A Singaporean Canon Can or Cannot?
Drawing territorial boundaries inside a cloud
By Gwee Li Sui
This lecture was delivered at the Singapore Writers Festival on 5 November 2022, in a programme that also featured lectures on canonicity by Angelia Poon and Marc Nair.
I wish to begin by being honest. The relevance of this word "canon" is surely academic. Most people who buy or borrow books will not know what it involves, let alone care "can or cannot". They just read a novel, a commentary, a manual rarely a book of poems because the topic or premise intrigues them. Or the book is recommended to them by a friend or something they have read, such as a review or another book. Or they are bored enough to give anything a try.
They want to continue with a writer whose previous works have impressed them greatly, or they are so sucked into an adventure or a genre or sub-genre that they will follow it down any rabbit hole. Or there are questions a-stirring in their minds, and reading can help illuminate or, where it does not, soothe.
"Canon" is thus not a useful word for many, so let us not get ahead of ourselves. This is not to say that it is a useless word. When I hear the word "canon", I can always be certain that my company is a small magic circle of readers: educators, literature students, graduates, the literati and wannabes. The word attracts this tight cabal of who I should call believers adherents to something beyond a shelf of books or books in general, beyond knowledge or pleasure or provocation.
These believers hold to an ethereal substance called Literature. Again I will be honest and confess that I am not sure that Literature, with a capital L, exists. Literature is not an empirical thing; it is a concept, an abstraction. I know that books exist, and, because I know and I feel, I know that knowledge and pleasure exist. Because I write and draw, I know that the imagination exists too.
But Literature? Yet, those who believe in its thing-ness somehow continue to do so even when they can hardly agree among themselves. For some, only poetry and fiction qualify as Literature. Others include drama and essays and it goes as far as anything that can be construed as "text", even Netflix. For some, it is a strictly solemn affair; Literature must be serious. So, whenever I give myself to writing another funny poetry book or a picture book or a Singlish translation, I am well aware that none of it will feature in the next Singapore Literature Prize longlist. Nor stuff like horror or romance.
For still others, Literature, pure Literature, needs to be time-tested. It is simply the classics, texts that have already transcended a time and its politics to attain some measure of immortality. Literature is secular scripture and what did William Blake say about this while reflecting on Homer's poetry? "The Classics, it is the Classics! & not Goths nor Monks, that Desolate Europe with Wars."
So you see, curiously, although most who talk about Literature hopelessly differ on what it is, yet all can speak in its name. They feel or take it upon themselves to maintain that there is such a thing. Here is where the word "canon" emerges. A canon is essentially what legitimises Literature with a capital L. This is not to say that there is no literature there is writing, and there is text. But Literature, as what passes into the world of concreteness, must be more. It must engender this complement of a canon because a canon can bring to it the one thing it does not have: a centre.
Quite contrary thus to the usual impression or criticism that a canon is some sort of container, what decides the "in" things and the "out" things, I am proposing to you that it centralises a very cloudy idea. Without a canon, Literature lacks definition which I must not be mistaken as saying that it needs it.
This idea of Literature, in other words, is just like another exalted cultural idea: the idea of God. We may all comprehend some form of the divine, but, with organised religion, with religious culture, it is always the sacred texts that can help us know who or what God is intimately. The scripture, in this sense, exactly shows the way.
In fact, the idea of a canon from the Greek kanōn, meaning a rule or a ruler derived for this context. In Judaism and Christianity, a canon is the centre of their respective cloud of unknowing. The Hebrew Tanakh contains 24 authoritative books while the Christian Bible has 66 books in general agreement. The Catholics recognise seven more Old Testament books than the Protestants, which they call the Deuterocanon (Greek for "the second canon") and the latter call the Apocrypha. Orthodox Christians know a further six.
But all Christians share the same 27 books in the New Testament, sieved from a mass of circulating gospels, epistles, and other writings by early Church leaders. While a few inclusions (such as the Book of Revelations) continue to be called into question irregularly, the canon proper was well-fixed after much scrutiny, beginning with the Council of Hippo at North Africa in 393 AD.
A key determinant of canonicity had been authenticity whether, say, Apostle X did write Gospel Y. This aspect encompassed a more specific question of originality, whether a text was a good or poor imitation or, in fact, the genuine article. But as important, if not more, was a second question: whether or not a text possessed divine inspiration. The test here was trickier, although the bishops were able to pin it down rather intelligibly. All writing was surely man-made, but only a divinely inspired one had the power to move and instruct future generations and bring them into a faith that could clarify God.
More or less, the same thinking raises up our sense of a literary canon, hence the word use. The word "canon" is indeed chosen quite deliberately. In Literature, by an original work, we mean either of two things: a touchstone that is a point of bearing, culminating what came before and influencing what comes after, or one that lingers within culture and is not quite assimilated, agitating uncomfortably.
For a secular sense of divinity, there are also two things. First, we have the personal experience of the Sublime, a sudden step out of normal encountering: what therefore makes a work worth re-reading because time itself is not registering. And then there is this illumination: Literature, the terrain of which the canon reveals.
So, instead of just saying how a literary canon is secularised canon, I am showing that, like the Biblical canon, a literary one elucidates what is being believed. This point is fundamental to all our talk about canons because the English canon, or a more broadly conceived Western canon, does more than signal a corpus that is, in every part, certified as original and most powerfully so. It also brings into clarity what culturally defines, belongs to, the English people or the West. It draws territorial boundaries inside a cloud.
This sense of a cultural implement cannot be reduced as simply Western. The Chinese classics (典籍), for example, are surely the equivalent in East Asian history and culture. They have again several framings, depending on what ought to be made visible. There are the Neo-Confucianist Thirteen Classics (十三经) and, tighter still, the Four Books and Five Classics (四书五经). Among them are the I Ching (易经), the Classic of Poetry (诗经), Confucius's Analects, and the political Mencius.
At one time, all these were mandatory scholars' texts, the basis on which the Imperial Examination for any government post was conducted. State discourse involving officials also had to make references to them, or one was simply out of one's depth to even dare to engage. The classics created for the elite a common culture; they instilled in them a realm of shared values.
The Chinese classics are ancient, but, describing the Western canon, the late great critic Harold Bloom seems in agreement to say that canonicity ought to be verified "about two generations after a writer dies". Yet, surprisingly enough, the Western idea of this canon first took flight on a much shorter runway. Samuel Johnson's last major undertaking, a series of critical studies written between 1779 and 1781, focused on 52 poets only from the late 17th century onwards.
Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets or just Lives of the Poets lists as an earliest great John Milton and includes a few still-familiar names, such as Alexander Pope and Isaac Watts, but mostly obscure ones today. Have you heard of Samuel Garth or read his The Dispensary (1699)? How about Thomas Yalden and his accomplished "A Hymn to Darkness" (1693)? Or Richard Blackmore and his majestic didactic epic Creation (1712)? Yet, these, and so many more, had won critical acclaim and accolades back in the day and were, for a time, fervently discussed!
To be fair, despite his selection, Johnson would praise some writers and criticise others readily. Not all his biographical details were accurate either, nor were all his literary appraisals unbiased. On top of such issues, his historically narrow framework and all-male all-stars went up for challenge as well. Nonetheless, for several decades to come, Lives of the Poets which one John Scott teased as "The Temple of Fame" (referencing Pope's early poem of 1715) would be hailed, refuted, imitated, extended, and always held in high esteem for what it did originally.
By this criterion, it must be found wondrous that Lives of the Poets, as a canon-making work, should enter the English canon as a canonical work too. Johnson himself, for his poems, was further included in the project he launched, with Alexander Chalmers's ambitious supplement of 1810 enlarging it all the way back to Geoffery Chaucer and forward to William Cowper.
Lives of the Poets cannot be disentangled from two things: first, the rise of an urban book industry, for which canon-making came at a height of market exhilaration and the thrill of national navel-gazing. Cultural trends then were feeding into a sense of British exceptionalism, and this makes it crucial to name the second thing: an era that was experiencing the high noon of British imperialism.
So there was, at the time, relatability to Joseph Addison's famous call for "a man of Polite Imagination", one who could enter "a great many Pleasures, that the Vulgar are not capable of receiving". The posit here was for culture not class per se to manifest a natural structure of people. This drive led straight into a dream of an endearing creature we still speak fondly of today as the English gentleman.
There was that riveting James Thomson poem of 1740 that turned instantly into a patriotic hymn:
Imperial British exceptionalism must involve, among other things, supposedly bringing civilization to the places it ruled because it was, as the rhetoric went, unlike the other empires in human history. The British version could and would "give back" to its colonies; it would "lift" them up.
You cannot untwist the idea of canon coming via the British from this entrenched myth of the good colonialist. I am here indeed invoking what the sociologist Syed Hussein Alatas has inversely called the colonialist myth of the lazy native. The Victorian poet-critic Matthew Arnold looked to highlights in Johnson's list as "point de repθre points which stand as so many natural centres, and by returning to which we can always find our way again, if we are embarrassed". The canon was, for him, this guide for the humanities at the very heart of empire at least for a good run.
All these layers must be kept in mind when we go on and on (as I unfortunately do now) about canons. To know how much we in Singapore's literati are over a colonial hangup, the quickest way is to see whether we are as conscious as our ex-dominant culture was, or still blissfully receptive and eager like subjects. When we put ourselves in the position of canon-makers, we can no longer be simplistic, let alone democratic, about it. We are already in the grip. We cannot claim that we are not doing something else in the way colonial culture-movers knew that they were.
So this question of "can or cannot" ought to be framed more pointedly rather as "why". As an English canon has, for a time, clarified taste, nationhood, and where a people stood, a Singaporean canon can no doubt do the same but why? Why do we need it? And why now?
If the idea is just to keep good books in circulation or memory, it seems too unaffecting a reason. Canonical texts by means of the demand they exact on readers are not natural bestsellers. They are more the dripping taps of difference. Such texts may be good for analysing aesthetics or frames of thought, but what findings are generated can bring no mundane interest to need wide imposition. Besides, is not the whole point of canonical texts that they can survive regardless of a time, any time, with or without our help, or even against our scheming?
On the other hand, to say that canonicity is outdated in our day and age is differently inadequate. This view feels unaware, or somehow unwilling to admit, that "canon" is not a dirty word only now. Its mischief simply does not derive from our modern, progressive insight (although it is nice to think so). Those who used it or are still using it have always known what it does and can do whether or not those who merely consume its idea know it or not.
The issue comes over and above what is problematic, given the idea's premise itself. Let me explain now within our context. A Singaporean canon, any way it looks, will when we consider English poets include the triumvirate Edwin Thumboo, Arthur Yap, and Lee Tzu Pheng. But, by this sense of a canon, whether anyone reads them or whether their books are commercially stocked must be incidental. If these have the power that canonicity says that they have, they cannot lose relevance since the canon needs them more than they need it. They cannot fall out just because enough people, at any time, say so.
Yet, we somehow also speak of the canon as something we can direct according to the day's ideology or our own inflections. We try to shake it up and, in the attempt, feel that we must avoid the trap of trajectories, of predictability. We want a diversity of aesthetic values that can be discovered without moving centripetally, towards a centre. This means that, as much as we tend towards a representation of nation once and now society, history, and, in some sectors, class and communities, we aim not to ignore experimentation too.
But what is experimentation without aesthetic values and how open are our canon-makers to new, unfamiliar, even incompatible aesthetics, or are they biased from the start? Conversely, can tradition feature within originality? Must "good" literature be just what moves us, brings us our humanity, or what should raise powerfully otherworldly, non-human feelings? Must writing be only socially useful or, being abstract, only useless?
Even if we allow all this range and, at every turn, seek inclusiveness, consider: can we know what we hold up to be free at the upper arc from the dictates of some ideology and to last? Can we be sure enough that we have not been developing new blindspots in a totalising process? Is time not what will still reveal to us whether and where we are found wanting?
Bloom is right to regard a literary canon as ultimately "an achieved anxiety". You cannot have it, assert it, and then think that it liberates you from having cultural anxieties. The canon, in fact, throws you headlong into them because it shows you exactly what you think Literature is and why your values are barely universal, let alone just.
To be clear, I am not against canon. But I am far from being enthusiastic and can never endorse its desirability. I am furthermore suspicious of all who oppose canonicity and then go on to erect canons by another name. If it is no longer elitism waving under the banner of nation, it is now some ideology or identity politics under the placard of community or vice versa. This feels dishonest.
For me, as I no longer believe in Big-L Literature (or whatever ironically small Big-L Literature there is), it does not matter that others contend over a bad exercise. I find myself, in this respect, post-Literature. But, if you desire a canon, particularly a Singaporean one, remember at least: a canon is a glass house. It has always been so. You get your beauty, you get your validity but you must accept living under an unrelenting shower of stones.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 1 Jan 2023