Thursday, January 17, 2008

What we're up to at CAGSE . . . .

If I haven't mentioned it lately (and I haven't), a good way to find out what we're up to at CAGSE, particularly in the area of Classics is to visit Dr. Richard Gilder's site, Via Facilis.

Sarah Mooney and I run a Storytelling program that teaches close observation and drawing conclusions (otherwise known as analysis or critical thinking) through creative narrative. I'll tell you more about that soon.

Meanwhile, Richard said some very nice things about me here.

How can I not crow? Everyone should be so lucky to have such a colleague.

Everything Old: Canons IV

So here's a surprising turn of events, particularly after the last series of posts on canons and women.

I've been approached to republish a piece on Mary Pix and the misattribution of a play called Zelmane that originally appeared in Notes and Queries. This is an Oxford publication specializing in arcane details and footnotes that become articles from lack of relevance to the paper for which it was originally intended.

The piece will now go in a university textbook that lists "literature" from 1400 to 1800.

The anti-canonical becomes standard -- probably from boredom with what we've always studied.

Like language, "great" books change as we do.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Susanna Centlivre: Canons, III

Continuing from the last post and hoping not to belabor the point, we're gathered here to discuss the ways in which canon's are constructed and the requirement of transcendence in art.

Sounds a lot loftier than it is -- in fact, it's all rather predictable with what we know about human beings and their need to be right.

Where We Came From

As I mentioned in earlier posts, intellectual convictions often house emotional reactions but make claims to higher truths through the use of inpenetrable language.

If there isn't any hanging around, you can always make some up. T.S. Eliot's objective correlative, the French critics' priority in absences of presences, and so on.

(As a post-grad, friends of mine and I were going to do a video called Graduate School for Dummies along these lines -- highlighting the one or two ideas hidden cleverly in hundreds of pages of labored and precariously structured sentences.)

Running with the Woolfs

A previous post discusses a bit of Woolf's partial criteria that she claims are the signs of objectively beautiful and transcendent art.

Here's the strongest example of the way canons are made or broken.

Shakespeare's Sister

One of the most quoted and best remembered chapters Woolf wrote in any book is the one on Shakespeare's sister ("let's call her Judith") in A Room of One's Own.

Woolf uses the story to slam home all of the points she's made thus far -- women capable of "transcendent art" could have done if they had had the same opportunities as men.

Judith wants to write, but she's locked in her room by her parents and told she'll marry or else. She escapes through the window and educates herself at Cambridge dressed as a boy. She makes her way to London where a theater manager "takes pity on her."

Pregnant and without hope, Judith kills herself and lies buried at the crossroads of Elephant and Castle.

Honorable Mention

Susanna Centlivre has the same composite fictional biography as Judith. Although she lived a bit later, Centlivre supposedly ran away from home, studied at Cambridge dressed as a boy, and came to London to marry the cook at Queen Anne's Court.

The difference is that Centlivre really did become "the second woman of the English stage" after Aphra Behn. Her plays were in regular repertory until the end of the 19th C in England, and every library of note will lend you any one of her dramas.

David Garrick did his farewell performance in one of her plays. You don't get much more prestigious in the theater than that.

Centlivre was also a woman of letters whose words were seen in the popular press with those of men such as Sterne and Swift. With Woolf's knowledge history -- even of obscure writers such as Cavendish -- she had to know of Centlivre. So why did Woolf neglect to mention her at all?

Maybe because Centlivre's existence, like Cavendish's worthiness (something of which I believe Woolf was not convinced, of course), derails Woolf's argument connecting transcendence to fame and women writers to both.

Just a theory.

And that's how canon's are made. Or unmade.

All other great examples are welcome -- please send any you know of by email.