Epistle to Any Student of Our Time in Defense of the Western Canon

To Harold Bloom and Isaías Lerner, In memoriam.

I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.


If in the 1980s of the last century, when the university curriculum began to expand radically, it was necessary to justify the inclusion of works not considered classical within the Western canon into the curriculum, today we are in a different situation. What requires defense is to dedicate several weeks of our lives to reading the most canonical works of Western literature such as Don Quixote, Hamlet or Dante’s Divine Comedy, just to mention a few. Why dedicate a semester to one of the works of “Dead White Men” required in the past, to which we rebel against today for very legitimate reasons? Wouldn’t it be better to read something not dead, not white, and not exclusively male?

Let us try to understand the evaluative vantage point on which we are perched. This type of suspicion towards the past entails a strict judgement regarding what works ought to survive and a fundamental questioning of the idea that there are certain works, certain authors, certain attitudes that deserve immortality. It is not only the obvious fact that each era rewrites the previous ones and adds new names to the tradition, new values that must be taken into account for its configuration, but rather, what I detect in our time is a break with the assumption that the complex fabric of human history is woven by all men throughout the entirety of human history.

Our era has broken the collaborative and continuist vision of historical times. If a work does not fit our idea of the world, we must stop reading it; if a statue was erected to someone who offends our moral sense it must be torn down. The attitude extends to the present; if the protagonist of a film acts in a way that offends our idea of morality we can even, thanks to the miracles of technology, erase the part that corresponded to him in the film and replace it with a different actor. Our conduct before the canonical works of the past does not differ too much from that assumed by the Caliph Omar, in 640 A.D., before the library of Alexandria. His words could be updated in the following terms: “If the Canon agrees with our time, we have no need for it; and if it contradicts it, destroy it.” We seem to be convinced that we have reached a moral high ground that places us at an unassailable distance from the prejudices that plagued our history. We live in a time that sees itself as profoundly dissociated, at least at the level of the ethical ideal, from many of the moral norms—codified in behaviors, customs, laws—that the past transmitted to us, and convinced, to the point of fanaticism, of the creed of our time.

The distrust of white men is due, among many other reasons, to the questioning of the economic, cultural, symbolic, and legal privilege that this group had over the rest of humanity and the consequences that this had on how culture and its inherent values were built. For similar reasons, although with much more drastic consequences due to the exclusion of half of humanity, the culture built in the West is being challenged, as its foundations are based on paradigms engraved in stone, mostly from a white male perspective.

Because of its importance concerning the two obstacles mentioned above, I will examine, through this epistle, the form that the hatred of the past, anointed by tradition, takes in our time.

We live in an incongruous age. The past has probably never been regarded with so much distrust. Today, we are more suspicious than ever of the values bequeathed to us by tradition. Our time insists on the quotas of imposition, coercion, injustice, and privilege that hide behind the creation of moral, aesthetic, or cognitive ideals instead of trying to understand the novelty, always accompanied by certain quotas of emancipation and subjection, that the establishment of values usually entails. The works, the institutions, the rules, the monuments that the past imposed on us are required to obey the set of values that our era privileges. Failure in this endeavor is usually accompanied by a great iconoclastic fury.

All epochs that abhorred their past believed that it would be in the future that they would find the balm for their non-conformity. Ours did not do so; we no longer believe in the capacity of humans to initiate a history tailored to their desires, their dreams, and their yearnings. We no longer believe in revolutions. We live in a time that is profoundly anti-traditionalist and at the same time skeptical about what tomorrow may bring. The future was for modernity the place where word and action, hope and fulfillment, justice and happiness were reconciled; today, on the other hand, it is only conceivable as a catastrophe. What it prescribes to us now is a long chain of renunciations, not of longings; we are told more about what is to be avoided, whether at the level of actions or passions, than about the new possibilities open to the human.

The new era that is approaching comes with its asceticism, with its discipline of body and spirit, and its new tablets of the law. In our time it seems to be very clear which are the negative consequences that have on our world what we consume, what we do, what we desire. If yesterday it was tradition that imposed limits on our desires, today it is the future that demands discipline, asceticism, and renunciation. The looming ecological catastrophe undoubtedly justifies these abdications. But this does not exempt us from the need to consider the consequences for the Western world of the crisis of one of its great ideals.

“Dante e il suo poema”, on the wall of Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore

I am referring to the ideal founded in 1486 by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in his treatise entitled Oratio de hominis dignitate. I will dwell on the most important challenge proposed by this text: the attempt to define the dignity of an entity that, like the human being, according to Pico della Mirandola, lacks a place, a space of its own in the cosmic hierarchy.

Humans are the only creatures without a place in the cosmos, for which there is no archetype, no model from which to configure them. We lack properties exclusive to our species. We are the beings who treasure what is common, what has been given to all. Indeed, if we are accurate, we must accept that humans are not properly a species. Humans are the only beings who can decide their nature. Humans are the arbiters of their honor, their shaper and designer. They are neither celestial, nor terrestrial, mortal, nor immortal. Man is defined as Proteus, the chameleon. But the fact that he is not a species generates many kinds of humanity. Pico says:

If he cultivates his vegetative seeds, he will become a plant. If he cultivates his sensitive seeds, he will become a brute animal. If he cultivates his rational seeds, he will become a heavenly being. If he cultivates his intellectual seeds, he will be an angel and a son of God. And if he–being dissatisfied with the lot assigned to any other creature–gathers himself into the center of his own unity, thus becoming a single spirit with God in the solitary darkness of the Father, he, who had been placed above all things, will become superior to all things.

This myriad of entities that is man can always be something else, never himself, for he lacks a place of his own. The word dignity, which gives the title to the discourse, only appears in the text in the form of an adjective. Here dignity, rather than as a moral concept, must be understood as an ontological category. The absolute freedom of a being who has no place in the cosmos, who can make himself, rise to the highest and sink to the lowest, causes admiration. And it is this freedom and eccentricity of man with respect to his place in the cosmos that is associated with his happiness. Man is happy not because he deserves it or is worthy—to put it in the language that tradition has imposed on us—of some kind of status or respect, but because he is free to invent and destroy himself, to rise and sink, to become divine or subhuman.

“Without Rank” is the title of the chapter Giorgio Agamben devotes to Pico’s text in his book The Open. There he defines man as that entity that is “always less and always more than himself.” It is this that causes astonishment in us, that the dignity of that which lacks rank, lacks a place in the whole, is celebrated. What is worthy of a being that can receive all natures, all faces? If we investigate the etymology of the word dignity, it will not fail to surprise us that for the classical world, dignitas and dignus are associated with rank, which brings us back to the original question: how can one who lacks rank have dignity? Dignity comes from the Indo-European root dek, from which come all the words derived from Greek or Latin that give rise to words like dogma, orthodox, educator, doctrine, decent, doctor, disciple, and discipline.

The human will be conceived, then, as that entity that in order to be has to break with dogmas, orthodoxies, established knowledge, forms of knowledge transmitted from teachers to disciples, discipline, and the quotas of rigor, austerity, and temperance that this imposes on appetites and desires. The action worthy of being remembered for an entity such as the human being, who is always engaged in the task of his own creation, has the semblance of adventure. To act will mean to venture into the outdoors of the real, that zone not previously mapped by norms, customs, or beliefs.

‘The Barque of Dante’ by Eugène Delacroix (1822)

Many of the great heroes of modern literature—Don Quixote, Faust, Robinson Crusoe, Don Juan, Lazarillo, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Raskolnikov—are heroes of self-invention and transgression. The novel hero, in order to be invented, has to suffer an anomaly, display a strangeness, exhibit a monstrosity; it is through his denial of the established, the accepted, the consensual that they acquire prestige, an aura: Don Quixote, the madman, Raskolnikov, the criminal, Anna Karenina, the unfaithful, Lazarillo, the delinquent, Robinson Crusoe, the one who reinvents everything because he lives apart from everyone.

It is to this form of heroism that we owe the freedoms we enjoy today and which allow us to challenge the place assigned to us by the economy, language, religion, customs, laws, belonging to a culture, and even the circumscription of a body. Because man has no place in the cosmos, he can affirm that everything is artificial, historical, constructed, and, therefore, susceptible to being destitute and reinvented. An entity such as this, moreover, which is always in the process of gestation, can only look forward, towards the future, never backward, where models and archetypes dwell.

However, it is that era that broke with all traditional knowledge that today arouses our greatest suspicions because human freedom has come up against a limit that it can no longer ignore. Nature, the planet, the rest of living beings, human existence itself cannot tolerate the infinite horizon of growth that opened up a notion of human freedom that conceived itself as lacking a place in the cosmos and, for that very reason, a previously assigned role.

For us, not only is the traditional culture, which believed that the good life could be attained through tradition and customs, dead, but also the modern culture, the one that dismissed the consecrated values and proposed the ideal of the self-made man, of the man who creates himself, as the new archetype of the human being, feels already anachronistic.

According to traditional culture, a good human being was one who obeyed his king and his God, was faithful to his homeland, respected the laws, and observed the customs, when he dared the unknown he did so as a call to the consecrated orders of existence, accepted the place he had been given in the world and expected a reward for it in a way of life that transcended death and the contradictions that finite life imposed on existence. Modernity, on the other hand, established a tighter control over humans to make them more productive and efficient, but, at the same time, implemented an idea of originality that only accommodates the eccentric, the disorderly.

Stuart Mill, for example, in defining the notion of modern freedom, conceives it as a negation of the tyranny that customs and public opinion exercise over our behavior, conceives it as inextricably linked to eccentricity:

Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

Arthur Rimbaud, in a similar emotional frame of mind, proclaimed a few years later in his book A Season in Hell: “I ended up believing my spiritual disorder sacred.” And in that cry of rebellion, the spirit of an entire epoch was summed up: a commitment to disorder, to the aporias of meaning, to what is considered anomalous, heretical and even abject.

Our era does not believe in customs, being the child of modernity, but it has also lost its faith in adventure. Customs and adventure have so far been the two ways of access to the good life. What do we believe in then? To answer this, it would be good to dedicate a few months of our lives to a book written by a dead white man, in which a hero appears whose dilemma is very similar to ours.

Third edition of ‘El Quijote’, part I, (Madrid, 1608) / Sotheby’s

Don Quixote is that character who has taken so far the notion of being “a son of his deeds” that he has even invented a new personality, an “alter ego” made from the heroic voluntarism of his anachronistic readings. He is that character who renounced his homeland, his king, his own identity in the name of an ideal. But Don Quixote is also the hero who came up against the limit that ideal postulated and who, in the final chapter of the book, renounces his madness and writes his will.

From being a hero with many names—Don Quixote of La Mancha, The Knight of the Sorrowful Figure, The Knight of the Lions—he ends up with only one name and one epithet: Alonso Quijano, the Good, puts his estate and his house in order and renounces his madness, his radical self-invention. And in doing so he also abdicates the heroism of the feat. The great hero of the modern novel, of self-invention, ends up accepting a form of access to good, to virtue, via the mores, the customs of the good Christian or the good bourgeois. Finally, he abandons his madness, confesses and makes a will, and leaves his property and his soul in order.

Quijano reconciles himself with his equals: the priest, the barber, the bachelor, and relegates Sancho to the group of his beneficiaries and subordinates, to whom he repays, with the protection promised by his will, the obedience they granted him in life. The will is the emblematic figure of a genealogical notion of the world due to its reverence for origin, tradition, ancestors, and the subordination to the domestic in which it places the circulation of goods. These are transmitted generationally: from parents to children and generally by blood, or are subordinated to power structures, valid within the family environment, having the patrimony and the pater familias as their emblematic figures. It could be said, without fear of exaggeration, that it is against this type of notion of legacy, authority, and circulation of goods, that the modern project is built, and that the image of the man who creates himself emerges.

Cervantes, like us, seems unable to decide between innovation and tradition—he for believing in both, we for disregarding both—,as ways of constructing a life worth living. On the one hand, the word at the end of his novel and the life of his hero is given to the discursive genres destined to make the world fit within the order imposed by religion, law, and custom. On the other hand, it cannot be ignored that Cervantes devotes himself, in the two books that make up his novel, to telling how the madness of his knight changed the lives of those around him, starting with Sancho himself, and that he also populates his masterpiece with characters who discover themselves by creating a new identity for themselves: Marcela, Ginés de Pasamonte, Zoraida, Dorotea, etc. Their perplexity, their indecision, share many traits with ours. Perhaps it is worthwhile, after all, to devote a chunk of our lives to listening to what a dead white man says. I guarantee we will learn a lot about his time, and more about our own.

In closing, I would like to highlight another reason why such a revered book, written in what was the most important empire of its time and in one of the most influential languages, Spanish, deserves our attention. Don Quixote, like perhaps no other book of literature, tells us of the beauty, the inspiration, the fervor generated by the aspiration to an ideal, while constantly pointing out to us how easily that ideal can become something grotesque, laughable, simple idolatry.

But Don Quixote tells us something more, since it speaks to us of that indomitable ambiguity that runs through the dialectic ideal-idolatry pair. Don Quixote invents a heroic, beautiful, loyal, just world, inspired by books that speak of an anachronistic and implausible reality, which makes everyone laugh at him. The characters in the book take pleasure in his company, as his nonsense never ceases to provoke hilarity. However, by following Quixote, they become part of his world, they become quixotized; they begin to be essential pieces of that ideal world that the Knight of the Sorrowful Figure intends to restore. Don Quixote alerts us both to how easy it is for an ideal (a vision of the beautiful, the just, the good, the true) to become its own caricature and to the opposite: how idolatries, false visions of reality, hide, albeit in the negative, an ideal, a yearning for excellence.

Our times, which, like that of Omar the Caliph, find their own ideals irrefutable and see those that precede them only as echoes of their own beliefs, or as pure heresy, would do well to read a work like this one.

               Jorge Brioso, Minneapolis, MN.

            January 15, 2020, year of the perfect vision.

PS: I dated the epistle as I felt it was a requirement of the genre. Neither I nor anyone else could have predicted what was coming: a pandemic on a global scale, the murder of another African-American man at the hands of the police that sparked protests around the world and made the city where I live, Minneapolis, the epicenter of this new revolt. There would be much to say about what happened but I will leave that for another time. I will now dwell on one of the aspects mentioned: the iconoclasm of our time. The anger against the images is now poured against the Confederate statues. I have no objection to the despicability of these images, which are linked to the most abject form of domination created by man: slavery. I have to admit, moreover, that I am no stranger to the enjoyment produced by the destruction of icons. I remember the joy with which I saw the statue of Lenin floating hanging from a helicopter in the film that said goodbye to the era that had ravaged my youth—in the country where I was born these pleasures were forbidden to us, so I had to settle for watching it at the cinema. But that only goes to show that I, too, am a man of our time, another heretic of the eidolons. Nevertheless, it is urgent to clarify that history should not be shaped by the grievances suffered by me, nor by anyone else.

* A Spanish version of this text was published under the title “Epistle addressed to any student of our time in which the reading of a work produced by one of the Dead White Men, which some still insist on calling canonical, is defended”, in the journal “Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos.”

Jorge Brioso. Professor of Peninsular and Latin American literature at Carleton College. He has published El privilegio de pensar (Casa Vacía, 2020). He has translated and edited the poetry and essays of José Lezama Lima with James Irby in the volume A Poetic Order of Excess (Green Integer, 2019).


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