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  • Canonicity, Creativity, and the Unlimited Revelation of Literature
  • William Franke

Literary-critical discussions of classic literary texts such as the Bible, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Confessions, and the Divine Comedy, have often aimed to demonstrate the high degree of creativity at work in such “great books” of Western tradition. This creativity resists definitive formulation: it proves to be inseparable from the ongoing tradition in which these books continue to live through constant re-interpretation. They thereby assert their “canonicity” — their perennial relevance. Canonicity in this sense is not immobile or exclusive of innovation: it calls rather for continually new, creative interpretations or “applications” of classic texts in contemporary contexts. The critical writing I advocate is an attempt to elicit and display the creativity of such works as, in good part, embedded in and flowing from this type of canonicity. In particular, I stress the re-origination of these works — and the regeneration of culture that they foster—precisely in and through ongoing interpretation in the course of history.1

All of the works named above are among those commonly recognized as the most canonical in Western literature. “Great Books” courses have come under attack in recent decades for enshrining the model of a closed canon that has been challenged from various quarters, particularly in the name of genders or ethnicities or geographical regions or socioeconomic classes of humanity that have apparently been excluded. I will not undertake an apology for the (or rather a) Western canon.2 I have elsewhere examined the concept of canonicity and the open kind of universality that it ideally embodies (see Franke 2011a). Here I argue that the canon, as exemplified by the above works, is distinguished precisely by its ability [End Page 1] to creatively change and to grow.3 My main concern is to show how, in a manner of speaking, this creativity hinges from “heaven” — how the claim to inspiration and the hypothesis of divine revelation can be the source of such creativity. The very idea of a literary “canon,” after all, derives from the canon of books constituting the biblical revelation by extending this notion to secular writings.

At the same time, we should not forget that currency was given to the term also by Polykleitos’s Kanon, his Pythagoras-inspired treatise on sculpture with its classical ideal of perfect proportions and symmetry as the source of aesthetic beauty. This ideal was embodied most perfectly in his Doryphoros (circa 450 B.C.), a male nude sculpture which he named — like the lost treatise whose principles it illustrated — “Kanon.”4 Given this polygeneticism bringing together multiple semantic backgrounds, typically normative terms such as “canon” and “revelation,” as well as “divinity” and “prophecy,” take on senses that evade the statically traditional. Part of my purpose here is to conjugate classical pagan tradition with revealed, biblical religion by finding their common epistemological grounds in the interpretive work of the imagination. Keeping the kinds of claims to knowledge proper to each of these forms of culture in play and in dialogue prevents them from reducing one another to dogmatic forms of either secular humanism or religious fideism.

A keystone in this arching bridge between cultures is the thesis that the inventiveness of canonical texts is not compromised even by the totalizing structures of the imagination. The effort to totalize one’s vision, which demands inner coherence and comprehensiveness in extenso, is not necessarily as deadening as has often been assumed by common consent in recent criticism: it can also be the vehicle of a continual challenge always to reach out and meet — and so to attempt to enter into dialogue with — every possible or imaginable point of view that is or might be advanced. This open sort of universality becomes an ongoing striving after completeness and inclusiveness, which is never fully or finally achieved.

The enterprise of imagining, especially on an epic scale, always entails, in addition to figuration of its objects, some idea of our relations with all others, since what we imagine also defines ourselves. We can imagine ourselves in ways that make us open to and co-participants in a world shared with all others, or else we can construe ourselves...


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