Notes From a Barbarian


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The idea of a “canon” is in tatters. A canon needs an established cultural authority, and there is no guiding authority in culture anymore. There are no real gatekeepers. The barbarians aren’t merely at the gates — they long ago passed through the gates and are comfortably strolling around town. They are ordering lattes at the museum café right now. More honestly, perhaps, it should be said that we’re all barbarians. We are them and they are us. This is a terribly bothersome situation to some people, usually to the very people who still think they can show a difference between themselves and the barbarians. They don’t want to be barbarians. The most succinct response to such people is: tough shit. The task at hand is to deal with the world as it actually is, not as you wish it were.

Once you stop complaining and start getting back to work, it becomes clear that the barbarianization of all things affords some interesting opportunities. There are benefits to having a canon, of course. For one, you’ve got standards by which to measure yourself and others. But one of the most troubling things about a canon is the way it becomes unquestionable. You’re never able to ask the canon “Why?” It is the standard by which one asks why. This is meant to prevent infinite regress. If the standard can itself be judged, then there must be a more primary standard, and so on, ad infinitum. The canon stops all of that cold. It answers those disturbing questions before they can even be asked. You learn from the canon in order to understand what the rules are and then you go out and apply them. What you cannot do is turn back and start asking questions about the canon itself. A canon doesn’t work that way.

So, with the collapse of the canon we’re a little bit lost, drifting amidst a sea of cultural troubles. But we’re also freer. The entire cultural landscape gets freshened up. We get to look at things anew and decide if we really do like them, and why. We step out from under the thumb of an authority that, for all its usefulness, often seemed arbitrary and authoritative merely for authority’s sake. There was power — too much power maybe — lurking inside the canon, with its terrible weapon of exclusion. That power has faded away. We’re alone again, confronting the world like children, barbarian children with only a few tattered and mutually contradictory maps to assist us.

It is painful to be a child, terrifying sometimes, but it is also exciting because anything can happen.

I propose in “Noncanonical” simply to ask “Why?” There are things worth reading and looking at and experiencing. Nobody doubts that. What is more doubtful is that we have a set of analytical tools that we can simply apply across space and time in order to obtain critical results. Asking “Why?” must become, for us, a rather more personal affair. We have to make the points on our own.

The poetry of Catullus, for instance, has been appreciated since the first century B.C. It is, itself, intensely personal. It is so personal that, paradoxically, it has managed to speak to countless individuals for over 2,000 years (the poetry was actually lost for many centuries, but that’s merely to quibble). His greatest poem may be his shortest. Here it is in the original Latin:

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requires.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior

In a recent, and I think almost miraculous, translation by Peter Green, the poem is rendered into English as:

I hate and love. You wonder, perhaps, why I’d do that?
I have no idea. I just feel it. I am crucified.

Who knows exactly what makes poetry poetry — every attempt to nail it down leaves something out. But this is one of the reasons why poetry is so satisfying. It is able to express, obliquely, the fact that expression never quite makes it all the way around a feeling or an experience. But by showing us that difficulty, poetry does, in a way, manage to bridge the gap between thought and feeling. Which is impossible. Which is exactly the point. And so on. Catullus’ poetry is incredible because it never really says anything and therefore says it all.

The poem is composed mostly of verbs, no adjectives. It toggles back and forth between the active and passive. It shows us a man projecting himself into the world and that world projecting itself back into him. It is structured exactly the way human pain is structured. Just saying “Odi et amo” can make the skin tingle. It is so raw and so terse. When you reach the final “excrucior,” you are exhausted. And that is one thing that a poem can do. It can be, almost, the feeling that it is. Catullus has been dead for a long time, but he is still very much alive.

It is that “aliveness” that we have an opportunity to get in touch with now that Catullus is no longer thrust upon us as simply canonical. We can go back and find out for ourselves what he was up to and why. In the case of Catullus we discover, I think, that his poetry is as powerful as ever. In other cases the opposite might happen. The trick is to grasp the new freedom afforded by the cultural breakdowns that continue to level the aesthetic playing field everywhere. The next step is to ask “Why?” Here, now, at the turning point of another era, we get a fresh chance to ask “Why?” while the gates are temporarily unguarded. • 15 August 2008