Ref. :  000034074
Date :  2010-12-12
Language :  English
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Amidst globalisation, what do we read?

Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon defines the literary canon as “the choice of books in our teaching institutions” and suggests that the real question it prompts is: “What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?” And he observes that, at best, within a single lifetime it is possible to read only a small fraction of the great number of writers who lived and worked in Europe and the Americas, never mind those from other parts of the world.

Even if we stick to the Western tradition alone, what are the books people should read? There’s no doubt that Western society and culture have been influenced by Shakespeare, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and — moving backward in time — Homer, Virgil and Sophocles. But are we influenced by them because we have actually read them firsthand?

This brings to mind Pierre Bayard’s argument in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, that it’s not essential to actually read a book cover to cover in order to understand its larger importance. It’s clear as day, for instance, that the Bible has had a profound influence both on Jewish and Christian culture in the West, and even on the culture of nonbelievers — but this doesn’t mean that all those who have been influenced by it, have it, read it from beginning to end. The same can be said of the writings of Shakespeare or James Joyce. To be a cultured person, or a good Christian, is it necessary to have read the Book of Kings or the Book of Numbers? Is it necessary to have read Ecclesiastes, or is it sufficient merely to know secondhand that it condemns the “vanity of vanities”?

It follows that the question of the canon is not homologous with that of the syllabus, which represents the set of works that a student ought to have read by the end of his studies.

Today the problem is more complicated than ever, and during a recent international literary conference in Monaco, there was a debate about the canon’s place in the era of globalisation. If “European” designer clothing is produced in China, if we use Japanese computers and cars, if even in Naples they eat hamburgers instead of pizza — if, in short, the world has shrunk to provincial dimensions, with immigrant students around the globe asking to be taught about their own traditions — then what will the new canon look like?

In certain American universities, the answer has come in the form of a movement that, rather than being “politically correct”, is politically dumb. Since we have lots of black students, some people have suggested, let’s teach them less Shakespeare and more African literature. A fine jest at the expense of all those kids destined to go out into the world without understanding universal literary references like Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy — and hence doomed to remain on the margins of the dominant culture. If anything, the existing canon should be expanded, not displaced. As has recently been suggested in Italy regarding weekly religion lessons in school, students ought to learn something about the Quran and the teachings of Buddhism, as well as the Gospels.

Likewise it wouldn’t be a bad thing if, in addition to their lessons on ancient Greek civilisation, high school students learned something about the great Arab, Indian and Japanese literary traditions.

Not so long ago I went to Paris to take part in a conference attended by European and Chinese intellectuals. It was humiliating to see how our Chinese counterparts knew all about Immanuel Kant and Marcel Proust, suggesting parallels (right or wrong as they may have been) between Lao Tzu and Friedrich Nietzsche — while most of the Europeans among us could scarcely go further than Confucius, and often only based on secondhand analysis at that.

Today, however, this ecumenical ideal comes up against certain difficulties. You can teach young Westerners The Iliad because they have heard something about Hector and Agamemnon, and their smattering of culture includes expressions like “the judgment of Paris” and “Achilles’ heel” (though on a recent Italian university entrance exam, one applicant thought the term “Achilles’ heel” referred to an ailment, like housemaid’s knee or tennis elbow).

Still, how can you interest those students in the Sanskrit epic poem The Mahabharata, or the poems in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in such a way that these works linger on in their memories? Can we really tailor education to suit the globalised world when the vast majority of cultured Westerners are wholly unaware that, for Georgians, one of the greatest poems in literary history is Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther’s Skin? When scholars can’t even agree on whether, in the original Georgian version, the knight in the poem is in fact wearing a panther’s skin, and not a tiger’s or a leopard’s? Will we even get that far, or shall we continue to wonder simply: “Shota who?”

Opinion by Umberto Eco published in the Deccan Chronicle on December, 12th 2010.


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