A Micro Canon of Joy

The trouble with a day job spent defending Western civilization and the Great Books canon is that you obsess over what clueless eighteen-year-olds desperately need to have assigned to them in class. They are blank slates who know nothing earlier than Friends re-runs; how do we convey to them most efficiently the thread from Plato to Pareto? Then, too, the revolutionary siege of our nation inclines you to skew your proposed syllabi toward the spinach of political theory that formed and justified America—Aristotle and Machiavelli, Madison and Tocqueville. Western civ reduces to the essential texts needed to inspire citizens to defend the Republic. Eric Clifford Graf, in his fine “Micro Canon” essay, puts it this way: “Which three books would you take to steel our future civilization against its subterranean enemies?”

An understandable priority, but there are other questions to ask. What do you read when you’re out of college? What do you read to deepen your knowledge of Western civ, beyond the civic anthology? What, above all, do you read for pleasure?—the books that make Western civ worth loving in the first place because they provide happiness, and the Republic worth defending as a way to pursue that happiness. What is the canon of joy, distinct from the canon of virtue?—the joy acquired piecemeal over a lifetime of reading, rather than concentratedly in a core curriculum?

Tastes differ. But just to try to answer the question opens up a different way to think of Western civ, a different canon, for when the Republic’s guardian has put down his spear, kicked off his shoes, and set himself down on a wicker chair on the lawn with a lemonade and a paperback.

I’d start with Rolfe Humphries’ translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Most Great Books introductions to the ancient world start with Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles—but that’s the syllabus of ci-devant German scholars in American exile, those heirs of the German allergy to a Rome that reminded them too much of France. When these syllabi do bring in a Roman author, it’s usually Cicero, so students can think deep thoughts about the fall of the Roman Republic and get a more complicated version than the one provided in George Lucas’ Cliff-Notes-in-Space.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, now—that lengthy poem’s just an endless series of entertaining yarns, the West’s own One Thousand and One Nights, a vast selection of Greek and Roman myth and mythic history, story succeeding story in fluid variety. Some are tales of terror, for sometimes the gods transform us mortals against our will. The book nonetheless may inculcate a protean point of view, a predecessor of the corrupting and dissolving fluidity of modern times—but it corrupts so well! Humphries’ elegant prose allures the reader, in fair competition to Ovid’s Latin, and makes of us the civilized Augustan aristocrats listening in pleasure to a chain of tales well told. Aristocrats who had failed to resist the end of the republic; but life went on.

The Metamorphoses are too long to assign easily in a class, and extracts don’t give the full sense of Ovid’s facile variety. Imagine if students were introduced to the ancient world by Ovid! Imagine if they learned first not the reason of Athens, nor the revelation of Jerusalem, but the refinement of Rome that used words to play, and not just to ponder or preach.

At the very least, they and we should read Ovid to enjoy this ancient masterpiece of homo ludens. Consider the judgment of Joseph Brodsky:

The semester after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the poet Joseph Brodsky was teaching a class on Russian poetry to a group of juniors and seniors. They were reading a poem by Osip Mandelstam that made reference to Ovid. When Mr. Brodsky asked how many had read Ovid, not a single hand went up. Mr. Brodsky said, “You’ve been cheated.”

Then, Montaigne’s Essays. Against stiff competition from his peers, but Shakespeare’s better on the stage than on the page, and Cervantes still sounds best in Spanish. Montaigne, though, has the elegant Donald Frame to translate him—and he is the hinge of Western civilization, all the knowledge of Greece and Rome at his fingertips and conveyed through the form he is inventing, the essay, the modern evocation of self, the fusion where the author’s character is always the subject, whatever else he discusses. All we modern epicures of experience are Montaigne’s epigones.

Montaigne has spinach aspects to him—one thousand pages of essays on stoicism and skepticism and melancholy evocation of lost friendship can’t entice as readily as Don Quijote charging at a windmill or Prince Harry rallying his men on Crispin’s Day. But the thousand pages of essays are also a thousand pages of Montaigne, a middle-aged man in the sticks of southwestern France writing more and more of who he was, and ever more, and thereby making a friend of an unknown reader across an ocean and an even greater gulf of time. Take the time to read Montaigne, and you will read as closely as you listen when someone you love opens up his heart.

[Related: “A Micro Canon: My Three Essential Books”]

The Renaissance bequeathed so much to us. But Montaigne is greatest of its treasures, for he, above all others, showed us how to use words to share our souls.

Next, Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Austen is the novelist Vermeer, with a limited oeuvre, extraordinarily fine detail, and a focus on domestic scenes. And she is funny!—an early master of the acid, deadpan description, of the dialogue that reveals more about the character than the character realizes, of the comic distance between how we see ourselves and how we are. She is also serious, of course, as she explores how her heroes and heroines seek to act well and find true love, in books that meld wit and sadness in a single sentence.

Persuasion is the last and finest of Austen’s six romances—the story of Anne Elliot’s second chance for love, after she mistakenly cast aside the first. That’s not really a story for college students, who are fortunate if they’ve had a first chance. Austen’s portrait of Anne’s family is as cruel as any in the modern novel—not Gothic monsters, just ordinary egotists, who threaten to snuff Anne’s chances of happiness from callous indifference rather than from malice. Austen adds to Ovid a tale of metamorphosis that ends happily, the protean world taking love away and then returning it.

Platonists may argue that love fuses with the search for God, truth, and other such abstractions, but Austen gives us the best story of the triumph of love between man and woman.

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest has to be on any canon of joy. It is a play about nothing but cucumber sandwiches, imaginative diaries, and misplaced handbags, a sheer exercise in frivolity, wit with no excuse save its own exercise and the audience’s laughter. Would-be ernste Menschen desperately need to read Wilde, to watch the play if they can, to learn that, indeed, there are more important things than being earnest. So, too, do apprentice English teachers and English professors, to have it demonstrated that the justification of literature is not that it is about some Issue of presumably greater import, but that it creates delight as it plays with words.

Well, and there should be some lyric poem in the canon of joy, some quintessence of beauty that demands to be read aloud, to be savored syllable by syllable with both ear and eye. We all have our favorite poets to relish for sheer gorgeous sound—a Donne, a Hopkins, a Lorca. My canon has Robert Frost’s “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be The Same”:

He would declare and could himself believe

That the birds there in all the garden round

From having heard the daylong voice of Eve

Had added to their own an oversound,

Her tone of meaning but without the words.

Admittedly an eloquence so soft

Could only have had an influence on birds

When call or laughter carried it aloft.

Be that as may be, she was in their song.

Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed

Had now persisted in the woods so long

That probably it never would be lost.

Never again would birds’ song be the same.

And to do that to birds was why she came.

We do need to read books on how to seek the truth, and to know why we should fight to defend our republic. Maybe we even should read them first. But that shouldn’t be where we stop reading. We also should read for play, for the friendly sharing of our souls, for love, for laughter, and for beauty. Those are the books for beyond the classroom, in the lawn-chair and lemonade of life.

I read none of these books in college. Maybe it’s better I didn’t. But we should at least let college students know that they can read for such pleasures, and not just to gird their loins.

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5 thoughts on “A Micro Canon of Joy

  1. A fine and upstanding, even outstanding list.
    But David, you stop short.
    Naturally so, I suppose, given the limits of the essay, the journal, the page, your audience, and a universally shrinking attention span as matched against a matchless list.

    But if we truly consider the ‘Canon of Joy’ (a great phrase, by the way)…I suspect we might need to skip blithely, though temporarily, past Ovid, Montaigne, Austen & Wilde to broaden our hunt. Perhaps we return…perhaps not. The truth is there are far, far too many works in that Canon to restrict ourselves to pre-1900. We also, with such restrictions, run the risk of losing those who might otherwise indulge if the suggestions stretched a mite further beyond the easily recognized classics.

    Really what we want is Western Civ without the academic structure, without the guard rails, without the explicit instruction. We want to feel it more than learn it; sense it more than see it. So perhaps we give them C.S.Forester (you can’t beat Hornblower & the Hotspur)…perhaps some Tolkien or George MacDonald. Definitely some CS Lewis. What the heck, throw in the Foundation Trilogy by Asimov… Some Elmore Leonard, for goodness sake or HGWells. Or Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, matched perhaps by TH White’s Once & Future King. Some Ray Bradbury…some Graham Greene…some Joseph Heller. And from today let’s give them Lionel Shriver…and definitely several Mark Helprin’s: ““Perhaps things are most beautiful when they are not quite real; when you look upon a scene as an outsider, and come to possess it in its entirety and forever; when you live in the present with the lucidity and feeling of memory; when, for want of connection, the world deepens and becomes art.”

    And Frost?
    Rather the magic of Yeats … the mystery of Eliot, and the music of Neruda:
    You’ve asked me what the lobster is weaving there with
    his golden feet?
    I reply, the ocean knows this.
    You say, what is the ascidia waiting for in its transparent
    bell? What is it waiting for?
    I tell you it is waiting for time, like you.
    You ask me whom the Macrocystis alga hugs in its arms?
    Study, study it, at a certain hour, in a certain sea I know.
    You question me about the wicked tusk of the narwhal,
    and I reply by describing
    how the sea unicorn with the harpoon in it dies.
    You enquire about the kingfisher’s feathers,
    which tremble in the pure springs of the southern tides?
    Or you’ve found in the cards a new question touching on
    the crystal architecture
    of the sea anemone, and you’ll deal that to me now?

    Canon of Joy, indeed!
    Too often we stifle it, cramp it, cut it, and parse it out in dry, sterile bites. Rather, I say, the Feast!

  2. “I read none of these books in college. Maybe it’s better I didn’t. But we should at least let college students know that they can read for such pleasures, and not just to gird their loins.”

    Why college students?

    In the 18th Century, the firewood burned in Boston came from Maine because it was easier to sail the wood 250 miles down from there than to lug it 25 miles over the rutted roads of the era — and you couldn’t even do that during mud season, nor when there was snow on the ground.

    When the railroads arrived, they offered year-round transportation of both persons and goods. Even when automobiles arrived, one was still initially dealing with dirt roads and hence the same limitations of centuries earlier. Roads started to become paved and plowed, but went from town to town in an often circuitous route and were impractical for anything other than local transportation.

    Railroads thus had a natural monopoly — one which they would lose in the 1950s with the arrival of both affordable commercial aviation and interstate highways. No longer was it necessary to tolerate the poor service and inflexibility of railroad schedules when you could drive yourself and have a truck deliver directly to your loading dock — on *your* schedule.

    Forty years ago, colleges also had a natural monopoly in that they were centered around a building full of paper books, i.e. a library. The only practical way for students to attend multiple classes was for them to all be in the same general location so that students could walk from class to class.

    Back then, if you wanted to learn about the Great Books, you had to go to college.

    That’s not true anymore. While they appear to have gone into the weeds recently, the History Channel was producing educational programming vastly superior to any dry & dusty college lecture. Dr. Randall can not only mention a poem but include a link to it, and I can order any of the books he mentioned (from a variety of vendors) and have them here inside of a week.

    I no longer have to be within walking distance of a library, nor does he, nor does anyone else — the college no longer has its natural monopoly.

    I thus come back to my initial question: why college students? Why should one have to go to college to learn about Great Books that the colleges don’t want to teach in the first place? Yes, there is the prestige of the degree, but then a lot of people were buying Cadillacs in the 1970s only to learn that the Japanese cars were far better built and a whole lot more reliable.

    Why is it not possible to simply abandon the colleges and have people who know (and love) these great books teach them to those interested in learning them?

    1. The answer lies in the difference between interests and education. College students do not know what they don’t know. Most people don’t. The point of education is to systematically guide people through experiences they don’t know enough to seek out. They do have to know enough to want to seek out education, but they don’t know the specifics, and trust that the educators will guide them wisely. I don’t think our educators have lived up to that expectation in recent decades, but the goal of humanists should be to fix our educational system, not discard it.

      I am reminded of a scene in Brave New World — the 1998 Leonard Nimoy TV movie version; I never read the book. When the protagonist debates the administrator Mustapha Mond, Mond reads an answer from a book. The protagonist recognizes the quote: “Shakespeare. Why can’t everyone read Shakespeare?” Mond replies “Anybody can. But why would they want to?” Anybody can order books or pick them out at a bookstore, but if we don’t want them to depend on luck to find wonders, they will need guidance. And for the full benefit they will need groups of people — “colleges,” literally — to discuss them with.

      1. Respectfully, you missed my point completely — railroads were replaced, not eliminated. People aren’t delivering their own packages, they are hiring UPS & FEDEX to do it.

        I’m arguing that we replace our educational system, not eliminate it.

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