dangerous thing. Here in Mexico, we are of two minds. We could start the canon in the same place as you point, with Columbus letter (a fantastic read, I might ad), following with the accounts of Cortés and the like. However, a lot of people like start our canon with prehispanic texts from the Aztec and Mayan traditions; the poems of Nezahualcoyotl, the Chilam Balam, Popol Vuh, for example. From my own point of view, taking another culture, even those so interwined with our contemporary culture, as our foundation, is a very dangerous thing, but it gives us foundation myths, and cultural myths.
I follow that in your country is different, but being Americans (in the geographic sense of the words) we share the same concerns about identity and we have to look towards Europe for our (cultural) pasts.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, most history in this country (USA) is a myth. Most likely true in many countries. Nationalism of history, the heroic model, and so on have lead people internationally to the myth of the Cowboy, the brave westerners forging a new path to the west in the mid-nineteenth century..."the great lie."

Unfortunately, our country is moving back toward this nationalization of history, what, no doubt you and I both learned in grade school, one full of lies and 'whitewashing' the untold story of eradication of a race of people (for example). These myths and legends all arise from this singular rather than plural point of view, something we should carefully consider when reading almost anything published prior to 1970 and after 1999/2000.

(I have this rather odd pastime of late.) I keep a list of what I was never told in school about history or how the imagery changed to portray heros and mythical figureheads about history - for example: Custer the hero slaughtered hundreds of Indians, where we learned about the glorification of industrialization, we were never told about the labor conditions, the abuse of the Chinese and Irish immigrants who built the rail system across this country and so on, or the pollution from burned coal, wood and oil during that time period.) Basically, the creation of America was built on the backs and deaths of thousands of people - willingly or unwillingly. So, myths are created historically and culturally.....often perpetuating these false images. I know the truth isn't much fun for literature, whereas myths and urban legends are interesting. Makes you want to dig and see where it all originated. Probably not unlike interpreting the Constitution - which point of view do you reflect?...that of the times or from a modern perspective?

FYI- Mrs. (VP) Chaney has been involved in re-nationalizing our history and adding this history to school programs - again. She has flatly refused to publish information that is truthful and factual in government related documents or for historic purposes.

John and Rene: you both just added to my brain capacity. I'll be back. I love this, as I feel like I am back in grad school reading you both or listening to an intriguing lecture....beautiful...I can just keep learning.

PS-John, thanks for the link! I appreciate any help I can get.

Sinequanon said...

Odd, I didn't post anonymously...I don't think. But, that was me before.