Countercannon: The Threading of Names or On the Esthetic Interest of Exclusion

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A kind of countercannon of works runs parallel to the canon we traditionally think of as the literary. Often its works are ones for which a more or less massive critical attempt was mounted to enter them at a respectable place in the traditional canon, and usually most literary historians would have to say that, for whatever reasons (usually because other critics resisted), the attempts have failed.

These works are in a very different position from those that, for a season or even a decade or more, achieve a general public popularity because the authors are well spoken and because there is nothing in the works so aesthetically offensive that literary critics feel called upon actively to denounce them. Often these works would appear to have joined the ranks of the immortals, only to be forgotten after still another decade or so, when their simple banality finally subverts all actual critical interest: one thinks of Archibald MacLeish's silly play J.B. (1958), Robinson Jeffer's mawkish redaction (another wildly free paraphrase from Euripides this time) of Medea (1946) [We studied this in high school in the 70s - FL], or even Tony Kushner's AIDS fairy tale Angels in America, Parts I and II (1993). All three have been declared, in their moments, icons of culture, but, stripped of the artful performances that briefly enlivened them, all three are less than memorable.

Works in the countercannon retain their interest, however. They are constantly being rediscovered. The 1890s is famous for a whole string of such works, though, indeed, to limit the ones associated with the nineties to that decade in any strict way would be far too absolute. It must go back at least as far as 1881, when twenty-six-year-old Olive Schreiner decided to leave South Africa with the just completed manuscript of her mystical — in the best sense — novel, The Story of an African Farm. The book was published in England in 1883, when she was twenty-eight. But during the nineties it was the most talked-about novel of the decade, at least among the poets of the Rhymers' Club — and rightly so. Now one stumbles across excited encomia about it in the letters of Ernest Dowson, now one uncovers an account of Arthur Symons, some few years before his final breakdown in Italy, enthusiastically urging it on the author of Marius the Epicurean, Walter Pater. Indeed we might even want to extend this line back to James Thomson's City of Dreadful Night, which appeared over four numbers of the National Reformer between March and May of 1874 — a work that grows from the same failure of organized Christianity that produced Schreiner's account of her characters' moral ordeals (with its uncanny, transvestial ending) on another continent in the year before Thomson died from tuberculosis in London, complicated by advanced dipsomania, on June 2nd of 1882.

The poems of Dowson (Verses, 1896; The Pierrot of the Minute, 1897; and the posthumous volume Decorations), with their unarguable verbal beauties, belong to this same line of works — if not the equally delicate tales he produced and published in the volume Dilemmas: Stories and Studies in Sentiments (1895) and in The Yellow Book. So do the more demanding — for the modern reader: because of their religious weight — poems of Lionel Pigot Johnson and Francis Thompson, if not the work of Alice Meynell. Indeed, the "productions of the nineties" continue on at least through 1904, when "Frederick, Baron Corvo" published his extraordinary novel, Hadrian the Seventh, a year after Samuel Butler's novel The Way of All Flesh saw posthumous publication in 1903. Indeed, Butler's novel, which he began in 1873 and competed in 1884, is a work contemporary with Schreiner's novel. Butler's novel, with its iconoclastic satire, was taken into the canon almost immediately while Corvo's, with its far more conservative politics, its wildly erudite religious superstructure and its barely suppressed fantasy — the writing is simply gorgeous — has led a far more problematic life at the margins of the literary, despite the praise of every one from D.H. Lawerence to W.H. Auden.

Looking at the range of such counterworks, one notices first the catastrophic lives their writers tended to live: the artists who produced them do not lend themselves to any easy version of the literary myth that art ennobles the artist's life — at least not in any nonironic and socially evident manner. If anything, they suggest that art is a bitch goddess who ravages the creator and leaves a distressing, pathetic ruin behind. It would seem that the canon can absorb a bit of such pathos, but in nowhere near the amounts that predominate in the range of highly talented creators; and it is rare that (with a lot of posthumous critical help) a John Keats, a Percy Shelley, an Edgar Allan Poe, or a Hart Crane makes it across the canonical border. And in terms of the reception of all these, all are poets who, at one time or another, verged on being confined to the countercannon. (How interesting it is to observe the posthumous critical reduction currently going on of W.H. Auden from the poetic giant he was during the last thirty years of his life to a "more or less interesting poet," for no other reason that I can discern — in the half-dozen recent studies and biographies of him I have read — than that [it does not even seem to be his homosexuality] he occasionally neglected his clothing, his St. Mark's Place apartment was a mess, and he drank.) As a group, however, the countercannon poets tend toward a brilliance of surface that suggests an excess of aesthetic relations in their texts constituting both their enjoyment and the permanence of their esthetic interest despite their regular canonical exclusion.
Samuel R. Delany "Remarks on Narrative and Technology, or Poetry and Truth" published in Technoscience and Cyberculture.

And so for day 2086