FORUM on the canon
DEFINING AND TEACHING THE CANON IN GERMAN STUDIES
From the Editor:
The word canon contains many levels of complexity. Originally, of course, it is biblically fixed: the sacred texts that “found” the Judeo-Christian civilization. But, in a totally different context—so different that we don’t use the term this way—all teachers have to generate a “canon” for every literature course they teach. They have to include certain texts and feel free to exclude others; but as they make their lists, they shape their selection into a “cohesive structure,” a quasi-canonical set of readings that must be made meaningful per se to their students. And in between these seemingly remote extremes, the term has so many historical dimensions. Each of our modern European literatures has a core canonical author: Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Racine, Pushkin—and of course Goethe. All subsequent creative writers have to engage with these founding fathers; if they seem to ignore them in their own production, such a strategy usually expresses its own model of resistance. And then, of course, the literary tradition accumulates its own canonical frameworks, each one “normative” for a while, but none vanishing altogether.
This historical self-consciousness is particularly true of the German tradition; in this forum we offer two reflections on major writers embedded in these canonical dimensions. Could we currently imagine teaching “German literature” without Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka? Antithetical in so many ways, they make a (slightly) older literary—and material—world come alive for today’s students. Mann, of course, is intensely self-conscious in his relations both to the literary past and to his own “writerly” vocation. Lynne Tatlock brings him alive as a “teachable” author—one who has gradually sunk roots into her own existential temporality. Franz Kafka, by contrast, is our critically productive “star,” whose detail-ridden enigmas generate seemingly endless innovative responses—we have two such essays in this issue. Ruth Gross offers an ironic summary of why this is so. We hope that our readers will be provoked to formulate their own reflections on the “canon” and on the special roles played therein by these modernist masters. As always, email@example.com is ready for readers’ responses; we dare to hope that “canonical” reflections will return in future issues of GQ.
- James Rolleston
Teaching "Tonio Kröger" in 2010: Loss, Repetition, and Art (published in GQ 83.4)
RUTH V. GROSS
A Report to An Academy (published in GQ 83.4)
Response (published in GQ 84.1)