- Dialogue with/and Great Books: The Dynamics of Canon Formation
Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon envisions a bleak future for Great Books curricula: “Finding myself now surrounded by professors of hip-hop; by clones of Gallic-Germanic theory; by ideologues of gender and of various sexual persuasions; by multiculturalists unlimited, I realize that the Balkanization of literary studies is irreversible. All of these Resenters of the aesthetic value of literature are not going to go away, and they will raise up institutional resenters after them” (1994: 517–18). The tone is no less than apocalyptic: “Things,” he writes, have “fallen apart, the center has not held, and mere anarchy is in the process of being unleashed upon what used to be called ‘the learned world’” (1).
The Canon wars have been raging for half a century now, as the aesthetes battle it out with the ideologues over the fate and direction of Great Books curricula. In Dialogue with/and Great Books: The Dynamics of Canon Formation, David Fishelov proposes to return to the heated and perhaps moot debate by proposing a way out of this cul de sac of mutually exclusive positions. Rather than contend for either of the existing strongholds (in Fishelov’s terms, the beauty party and the power party), he offers a remedy by bringing this age-old debate into the twenty-first century. The radical suggestion is that we rethink canonicity by exchanging an outdated top-bottom model of canonization for a bottom-top one. The process, he proposes, no longer need be the essentializing selection — a book need not be judged on the basis of its inherent qualities. Its appeal can be judged by the sum of quantifiable, empirical data, such as the number of hits a book generates on a computerized search engine. The institutional evaluating committee or the tweed-wearing professor are rendered obsolete as canonization is purged of political and aesthetic considerations alike.
The transition from a qualitative to a quantitative value scheme hinges on the book’s central argument: “the source of a literary work’s perceived greatness lies in the dialogues it generates with readers, authors, translators, adaptors, artists and critics” (ix). Fishelov goes on to conceptualize different forms of dialogue, all pertaining to a book’s negotiation with or allusions to previous works of literature. Drawing inspiration from real-life forms of communication, Fishelov offers three central dialogue forms, all of which are meticulously explained and exemplified. A genuine dialogue is reflective of a dialectical negotiation with a precursor text (in Fishelov’s terms, an initiating text), a negotiation that might be ideological or aesthetic; an echo dialogue is a non-dialectical treatment of an initiating text (for example, a translation), “and a dialogue of the deaf” where a responding text refers to an initiating text in nothing but a pretextual fashion, by way of highlighting an agenda all its own.
These different dialogues, in turn, provide the quantifiable data that feed the empirical model of canonization that will allow us to determine whether or not a work of literature is great. The shift to equations, coefficients, and statistical [End Page 178] diagrams is inevitably accompanied by an array of variables that potentially undermine the efficacy of the proposed model. The seriousness of Fishelov’s undertaking is nevertheless evident in his awareness of and attention to detail. Thus, for example, he notes that the statistician must account for both the size of the literary community in which responses to the work are measured and the number of dialogues relative to those generated by other literary works in the same literary community. Similarly, Fishelov alerts his readers to the fact that a web-based search combining the keywords “Homer” and “The Odyssey” is as likely to elicit the name of a travel agency or a movie soundtrack as it is the epic itself. Other potential variables that are not negotiated in the book are dialogues of different languages and forms of response that cannot be encoded in cyberspace. These issues are perhaps niggly, but the need...