Monday, February 9, 2009

When I'm a Dead White Male, I Hope You Read Ellison

The author of the article in the Bachelor has embodied the probable opinion of many students who look at the reading list for senior colloquium.  For example: “I don’t know who these authors are!” or “Why should I read these guys’ work? I’ll never be able to impress people by quoting someone they’ve never heard of!” To say that a piece of art is not great because you were unaware of its existence it is like saying that couscous is not a food because you have not eaten it and it doesn't sound "American." In other words, widespread public ignorance of certain novels does not indicate that those novels are unworthy of recognition and reverence.  Yes, generally critics and academics do notice and spread awareness of works that are outstanding in literary quality, but just because I have not heard of Baudelaire, like the young man who wrote the article, does not mean that Baudelaire’s work has failed as art.  Maybe I have failed as someone who calls himself a lover of literature. 

It seems obvious that someone like myself or the author of the article in the Bachelor does not determine the canon, although we have both grown up hearing of the “greats” of the Western canon (James Joyce, William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, etc.).  If I do not determine the canon, who does? Who are the group of people who claim to have the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff? How can one objectively judge a piece of work as universally exceptional when reading is such a subjective experience?  It is an interesting conundrum, being forced to judge a work of art.  The world is so filled with contrasting cultures, peoples, and ideas that to say that only a handful of “dead, white males” are qualified to represent the limitless experiences that life presents is na├»ve.  In determining the western canon, especially in a time when technology has reduced the earth to the size of a laptop with a Wi-Fi connection, I suppose the best option would be to select works that best represent all the possibilities and viewpoints the world has to offer.  Had a white male written Jean Toomer’s Cane, would the impact be the same? Could a white male have created art so engrained with the psyche of a minority, so heartfelt and inventive?  I doubt it.  If I limit myself to reading works only by people that reflect the majority of white males, then I not only perpetuate oppression, I also deny myself the opportunity to broaden my knowledge.  I wouldn't have read anything by Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, authors whose works influenced the way I view the world.  I would argue that, logically, a knowledge of monotony (only reading works by dead white males) necessitates an ignorance of diversity.  

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