Recently, a Chinese press approached me to discuss a possible translation of “The Anatomy of Influence,” Harold Bloom’s most recent work of criticism, promising that the translation would draw a big audience. Bloom’s earlier book, “The Western Canon,” has undoubtedly become the most talked-about English-language work in literary criticism in China, to which the Chinese readers have left a flood of responses on various book sites expressing opinions ranging from admiration to reverence. These opinions echo, and are reinforced by, New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus’ recent comment in an NYT podcast that “in the end you kind of come back to the great books” as well as his claim in an NYT 2011 interview of Bloom that the latter remains the “most famous and controversial literary critic of our time.” The canon is by no means dead and gone: It acquires more legitimacy and strength through transnational circulation.
So, what do we do about the power of the canon? Where does ethnic or minority literature go? The minority writer emerged in the radical 1960s and early 1970s as an important cultural figure, whose position was both cemented and contested in the ensuing culture wars. Is this figure now starting to lose its purchase on the national imagination and academic curricula? Is there a way in today’s universities of honoring both our desire to master the great books and our interest in, not to say responsibility toward, what has been left out of them?
One telling sign of the difficulties facing non-canonical writers is the reconfiguration of Columbia’s Core Curriculum. The new concept of the Global Core does not include courses that investigate the workings of race, ethnicity, or other modes of differentiation within a nation. A course on East Asian literature would certainly count toward the Global Core requirement, but it may not shed light either on the ethnic paradigms in Asia or on the racialization of overseas Asians. The idea of world or global literature may well end up enhancing the power of national canons, however we emphasize their permutations through translation.
This is not to say that ethnic cultures have lost their presence on campus. If we just peruse the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity’s updated calendar of events, we can easily see how the semester will be densely populated with lectures, talks, conferences, and performances featuring ideas related to immigration, ethnicity, and indigeneity.
The tussle between general knowledge (associated with the great books) and specialized pursuits centering on minor and minority archives has for a long time been central to debates on the functions of the university. Should the university (both the college and the graduate school) focus on imparting broadly acknowledged ideas or excavating forgotten and neglected ones? Should the university devote itself to forging the symbolic bonds bringing people together or fostering plurality among them? There have never been, and should not be, clear-cut answers to these questions. The university is simply a space for legitimate intellectual debates and fights.
In the end, the university is not an end in itself. It prepares us for intellectual and practical projects that can never be accomplished within its confines. Melville is the one who claims that “true places” are never in the maps. Indeed, a novel like “Moby Dick” can never be conceived on the basis of the knowledge acquired in the academy, and yet it tells us much about the task of the university. Reading “Moby Dick” makes us wonder why anyone would elaborate tirelessly on whale classification and the drunken bantering of the shipmates in a book devoted to such exalted ideas as the mythical and symbolic meanings of whaling. The author suggests that he wants to tell a grand story in which every part receives ample attention and careful treatment. A good story, like a good place, consists of many strange sites that complement the more popular “attractions.”
The university is that which helps launch us on a lifelong project, in a field of our own choosing, that will ultimately depend on the story we would like to create and present to the world. Whoever will be our audience, nothing should take away our ambition to learn how to tell a grand or even universal story brimming with eccentric, oblique details that used to matter to only a few people.
The author is an assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia.