Sep 12, 2020

a living canon

Edward Said offers us some beginner’s words on the nature of the canon—what it is and what it isn’t—in his lectures from 2004, collected as Humanism and Democratic Criticism. A good primer for students who are encountering the idea of a canon in the first place:

Some etymologists speculate that the word “canon” (as in “canonical”) is related to the Arabic word “qanun,” or law in the binding, legalistic sense of that word. But that is only one rather restrictive meaning. The other is a musical one, canon as a contrapuntal form employing numerous voices usually in strict imitation of each other, a form, in other words, expressing motion, playfulness, discovery, and, in the rhetorical sense, invention. Viewed this way, the canonical humanities, far from being a rigid tablet of fixed rules and monuments bullying us from the past…will always remain open to changing combinations of sense and signification; every reading and interpretation of a canonical work reanimates it in the present, furnishes an occasion for rereading, allows the modern and the new to be situated together in a broad historical field whose usefulness is that it shows us history as an agonistic process still being made, rather than finished and settled once and for all.”