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Lamentations on the Death of the Canon
When I was an undergrad, one of my favorite professors, Steve Oden, UW Stevens Point, made a comment in a class that’s stayed with me for going on 40 years. We’d been speaking of some book — probably Ulysses — when he had to stop and fill in the details of a Biblical allusion.
Oden was a great guy, one of those Vonnegut-looking professors with wild hair and charming humor who gave great lecture. In this particular moment, he paused and reflected that for a long, long time, the shared cultural knowledge among Americans — the well from which we drew our common narrative and which held us together — was, among a few other works, the Bible. You could mention Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot, Abraham, Joshua, the various miracles, loaves and wine and pigs, and everyone would understand.
But his students of the day — 1985 or so — had completely different shared narratives, built on television shows and characters. To demonstrate, he said aloud, in a kind of 1920’s gangster accent, “Pork chops and applesauce.” The entire class laughed, 20 some 20-somethings sharing a common reference. (If you’re of a certain age, you might recall that this was a scene in an episode of The Brady Bunch.)
At the time, his point was that our shared cultural knowledge was being replaced by movies and television, and there was a sort of wry satisfaction, not quite shame, that the trivial nature of our shared heritage cast a light on the trivial nature of all human construct. It was very Gen X.
The anecdote stuck with me as I saw the next successive generation arrive with a completely different set of television moments.
And then a decade later a line was crossed. When ‘pork chops and applesauce’ made us all laugh, the reference crossed all generations and was shared. Its point of interest was that it was modern. The 50ish Joyce scholar and the 19-year-old midwestern kid shared the sitcom moment. The point then was that contemporary entertainment had replaced the Bible. The present day had replaced the past as our common ground.
But rather suddenly, television no longer unified us all. Movies still did, and for another decade or so they kept that power, but by the late ’90s even movies no longer could be counted upon. Narrative stopped being Universal in any way. A generation might have a shared story, “Saved by the Bell,” for example, but it was just the viewers of a certain age at a certain time. Some kids watched “Ren and Stimpy” while others were into Disney, yet others taking up anime, and a whole insurgency breaking away towards YouTube.
One obvious change was the explosion of choice introduced by cable, the narrowing of audience to smaller and smaller demographics. Whatever the cause, the narrowing kept happening, until we are at a place where there seems to be nothing shared at all and commonalities exist only within specific moments of interest. There’s nothing else that binds us, no other connective tissue, narratively speaking. Not age, or religion, or race, or education, or passion.
The troubling question without an answer: What authority do I claim that my students need to read the assigned text or perform the assigned task?
When I was an undergrad there were other works, of course. My brethren and I walked the campus with our battered books, like tattoos or hats. Gravity’s Rainbow. On the Road. Pride and Prejudice. The young always seek their own mentors and prophets, but there was always a sense that we were holding THIS wisdom against THAT, the modern against the old, and behind it all lurked the old Gods proclaiming text as the necessary source.
It’s not precisely that we lost the Canon, but that we lost the idea of there being one at all.
Here’s the thing about losing the Canon: You have no hand. And worse, they have no Guide. For both of us, teacher and student, what motivates the shared reading? Because that’s what an English class is, at core. Shared reading, that leads to discussion, that leads to writing. Not so long ago, there was an assumed value in the idea of common knowledge and history. You read certain books because those who came before you had, because they were the foundation of all our systems. The power no longer exists, that reason.
You can’t help but sense that the loss of the Canon has much wider reaching implications. In America, the fracturing of democratic institutions, the uncertainty of what makes something true or not, the alternate facts, can be placed squarely at the feet of a disappearance of shared knowledge.