“The horror! The horror!” Ever since George Floyd’s death, those four words continue to run through my mind. They do so, in part, because they describe our collective response to the nature of his death—a policeman’s knee driven into his neck for nearly 10 minutes while Floyd struggled to breathe.
But they also keep returning to my mind because they are the well-known words from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. As a professor of humanities, I have often taught this novella. I now ask myself, with horror, how it is that I never understood the horrified response of so many of my students.
Criticism of the Western canon has long been a cottage industry among American academics. In 1994, the industry was given a shot of adrenalin by the publication of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. In his uncompromising defense of the great literary works of Western civilization, Bloom denied any political or ideological purpose. Instead, all the canon can teach “is the proper use of one’s own solitude.” As for what he called “the School of Resentment”—the motley crowd of feminists, African-Americanists and the like responsible, in his view, for the “Balkanization” of literary studies—Bloom devoted much of his own solitude to denounce them.
Bloom’s book appeared shortly after I started my career as a university professor. As part of my teaching load, I participated in a team-taught course devoted to the Western canon. Though I did not read Bloom’s book, I found myself teaching many of the same authors that constitute his 26 immortals. From Dante, Shakespeare, and Montaigne through Goethe, Austen, and Dickinson to Woolf, Kafka, and Beckett, our teams have lectured on the works written by Bloom’s “happy few.” These writers, we believed, took on universal themes in uniquely powerful fashion.
In addition, however, we also taught works by writers such as Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. At the time, we thought we were simply expanding the canon—as Bloom himself did by adding these writers to his posthumous The American Canon. From today’s vantage point, it would perhaps be more accurate to say we were trying to “reform” the canon. We thought, in effect, that we were reformers—big tent canonists dedicated to diversity and intent on inclusion.
A few weeks ago, my daughter Louisa and I joined tens of thousands of demonstrators at the George Floyd peace march in Houston. Many of the participants and speakers had despaired of reforming the institution of policing. The culture of policing, they argued, was quite simply impervious to reform. As a result, the time had come for root and branch change.
Though it was hardly as immediate or existential in importance, I could not help but wonder about the institution of the Western canon. Were my colleagues and I right to think that the institution to which we had given much of our professional lives could be reformed? Was our particular culture as teachers of Western culture compromised to the core? If it was, must we then, well, defund the teaching of the canon?
An honest answer is, for better and worse, complicated. My own attempt at an answer brings me back to Conrad. The novella was the last work I taught this spring before the coronavirus cancelled the rest of the semester. By way of background, I reviewed the unique and uniquely unspeakable nature of Belgian imperial rule in the Congo and Conrad’s own experience as captain of a steamboat on the Congo River. It was an experience that shaped his grim perspective on European claims to civilization—not a pretty thing, as his narrator, Marlow, observes, when you look into it too much.
Here’s the problem: I had failed to look deeply enough into Marlow’s words. One student, looking down at her hands, declared, “I am so tired of reading books filled with the n-word.” Another student, also African American, sighed: “I’m tired of being told the classics are good for me.” Yet other students of Arabic, Hispanic, or Asian backgrounds aired their anger not just at the story, but at its author.
In their various ways, these students echoed the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s scathing dismissal of Conrad as a “bloody racist.” Surprised, I urged them not to forget Conrad’s description of Marlow’s storytelling, which only increases the unreliability of the narrative. For Marlow, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as glow brings out haze”? With that plea, I turned to the tale’s content and, to my discomfort, turned away from class’s discontent.
I now begin to understand what I then refused to understand. My students do not need to be asked to attend to the subtleties of lines that compare, say, an African boilerman to “a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs.” The haze of uncertainty, especially when exhaled by a 19th-century white novelist, was not what my students needed before George Floyd was murdered. It certainly is not what they—or their professors—need now.
What, then, are the needs of teachers and students? If true reform is ever to be achieved, there are at least two essential needs. First, deans ought to take immediate and concrete steps to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk, of increasing faculty diversity. (Among the dozens of colleagues with whom I have taught this class, just one has been African American.) Second, we must treat writings by marginalized and oppressed minorities not as supplements to a white canon, but instead as essential representations of our political, social, and cultural traditions.
In The Western Canon, Bloom cites the famous line in Gieussep Tomassi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard in which the young aristocrat Tancredi, facing the revolutionary tumult of the Italian Risorgimento, tells his uncle Don Fabrizio, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Let us overlook that, in a single line of his book, Bloom mistakes Tancredi for the Prince, incorrectly believes that Tancredi is speaking to his “peers,” and mistranslates Tancredi’s statement as, “Everything must change a little.” Instead, let us focus on the question of what we, as professors of the “western canon,” should do. As 21st-century America begins its own Risorgimento, one leading to national unification based on a truer understanding of equality, do we have a role to play? If so, do we believe that falling back on gestures of change—a modern-day Tancredi, no doubt working as a marketing consultant, would advise deans to reaffirm their commitment to “diversity and inclusion”—is enough? Finally, should we continue to profess what we always thought to be true about the canon when our students tell us they are tired of being told that certain texts, though riddled with the n-word, are good for them?
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