The Literary Canon and The End of Time

How do we value the present?

In our last blog post, we mentioned the idea of the canon a critical, transcendent moment in literary criticism. We believe in the power of that moment, but it is vital that we don’t mistake a critical moment for a final one. The End-of-History Illusion, well documented in Psychology, states that people assume stability in their current states due to clarity of hindsight that is greater than the clarity of foresight. The phenomenon can be just as well applied to the choosing of the canon, as the canon is supposed to represent important works in our culture, but we are not aware of out cultures impending changes. So how do we choose?

Part of the issue relates to the role of contemporary literature. The older texts that are placed in the canon are included because of their staying power; we don’t know the staying power of newer texts, and our attempts to predict it are often wrong (see Herman Melville and John Williams, for starters). A canon that includes contemporary literature in proportion with older literature is likely to suffer from the End-of-History Illusion, as the selected texts will likely be representative of the popular trends moment, rather than representing the parts of the current culture that have staying power.

Lacking the ability to predict the future, it seems that the common route is to accept that the creation of a canon is an attempt to rationalize the current culture. This approach, too, views the present as an end. It is for this reason that a recorded canon will often include works that seem irrelevant (See the contemporary American Literature section of Bloom’s canon, written just 21 years ago — you’ll be surprised to see which works by some notable authors are included).

How can a canon be created that doesn’t fall victim to the End-of-History illusion, if omitting contemporary literature and including it both fall into the illusion? One solution is to view the canon as a dynamic system, where new additions into the set of literature are constantly altering the very idea of the canon. It’s as simple as a mental paradigm shift. When we consider that canon in this way, we are able to conceive of instances of the canon instead of a final iteration of it. For each moment we can conceive of a different canon, none of which have to be The Canon. The system assumes a past and a future.

This post is a part of SUNY Geneseo’s Canonicity Project.

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