Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. April 2004

5.12. Narration in Literature and Writing History
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Gabriella Hima (Budapest)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Memory vs. Text, Culture vs. Canon.
Constructing, storing and retrieving literature through literary history

Laszlo Boka (ELTE, Budapest)


The four concepts mentioned in my title are taken in a rather limited sense. The question I intend to pose is how canonical texts and cultural memory can interfere through literary history. Literary history is regarded here as writing (écriture) with the text as its alleged object, and the written narrative as its mode of interpretation and representation. Though nowadays, in a particularly unprecedented moment in history, the practical question of whether it is possible to write literary history has obvious practical implications, the possibilities regarding the number of cultural products available makes the decision of what needs to be preserved more than simply difficult. As accessibility can be easily manipulated, questions like what should be read, performed, exhibited, discussed and taught truly preoccupies the whole professional, academic debate. What is at issue in this debate is whether the canon is to be conceived as a socially contested mode of cultural reproduction. By foregrounding such conceptions the new histories of the recent past (e.g. those of Williams and Eagleton) have helped transform literary studies into cultural studies, hoping that it is possible to find answers for why culture is in fact a question of the textual representation - in literature just as much as in the writing of literary history. Literature does not exist in isolation from the culture in which it is "experienced," that is, the culture in which it is both produced and received. After decades of international Canon-debate, all the philosophical and theoretical frameworks concerning the formation of an elitist, selective memory seem to prove that the problem of canon-formation is one aspect of a much larger history of the ways in which societies have organized and regulated practices of reading and writing. The study of the canon, though, as cultural memory could reveal important motifs for understanding literature itself. I will try to focus here on some elements of the vocabulary of the canon-theories and their views on literary history, which necessitates the reexamination of certain blind spots involving things like institutional promotion or suppression of literature.

Let me start with the conclusion that the theoretical summaries and briefings of the canon-formation-theories in the last decades were not able to reveal final answers for comprehending the ways in which canonical processes function, and it is very probable that there will be no such precise, regular description about this. However, it seems to be still true that the importance of the canonicity as well as its key-role in understanding literature itself cannot be yet overshadowed, even if the productiveness of it is rather doubted than praised by some modalities which call to account the necessary narrowing of its discursive frames. The theoretical claims regarding the terminological clarity of the specialized, scholarly literature of the canon-debate are in this respect primarily important for the simple reason that the whole issue is much more important and destined for more than merely to be mistreated and/or to be reduced to simplistic, over-ideologized and sometimes exaggerated polemics.


Contemporary debates have tended to stress the factional infighting of the canon wars. What some have seen as healthy pluralism, the traditionalists have derided, in Bloom's terms, as destructive Balkanization.(1) Undeniably, Levine has got the answer here right: "If we can move beyond the cultural shouting match, the issue of cultural diversity needs to be addressed with less passion and more plodding empiricism."(2) The concepts of canon and canonicity, as we know, are closely related to both tradition and discontinuity in literary history. But canon can be described as institutional(ized) cultural memory rather than as just a manifestation of censorship. If we use this term, it behooves us to use it knowingly. The root of the word canon does not mean 'those things which are properly included in a list,' so the canon is not really the list of included books. Rather it is the principles (or we might say, aesthetics), which deteermine inclusion. And as Levine has succinctly put it, "The debate over the canon is now, and has always been, a debate over the culture and over the course that culture should take."(3)

Without talking here about the importance of canonical interpretations rather than that of the canonical works themselves, one question inevitably arises: what kind of canon-concept does the aforementioned statement fit into? We should be at least suspicious about such statements, because undefined canon-approaches constantly flow into the scholarly/academic terminology. The un-clarified conceptual stratification (giving rise to several misunderstandings) still awaits its fate to be once treated as an exciting and (if frequently criticized,) beneficent complex phenomenon. Despite the un-decomposable, conceptual net/framework and the very complexity of the question, the current definitions of the canon can be divided into two clearly distinctable categories: a large, cultural canon-concept (cultural memory), and a narrower, professional(istic) (let us say) paradigmatic approach. We should not confuse the two, as the issues of textual choice, literary quality, prescription and recommendation cannot be discussed in the light of the same canon-concept. A cultural canon can stand for continuity with the past, it can be viewed as the result of the activity of preserving it, keeping it in mind, but it can also involve a rediscovery of the forgotten. Thus it is both identity and difference, with lasting values and necessary transformations, with triumphs over time and the surpassing of earlier models.

Talking about paradigmatic canons then again, we should be equally critical of both centralized prescription and a laissez faire free-for-all. As the unitary model of the canon is neither necessarily exclusive nor immutable, so it is true that the pluralistic model of the canon is neither necessarily inclusive nor tolerant. Thus what appear to be changes in the canon are often changes in methodology.(4) I would like to mention but two seemingly important ways here in which academic discussion of the canon fails to achieve its own goals and claims. First, it seems to fail to break with the intrinsic value of cultural goods. This discourse still plays by the same rules of traditional literary criticism, as it is engaged in creating a cultural "legacy" by emphasizing the criterion of valorization that is still undoubtedly, inerasably present. The bottom line is that this discourse evokes an alternative content of the canon, but it accepts the elitist ground rules of valuable cultural goods deserving "to be cherished". It simply fails to exceed the limits of the same old reductive conception of official, high Culture, which it aspires to challenge. Secondly, the discourse on the canon seems to be lacking in the utility of historical studies and background, where 'historical perspective' usually is the synonym for 'rereading' past documents. (No doubt, this kind of historicization can be very illuminating in tracing through reception the transformation of meaning and the status of cultural goods, but basically it offers nothing more than another interpretation of the canon.)

Not at all denying, of course, the very important role of ideology in organizing cultural and even social hierarchies, I would like to underline that the ways in which culture is maintained and transformed by social groups cannot be reduced to self-conscious, ideological agendas alone, because these agendas "themselves are subject to complex procedures of repertoire formation, the making of canons included"(5). Turning back to the cultural production, using Sela-Sheffy's terms(6) transitoriness and generativeness in discussing the role of the canon in regulating culture (cultural production and consumption), I propose to discuss this by challenging the consensus that canons are versatile in direct response to political/ideological dictates. In my opinion, not the canons are versatile, but the problem itself. (Or again: which type of canon can be considered versatile?) One of the major inadequacies in the common conception of the canon is the over-emphasis put on canon change. This approach reduces the idea of the canon to no more than a series of fleeting fashions. This view marches back again and again, causing cultural combats, literary wars between competing taste-makers, forgetting the main problem, namely, that no one can ignore the fact that any canonized or classical repertoire is canonized in the sense that it is widely shared, accumulative, and durable. In other words, it is lasting, or, at least, seems to be much less sensitive to social tensions and transitions. In this way the canon (or rather the Canon) equals the longevity of a culture.

But going on with my question-marks: Is it possible to equate (this type of) cultural heritage with memory? Does our literary memory fully rely upon the Canon as a memory system - as Harold Bloom stated? Though memory is the process by which we encode, store and retrieve information, cultural memory is not the sum total of documents in archives, libraries or museums. Cultural memory is the knowledge which members of any culture share as a human group at any given moment. This implies that we need mechanisms for the selection and reduction (of the mass of documents). A (democratic) cultural Canon is a tool that can be used for the creation and dissemination of cultural memory. Finally, we should also recall that the job of cultural memory is not only to raise the "noble" and keep it elevated. It must also maintain cogently why the low is low. Now let us take a closer look at the literary canon(s). It is widely known that canonicity is closely linked to institutionalization. Lindenberger's often cited book sets the whole problem of canonicity under the chapter Institutions.(7) However, the institutional explanation, while not altogether false does not get us very far by itself. There are some clear defects in it as the short-term survival of a work. Because the question we are to explore is not why a given book is initially successful in its own time and culture, but why some books continue to be read and admired in a time or culture that is drastically different. All of the ideological explanations together with the institutional ones seem to be inadequate to answer the question of why some literary works from distant times and places are still considered great. On the other hand, if we do not consider the "literary" a property of texts, it also means that it is a characterization attributed to certain texts and textual devices by critics and other readers on the basis of their internalized conventions.(8) But it is also worth emphasizing that those who attach overriding value to convention seem to ignore the differentiations between conventions. The historical factor might work against the free choice of conventions: literature is not a body of texts which came into being accidentally, and which we have spontaneously decided to read in a certain way. Admission to those texts, enabled by critics, publishers and librarians, mediate memory. Each of these entities determines, to a very large degree, what memories are worth selecting. Let's take a simple example: library can be considered a long-term memory, but we should see how this long-term memory is mainly restricted to the memories of the dominant. The availability of materials is the keyword here again. Putting materials in remote storage might be a necessity, but the decision on what to store is a judgment on what is important and what is not. (Availability involves visibility, visibility frames knowledge, and we all know that knowledge is power!) Humans may recover memory, but when libraries put materials in storage, they are rarely recovered for consistent use. Library as a metaphor for cultural human memory continues to be valid...

The complexity of the "literary" thus can hardly enable us to grasp the subject matter of literary historiography. It is also difficult to say whether there are any viable (or at least temporarily viable) theories describing historical changes, which we may use as underpinnings for our explanation of specific instances of change in literature. The importance of the role of the professional critics, for instance - even in different arguments - is presumably undoubted.(9) In cultures where books constitute mutually agreed items of discourse and possess educational systems that teach literature, canon formation will inevitably grow. What we read and talk about sows the seeds of a literary culture, and part of that culture is to share the aesthetic experiences of reading with others. Canons are dependent on commentary, however at the same time we should not forget that in case of literature "any theoretical master key, as Christopher Clausen has stated,(10) could open only a very small door, like the garden door that Alice was too large to crawl through". The probability that there is no such a key at all does not mean at the same time that there is no way into the garden, namely, to literature! Quoting my favorite example, a good critic, just like a "good burglar can pick almost any kind of lock and give himself the run of many mansions, as long as he keeps an eye out for the alarm switch and the dog."(11) So I recommend this attitude of the burglar critic, which never suffers from the illusion that he owns the whole estate...

This question also turns us back to the issue that no classical canon permits only a restricted set of questions to be put to the tradition, or it demands to be approached only on bended knees. It is true that Canon suggests permanence, as it implies the transformation of the temporal into the timeless. The canonical work must be assumed to have permanent value and, what is really the same thing, perpetual modernity. However, not unrestrictedly of course, but we should consider every work of art as belonging to a canon, as changeable. And it is maybe, because it is rather doubtful that we can talk about the idea of a single canon as a stable, fixed entity. Ernst Gombrich has conceived the whole history of art only as a repository of masterpieces, while Northrop Fry thought that the real aim of literary criticism is to deal with such masterpieces, as if the nature of these works would be so easy to grasp. For this very reason it would be the time for us to talk about the criteria of valuation, while strictly keeping in sight the different opinions and changing approaches of literary historiography.(12)


Within the present critical panorama, despite the proliferation of new perspectives and the concomitant terminological confusion, the one constant seems to be the text, the object on which a broad segment of the conflicting voices of contemporary critical discourse concentrates its attention. I do not think it would be necessary to prove how writing, reading and the understanding of literature contribute to the formation, (trans)formation, permeation, and exchange of cultural identities.(13)

The canon can be considered both the textual and institutional basis, which enables literature to become a medium of cultural memory. But unlike the concept of tradition and classics, which presuppose that the values are inherent to texts, canons have more explicit normative, institutional charge. They imply the mechanisms of cultural contexts conditioning the judgments about works and authors and at the same time (re)producing values. Talking about the classical and canonical in canon-theories, the former is often rendered as essentialist and the latter as conventional, but this approach still lacks the specificity needed to determine what kind of canon is being discussed. For me it seems to be clear that paradigmatic canons are necessarily changeable, but perhaps it is not altogether true for the cultural one. Different theories reaching the conclusion that any canon, on the one hand, is a formative cultural heritage, on the other, a mark of the process of literary/cultural changing can hardly create a consonance or a harmony between the two policies. Beyond the blind spots it will reveal its real utility only if we shall be able to contemplate the different attitudes within one complex problem. Canons, at the same time, simultaneously presume the repeatability of reception and the inner capacity of the works to be put into new contexts, simultaneously bear the marks of the trendy present and the cultural memory of the past, simultaneously assume historical and artistic value.(14) Finally, the dichotomies of the jargon could render them more difficult, but this problem should not stop us in our critical researches.

© Laszlo Boka (ELTE, Budapest)


(1) Harold Bloom: The Western Canon. The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994, p. 517.

The factions challenging the traditional canon have come from many directions; two of the more obvious might be described as the 'modernizers' who wish to up-date the curriculum by redefining texts to include the other media; and the `politically correct' who view literature as part of an assertive agenda for social and cultural change and reject the WASP/DWEM- canon as an anachronism .

(2) Lawrence W. Levine: The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

(3) Ibid.

(4) It is of significant importance how incredibly simplistic ways of comprehending the canonicity arose. (e.g. -pointing at those in power who control the canon as the bad guys, yet giving an even more simplistic answer: resisting them is good!) However, in the canon-war those who presented themselves as the delegates of the deprived proved that powerlessness can be used as power.

(5) See: Rakefet Sela-Sheffy: Canon Formation Revisited: Canon and Cultural Production. Neohelicon, XXIX (2002) 2, 141.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Herbert Lindenberger: The History in Literature. On Value, Genre, Institutions. New York-Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1990.

(8) It seems to provide support for the view that the more significant social and political and cultural effects of literary texts result from the literary-aesthetic reading of these texts. As Danto remarked: "we do not know what the work is until we locate the plane from which it is to be interpreted" see: Arthur C. Danto: The Madonna of the Future. London: Farrar, 2000, p. 259.

(9) see: Jan Gorak: The making of the Modern Canon. Genesis and Crisis of a Literary Idea. Athlone, N.Y. & Amsterdam, 1991; and Lars Ole Sauerberg: Versions of the Past - Visions of the Future. Macmillan Press Ltd. London, St. Martin's Press Inc. N.Y., 1997. The first book deals with the importance of Gombrich, Frye, Kermode and Edward Said as omnipotent canon-makers, while the second one with T.S. Eliot, Leavis, Frye and Harold Bloom.

(10) Canon, Theme and Code. In: Virgil Nemoianu and Robert Royal (eds.): The Hospitable Canon. Philadelphia-Amsterdam, 1991. p. 199.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Thus the unifying aspect -even in the case of our conference- can both refer to united, joint, enriched cultures with all their affluence and liabilities, and to a Standardized Culture with all its negative synonyms. (That of a fixed, constant, permanent, unchanging history of the elite literature.)

(13) I suppose this Conference has already demonstrated that literary scholarship is becoming increasingly aware of its cultural and social responsibility toward its own discourse and that it is concerned with "proper use" and the wider relevance of the knowledge accumulated in it.

(14) By the same token the temporality and normativity of canons are present concomitantly, as literature itself is necessarily hegemonizing by the authority of the canon.

5.12. Narration in Literature and Writing History

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