Wednesday, November 11, 2015


     Catholics are made aware, fairly early in life, of canon law: the set of rules that govern:

  • The Church hierarchy;
  • The way in which rules are arrived at, modified, and enforced;
  • And of course, the behavior of lay Catholics, including their relations with the hierarchy.

     That’s usually our first encounter with the term canon. The modifier specifically addresses the Churchly aspect of its laws: their position in Catholic life above and apart from civil law. Civil law, the theory runs, is impermanent, often arbitrary, and not to be relied upon for moral guidance in day to day life. Canon law derives from a far more authoritative Authority, at least in theory.

     However, the term canon is used to describe certain things that aren’t explicitly religious in nature. In particular, there’s been a great deal of talk about the Western canon: that set of great books that articulate and defend the core ideas behind Western Civilization.

     (I’ve often referred to Western Civilization as Christian-Enlightenment Civilization. The melding of Christian moral codes with the Enlightenment understanding of the supremacy of the indivdual’s rights over the claims and representations of the powerful was what made freedom possible. Before that marriage, freedom as Americans understand it had never even been conceived. But this is a subject best left for another time.)

     In similar fashion, various collections of literary works have been described as canon or canonical, meaning that they express the ideas at the heart of some current in the evolution of fiction, or a category thereof. A recent encounter struck me as particularly revealing...and somewhat humorous as well:

     The end result is that you now hold a new Tomb Raider story. It is canon. Its events are now part of Lara’s life and the origin story that is currently being told. [From the Foreword to Tomb Raider: The Ten Thousand Immortals. Emphasis added by FWP.]

     Mind you, Lara Croft is the heroine of a video-game series. Surely no one is less real than a video-game heroine who explores tombs, warrens of caves, and mystically infested islands. Yet the adoption of the bosomy adventurer by millions of fans has resulted in two slam-bang action movies starring Angelina Jolie, a number of spin-off novels, comics and fan fiction, a “reboot” of the franchise to give her a more complete, more human “biography”...and the need for her creators to say which works in which Lara appears are “canonical.”

     I’m in something of the same position at the moment, having surrendered to pressure from my readers to extend the Realm of Essences series, and to connect it somehow to my Spooner Federation series. The problems that face a writer in this sort of effort can be quite severe. He’s basically writing a “future history” of the sort Asimov and Heinlein once essayed – and once it’s been declared canonical, even he won’t dare to violate its precepts.

     The amount of Sturm und Drang surrounding the idea of literary canons is difficult to overstate. Some writers regard the Western canon as quasi-sacred: not to be questioned, much less violated. Others, obsessed with being regarded as “innovators,” treat it as a target to be punctured. (Those latter ones often regard the existence of a canon as an affront to their “creative freedom.” Given the generally abysmal quality of most of their fiction, I’m tempted to say that they could use a little some cases more than a little.) The volume of the argument occasionally violates the pain threshold, to say nothing of the accusations and epithets the participants sling around.

     Universities are often major participants in the “canonist vs. anti-canonist” cage matches. There’s a certain logic to this, as the University of Chicago, under the leadership of the brilliant Robert Maynard Hutchins, was instrumental in the compilation of the Great Books curriculum, which has come to be regarded as essential to if not identical with the Western Civilizational canon. Those who seek to “make their mark” often choose that series as a target: to be extended, amplified, edited, or destroyed.

     Lesser canons have become significant in genre writing. For example, there’s been a lot of back-and-forth over what John C. Wright and others have proposed as the canonical works of fantasy and science fiction. Some of the exchanges, like the Cherry Fondue from the Whizzo Quality Assortment, have been extremely nasty. (No, we can’t prosecute for that.) Yet the veneration of those canonical works, their immense popularity, and their importance as points from which thousands of other writers have chosen to pursue elaborations, cannot be disputed.

     What the literary anti-canonists refuse to accept, in virtually every case, is that a canon does not exist because it was declared from On High. It emerges from the widespread recognition of the quality of its components, and their formative importance to later writers. In the usual case, that’s because their attempts to gain fame by dismissing or contradicting some canon fail miserably. The execrable quality of most of the crap that’s won awards stands in testimony.

     The same is true for canonical ideas. The ideas and principles at the foundation of Western Civilization were, at some point, original. But they would not have become a canon if they hadn’t succeeded in practice – and so brilliantly that the rest of the world is divided between camps that seek to emulate us and camps that seek to destroy us.

     In a way, the emergence of a canon demonstrates that Aristotelian essentialism and Platonic idealism can be harmoniously fused. Horses must pre-exist “horseness,” except in the mind of the Creator, but once one has recognized the commonalities of horses, their differences from other mammals, and the perpetuation of those characteristics from generation to generation, “horseness” becomes equally real and equally powerful. So also with canons.

     More anon.


Weetabix said...

"Pressure from your readers?"

What are they going to do to you if you don't accede?

Don't stress yourself out for us. Write what you enjoy writing. We'll read it.

Erbo said...

You could always do what Larry Niven does...every time someone points out an error or "glitch" in his canon, he writes another book to "fix" it.

Francis W. Porretto said...

(chuckle) That's why I write such simple stuff, Erbo. Less likely to shoot myself in the foot!

Weet, I have a lot of readers in Russia and India, believe it or not. And those are places with long, strong traditions about expressing one's dissatisfaction...emphatically. So considering how inexpensive air fares have become, and how high the deductible is on my medical insurance, I try to keep my readers happy!

Tim Turner said...

I like the last paragraph (paraphrased):

A canon demonstrates that realism and idealism can be coexist. Soldiers must pre-exist “veterans." And veterans draw their sense of duty from their predecessors, as well as their own sense of country and commitment. Yet "soldiers" risked all not only for their current "narrative," but for past and future as well.

*There* is a canon, Fran. I waited til near midnight to post this, hoping you would say something, instead.