What Is a Classic?: Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon

What Is a Classic?: Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon

by Ankhi Mukherjee

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What Is a Classic? revisits the famous question posed by critics from Sainte-Beuve and T. S. Eliot to J. M. Coetzee to ask how classics emanate from postcolonial histories and societies. Exploring definitive trends in twentieth- and twenty-first century English and Anglophone literature, Ankhi Mukherjee demonstrates the relevance of the question of the


What Is a Classic? revisits the famous question posed by critics from Sainte-Beuve and T. S. Eliot to J. M. Coetzee to ask how classics emanate from postcolonial histories and societies. Exploring definitive trends in twentieth- and twenty-first century English and Anglophone literature, Ankhi Mukherjee demonstrates the relevance of the question of the classic for the global politics of identifying and perpetuating so-called core texts. Emergent canons are scrutinized in the context of the wider cultural phenomena of book prizes, the translation and distribution of world literatures, and multimedia adaptations of world classics. Throughout, Mukherjee attunes traditional literary critical concerns to the value contestations mobilizing postcolonial and world literature. The breadth of debates and topics she addresses, as well as the book's ambitious historical schema, which includes South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and North America, set this study apart from related titles on the bookshelf today.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Mukherjee's examination of postcolonial rewriting doubtlessly constitutes a major contribution to current postcolonial literary criticism, introducing new perspectives into a debate that almost seemed to have reached a dead end. What is a Classic? is both accessible and intellectually sophisticated; moreover, it stands out due to the enormous scope of the material that is used by the author."—Marion Gymnich, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies

"This brilliant, entertaining, accessible book will immediately be reviewed and commented on and will become a key text."—David Palumbo-Liu, Stanford University

"What Is a Classic? is a brilliant intervention, for its willingness to pose directly the question of literary value and the operations of literary criticism in the consecration and preservation of the texts that are then named as 'classic.' Mukherjee's analysis is much closer to the text, and more literary in its sensibilities, than an intervention like Pascale Casanova's; more flexible in its circuits of influence than the genre-based methods of someone like Franco Moretti; and more attentive to the inequalities of world literary circulation than the world literature methods associated with David Damrosch."—Madhumita Lahiri, University of Michigan, Contemporary Literature

"With What Is a Classic?, Ankhi Mukherjee has given us a poised and masterful study in a subject that is at once timely – for the now established postcolonial field – and timeless. To ask 'what is a classic?', Mukherjee points out in conclusion, is to work with the finest fibres that make up the literary 'whose nature is to repeat'. In effect, to be a reader is to be postcolonial, and vice versa, to remake the masterpieces and learn to love them both anew and differently, as Mukherjee demonstrates. In What Is a Classic? we meet a true lover of literature, a 'voracious and ruminative reader' of the first order whose taste in books is eclectic and free-ranging, yet supremely sound."—Elleke Boehmer, University of Oxford

"The main concern of the book is not with what a literary canon is, but with how it reaffirms and transforms itself and evades oblivion, and in particular how and why postcolonial authors and critics construct and revive the idea of the classic. In consequence, Mukherjee does not offer any conceptualized answer to the question raised in the title of the book. Frankly, readers acquainted with the development of literary criticism in recent decades do not expect an answer of that kind. However, they expect an erudite and witty discussion of the problem the idea of a classic represents for contemporary criticism, something that . . . Mukherjee's book does with brilliance, bringing in the postcolonial perspective."—Róbert Gáfrik, Institute of World Literature, Slovak Academy of Sciences, Journal of Postcolonial Writing
"What is a Classic? is extremely erudite and well written, with a broad grasp of debates on canon formation not only in postcolonial studies but with respect to the Western tradition more generally. This is a book that will prove a landmark in the field, providing a thorough postcolonial qualification to various other offerings on World Literature in the field. In fact, it is impossible to see the book as becoming anything but an abiding classic itself, one that may lead those who come to be acquainted with it to stop perfect strangers and exclaim: 'Here. Read this!'"—Ato Quayson, University of Toronto
"What Is a Classic? is a valuable addition to scholarship on canons, canon building, and the meaning of 'classics'...It is a book research scholars in postcolonial literary studies must read. "—Nirmala Menon, Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry
"What is a classic? Taking her lead from Augustin Sainte-Beuve, T. S. Eliot, and J. M. Coetzee, Ankhi Mukherjee offers an eloquent case for the question's continuing relevance to literature, literary criticism, and, above all, to the language arts of the postcolony. [This book] brings fresh energy to the longstanding study of imperial cultural authority, attending to both the ideological imposition of that authority and the split literary consciousness of postcolonial writing produced in its wake."— Urmila Seshagiri, Modernism/Modernity

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Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Cultural Memory in the Present Series
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon

By Ankhi Mukherjee

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8521-1


"What Is a Classic?"

International Literary Criticism and the Classic Question

O lord, have patience
Pardon these derelictions—
I shall convince these romantic irritations
By my classical conventions.

T. S. Eliot

To mark the fortieth anniversary of the Man Booker Prize and the imminent announcement of the 2008 shortlist, the Guardian asked a judge from every year to give its readers glimpses into the "tears, tiffs and triumphs" that marked the nomination of the winning novel. The resulting stories suggest that the perils of literary judgment, as borne out by rosters of glorious losers as well as by the historical fates of some of the winning tickets, could be put down largely to the fortuitous and subjective nature of the process. This short history of Booker judging, moreover, testifies to the contingent nature of synchronic critical reception. In 1970 Dame Rebecca West denounced Margaret Drabble for her novels of domestic life, remarking that "anyone can do the washing-up," in an era when "brilliant old ladies," to quote Antonia Fraser, could use the patriarchal line to seal the fate of "a brilliant young one" ("Tears, Tiffs, and Triumphs," 2). Hermione Lee recalls how Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, which has won the Booker of Bookers and the Best of all Bookers, and is "now a classic of world literature," was "by no means an easy winner" in 1981 ("Tears, Tiffs, and Triumphs," 3). Rushdie was an unknown writer who scraped through by one extra nomination and would have lost if the chair, Malcolm Bradbury, had the overruling vote. By 1983, however, the Rushdie-Coetzee battle for the Booker was likened to "a clash of continents" (Fay Weldon, in "Tears, Tiffs, and Triumphs," 4), to the detriment of candidates with lesser symbolic clout. In 2000, according to Rose Tremain, Margaret Atwood won the prize for The Blind Assassin not for writing her best book but "for all the times she'd nearly won it and had been pipped at the post by a lesser writer" ("Tears, Tiffs, and Triumphs," 21).

Most of us in the business of literary criticism have little to do with the ersatz and absurdity of deciding literary prizes like the Booker, and their tremendous, if dubious and short-term, impact on literary culture. "Even the most correct jury goes in for horsetrading and gamesmanship, and what emerges is a compromise," writes the novelist Hilary Mantel, a 1990 Booker panelist ("Tears, Tiffs, and Triumphs," 5). A number of judges even flag their Booker service as the definitive event that marked their turn to nonfiction and narrative journalism. But the criteria deployed in the determination of this yearly award speak to the supposedly more serious and premeditated considerations that inform academic literary criticism. No minds are changed by panel discussions, as the Booker judges note year after year, but there is the routine, familiar to literary critics, "of anatomising one's taste and judgement and then communicating it to a group," as Alex Clark, 2008 judge, puts it ("Tears, Tiffs, and Triumphs," 21). Booker judging highlights the limits of literary criticism; the triumph of creating a classic that is not unmixed with the fear of choosing the wrong book. Finally, it addresses the politics of impersonality that marks the inception and transmission of modern literary criticism. "But posterity will forget us," says English professor and Booker judge John Sutherland in the critical backlash against the 2005 choice (John Banville for The Sea). "Barnes, Ishiguro and—I believe—Banville they'll remember" (21).

Pierre Bourdieu's well-known work on consumption studies in Distinction (1986) has long exposed consumers' desires to cultivate and demonstrate a particular kind of labor informing their consumption patterns and to define their class position through it. Consumers select commodities that proclaim their sophistication in taste—hence the popularity of "educated" forms of recreation. The critical "eye" is a product of history reproduced by education: cultural consumption presupposes, Bourdieu writes, "an act of cognition, a decoding operation, which implies the implementation of a cognitive acquirement, a cultural code" (3). Bourdieu terms as cultural capital the internalization of the cultural code or the acquisition of a knowledge that equips the subject to decipher cultural relations. Prizes such as the Booker expose the vested interests behind cultural recognition, and exemplify, as James English observes, the trenchant relationship between the cultural and the economic, or "cultural and political capital." They are, to quote English, "our most effective institutional agents of capital intra-conversion," substitutions and exchanges between different complexes of capital (Economy of Prestige, 10). In his insightful study of the awards industry, The Economy of Prestige, English argues that despite the "staggering discontinuities" between the canon at any given time and the list of past prizewinners, "it is precisely by such embarrassingly social-commercial-cultural mechanisms ... that the canon is formed, cultural capital is allocated, 'greatness' is determined" (245). I will consider the role of literary criticism in two relatable, if less commercially compromised, instantiations of literary capital and determinations of literary greatness: the twentieth-century lectures called "What Is a Classic?" that T. S. Eliot and J. M. Coetzee gave, forty-seven years apart. In each lecture the creative writer assumes the role of a critic, self-consciously taking his place in the direct succession of poet-critics—Johnson, Coleridge, Shelley, and Arnold—and his questioning is historical as well as rhetorical. Both interrogate the idea of a classic as a work of enduring value, and demonstrate, in singular ways, how literary criticism generates its classics. In his lecture, given in 1991, Coetzee even claims that "the function of criticism is defined by the classic: criticism is that which is duty-bound to interrogate the classic" ("What Is a Classic?" 19). Coetzee had reread Eliot's famous lecture in preparation for his. The two essays, read together, seem to suggest that if the classical criterion is of vital importance to literary criticism, the classic in turn is constituted by the criticism it receives down the ages. It is a peculiar codependence: the classic is that which survives critical questioning, and it in fact defines itself by that surviving. Eliot's and, later, Coetzee's investment in this question cannot be reduced to nostalgia for or valorization of the set standards and idealized attitudes of canons. The critic's quest for the classic is indeed Romantic and Oedipal, but if the classic is a fantasized point of origin it is also a new departure and signals breathless new arrivals at debates that define and contest literary modernity and the literary present.

In "Secular Criticism," an essay that sets out to define the function of criticism for our times, Edward Said describes the critic as an "individual consciousness" that is not a mere product of the dominant culture, "but a historical and social actor in it" (World, 15). Criticism is constituted by the "self-situating" of the critic, who assumes a distance from the collective (15). Western critical consciousness, according to Said, has historically functioned through affiliation, "a kind of compensatory order," or a cultural system, that eventually supplants the authority of the natural (or what Said calls the "filiative") order:

Thus if a filial relationship was held together by natural bonds and natural forms of authority—involving obedience, fear, love, respect, and instinctual conflict—the new affiliative relationship changes these bonds into what seem to be transpersonal forms—such as guild consciousness, consensus, collegiality, professional respect, class, and the hegemony of a dominant culture. (20)

The affiliative order affirms and replicates filiative processes, albeit through nonbiological social and cultural structures. In the humanities, such an order is predicated on the occlusion of the nonliterary and the non-European, and arguably the political dimension of all literature. According to Said, there are two alternatives for the contemporary literary critic: unquestioning reverence for the (affiliative) order of the humanities and "the dominant culture served by those humanities" (24); or the adoption of a "secular" mode of critical scrutiny, which is oppositional toward "orthodox habits of the mind" and "organized dogma" (29). The thrust of the question "What is a classic?" is aligned to this, the second mode of doing criticism. It symbolizes a constative and performative epistemology, at once a long, ongoing "process of abstraction" and a timely and contingent "reaction to immediate concerns." If Eliot addresses and nervously reinforces the idea of the classic as European and Eurocentric, Coetzee draws out the unspoken implications in Eliot's lecture to elaborate on the afterlife of this question in trans- or international criticism. Both versions of "What Is a Classic?" use the object of inquiry to worry the emplacement and affiliations of the literary critic. The time of the classic, both lectures testify, is the complex present of literary criticism, and its place, too, is "here."

Before launching into the Eliot and Coetzee interventions, it is necessary to mark the distinction between classics and canons. The term classic is closely related to the idea of canonicity but is not entirely reducible to it. The classic, like the canonical work, is a book that is read long after it was written—and that demands rereading. The classic shares with the canon the "strangeness" that Harold Bloom identifies as the greatness of canonical works: "a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange" (Western Canon, 3). The classic, like the canonical text, produces "startlement" rather than recognition or a "fulfilment of expectation" (3). The classic and the canonical work usher a polymorphous textuality that literary cultures value, and both involve the dimension of criticism, or interpretive traditions that contest the definition of literary value. But the classic is primarily a singular act of literature, while the canon, Guillory states, is "an aristocracy of texts" (" Ideology," 175). Canonicity implies a formation of a corpus, the congealing of the "literary art of Memory," as Harold Bloom terms it (Western Canon, 17), the making up of a list of books requisite for a literary education, and the formation of an exclusive club, however painstakingly contested the rules of inclusion (and exclusion) may be. The classic, however, is inseparable from the endless and unresolved contestations of the question "What is a classic?" and belongs to what Guillory calls "the conflictual prehistory of canon-formation" ("Ideology," 194). If the canon implies continuity with the past or a perpetuation of tradition, the classic is all that and something else: the survival of the classic, Kermode states, depends upon its possession "of a surplus of signifier" (Classic, 140).

Eliot's and Coetzee's temporal perspective—a long look back—in "What Is a Classic?" has been revised by the drift of English literary history. Cultural identity in the era of cultural-economic globalization, as Said suggests, should be conceived in terms of space rather than time: "Spatiality becomes ... the characteristic of an aesthetic rather than of political domination, as more and more regions—from India to Africa to the Caribbean—challenge the classical empires and their cultures" (Culture and Imperialism, 18). Are there any perennial works or masterpieces in the new geomorphic empire and in world literature, which is not so much a canon of texts as it is a mode of circulation? How does the unitary ontology of the classic haunt the shadow constructs of postimperial selfhood? After elaborating on Eliot's and Coetzee's investment in the question, I speculate on whether the question of the classic is asked, in some form, whenever "secular canon-formation" (Kermode, Classic, 15) occurs in the politics of publishing, teaching, and translating core texts. Criticism in the twenty-first century continues to shore up the idea of transcendent and foundational literary value against mobile configurations of knowledge, technology, and expertise. For Eliot, the classic standard was indissociable from dead languages. In the new century, criticism invents itself and its modern classics by waking the dead, and sustaining a dynamic and variable conversation with a monolingual literary tradition as it becomes other.

"What Is a Classic?" is the title of a presidential address delivered by T. S. Eliot before the Virgil Society on October 16, 1944. The Blitz had resumed early that year, and London that summer had been introduced to "flying bombs." In June a bomb had fallen on the offices of Faber and Faber, where Eliot was editor. While business quickly resumed, Eliot was left without the use of his flat at the office and forced to commute between London and Surrey (where he lived) more frequently. He stayed in London only on Tuesday nights and fulfilled his fire-watching duties—camped on a roof, the vertiginous poet scrutinized the blacked-out city for evidence of fires after antiaircraft guns had done their job. Peter Ackroyd's biography details the benumbed existence that Eliot led in the last years of the war, negotiating days one at a time with no hope for the future (Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot, 268). The lectures he delivered around the time of "What Is a Classic?" do not reference the war directly, but are nevertheless chastened and enervated by its reality. The connection of "What Is a Classic?" to war work is speculative, of course: it is impossible to know if Eliot would have bothered to write this essay had the Virgil Society not held him to a presidential address, and whether this critical essay represented anything more than a tertiary thought in the master's late period. Hugh Kenner, reviewing Frank Kermode's revival of the piece in The Classic (1975), is convinced that "the British tradition of the ceremonial has been obligating these individual talents, and it has taken all Mr. Kermode's skill with the panel-lights and rheostats of documented learning to disguise this hollow fact" ("Footsteps of the Master").

Eliot's address, with a rhetorical question as its title, begins in a retrospective mode: "It is only by hindsight, and in historical perspective, that a classic can be known as such" (What Is a Classic? 10). Eliot articulates his topic by means of a desiring dialectic that pits the classic against the contingent, the racial and national against the international, the absolute against the errant. He espouses a utopian cultural homogeneity as a precondition for the emergence of the classic. A classic occurs when a civilization and a language and literature are mature and there is a community of taste and common style. A mature literature has a historical trajectory behind it, the history of "an ordered though unconscious progress of a language to realize its own potentialities within its own limitations" (11). It is the work of a "mature" mind steeped in the history of its living language and magisterial in its critical sweep of the past, present, and future. The maturity of the classic poet, according to Eliot, accrues from a consciousness of history, the poet's own as well as that of at least one other hypercivilization.

Eliot reminds us that the question "What is a classic?" is not new. I would like to look briefly at a notable historical precedent. Augustin Sainte-Beuve, an Eliot-like creator of literary value, confronted his age with the same query in the causerie of 24 October 1850: "Qu'est-ce qu'un classique?" The word classic, Sainte-Beuve records, appears first in ancient Rome as classici, a name applied to the citizens of the first class, the only class that mattered. The classic as a mode of classification thus originates in a gesture that equates social and literary rank. Sainte-Beuve's account of the classic is at a remove from the antique ideal, but, as critics point out, it is telling that Sainte-Beuve should begin in ancient Rome, where the literary classic mirrors a privileged social class. As Christopher Prendergast comments: "The implication seems to be that, however remote Roman antiquity, it still has a lesson immensely germane to the present or to Sainte-Beuve's construction of it: namely—that the material and social conditions for the production of a 'classic' rest on the division of labour and the specialization of function" (28). In this essay, as well as the 1858 lecture that revises it, Sainte-Beuve offers several definitions of the classic that seek to broaden its spirit and scope: a true classic is an author who has enriched the human mind; the classic is an unequivocal moral truth commuted in a form that is not fixed but unfailingly large and grand, fine and meaningful, healthy and beautiful in itself. The classic has a style of its own, and is new and inimitable, an invention that is not programmable and must be recognized on its own terms. The style is new without neologism, new and ancient in equal measure, and effortlessly contemporaneous with all ages. The classic renews itself continuously to pose as a perpetual contemporary, "contemporain de tous les âges": it is a living entity, open to endless intervention in successive acts of reading and interpretation. The idea of a classic, in Sainte-Beuve's definition, is not restricted to a single work or author, but implies continuity and tradition, and the transmission of tradition. According to Kermode, Sainte-Beuve maintains that the classic—and for him the works of Virgil are the type of all classics—is both "an index of civility" and the product of individual genius, exemplifying health, sanity, and universal values (Classic, 17). Ancient works are not classic because they are old, but because they are vigorous, fresh, and fit.

Excerpted from WHAT IS A CLASSIC? by Ankhi Mukherjee. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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Meet the Author

Ankhi Mukherjee is Professor of English and World Literatures at the University of Oxford and is a Fellow of Wadham College. She is the author of Aesthetic Hysteria: The Great Neurosis in Victorian Melodrama and Contemporary Fiction (2007).

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