Should we celebrate the death of Western high culture?

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May 30, 2013 by The Ascending Staircase

Recently, I wrote a 500-word essay in the hopes of winning one of the scholarships available to go to the The Academy run by The Institute of Ideas. Basically, it’s a long weekend in a luxury complex in which I get to learn and talk about literature, philosophy, politics etc. based on a list of books as long as my arm (so much for uni being over til September…).
Anyway, I won one! Hooray! Went to my uni library today and took out all of the books I could find that were on my list- because I’m too poor to buy them all- then sat there flicking through and learning who Thomas Hobbes was.
I’m actually mega excited, especially because I never thought my essay would be good enough. Yet apparently it is, so I thought I may as well pop it up here and see what you guys think. The question was the title of this post; should we celebrate the death of Western high culture?

As a student of English, it seems appropriate to focus upon Western high culture within literature. Although this may, on the surface, seem rather limiting, the study of literature incorporates many other aspects of high culture such as classics, history, philosophy, politics, and religion, and is therefore a rather accessible way into analysing high culture’s impact in today’s society. In particular, I shall consider the importance of the literary canon within today’s culture.

Today, some critics consider the canon a dated, almost crude way of categorising literature. It is predominantly made of “dead white European males”, suggesting that ‘good literature’ is decided by a confined list which ignores the categories of gender, ethnicity, and class in our society. Arguably, this leads readers to hold a single-minded view of the world and thus, encourages discrimination. However, many canonical writers have been revered for generations, so it could be considered tragical to loosen their grasp on the literary world; one way to deduce whether their texts are still vital is by concentrating on Roland Barthes’ idea of ‘the death of the author’, and considering the impact of a text, rather than its author, on present culture.

If we contemplate the impact of literary texts on popular culture, we may gain an insight into their relevance. As Harriett Hawkins identifies in Classics and Trash, there are two ways to examine literature. Firstly, there is its artistic influence which, for writers like Shakespeare, is legendary; in popular culture, Baz Luhrmann’s modern remake of Romeo and Juliet was a runaway success with those who previously found Shakespeare inaccessible, whilst Disney utilised the plot of Hamlet to create its animated classic, The Lion King. In these terms, Shakespeare is vast and influential upon today’s culture, as it was in the sixteenth century. The second way to categorise a text is through its academic status. Here, Shakespeare continues to influence, yet is ‘anathematised in arguments the have less to do with his artistic influence than with his academic status’ (Hawkins). This statement, if credible, shows the cultural hang-ups of such labelling as invariably comes alongside the canon.

In other types of popular culture, scientists and historians have recently discovered our natural sleeping pattern with the help of Charles Dickens and Homer. By recognising a difference between the typical night-long sleep and the different sleeping patterns of characters described within Dickens’ novel, Barnaby Rudge and Homer’s epic, The Odyssey as well as other sources, our knowledge of ourselves has arguably been refined by canonical literature.

And so, to my final thoughts on Western high culture within the literary world; no, we should not celebrate the disappearance of the prolific texts within the canon, but we should be thankful that the elitism and the canon itself, which affects our understanding of these texts is slowly dying. The persistent moulding that surrounds high literature must diminish for, as Martin Amis wonderfully describes it, literature is ‘Eden; it is unfallen and needs no care’.

Amis, Martin, The War Against Cliché (New York: 2001, Vintage Books).
Barthes, Roland, ‘The Death of the Author’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd edition, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch (USA: 2010, W.W. Norton and Co.), pp. 1322-1326.
Hawkins, Harriett, Classics and Trash (Hertfordshire: 1990, Harvester Wheatsheaf).
Hegarty, Stephanie, ‘The Myth of the Eight-Hour Sleep’, BBC News (2012), [accessed 11th May 2013].
Williams, Raymond, The Long Revolution (Middlesex: 1965, Penguin Books Ltd).


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