The Society gathered on October 23rd for another wonderful debate and for its first single induction in years! The last one was before I even arrived to Georgetown. We debated Resolved: The Existence of a Literary Canon is Justified with Ms. Emily Coccia (COL ’15) of Pennsylvania affirming the resolution and, making his induction, Mr. Christopher Zawora (COL ’16) of Illinois negating.
Ms. Coccia opened the debate by discussing the framework. First, the word “a” indicates that there need not be one absolute literary canon. Second, we were to discuss canonical novels—books that timelessly speak to the very essence of being human. Not every book in the canon need be read by everyone, and more books can be added as time goes on. Furthermore, to make life on the floor a little bit easier, we were to consider the canon from an American standpoint. Finally, the two central questions to the debate were is there a distinction between high canonical writing and mere stories, and can this high writing universally and timelessly describe being human? Ms. Coccia naturally answered these questions with a resounding yes; there are quintessentially human questions of death, birth, beauty, and love that will never be resolved. Moreover, there are certain works that we can distinguish as “non-canonical”—those that are too dated, or fixed at a certain time. And, to hedge off the negation before Mr. Zawora even began to speak, Ms. Coccia proclaimed that to say that a certain set of works cannot describe the lives of such a diverse people is “profound arrogance”, which keeps us from appreciating a tale, even if it comes from a dead, straight, white man. Not to mention that the profiles of canonical authors do vary. Lastly, Ms. Coccia reminded us that we place books in a canon because “we find our shared experiences in humanity beautifully rendered” and through reading these books, “we find ourselves.”
Mr. Zawora began his keynote with several thank yous, including a shout-out to some of our members studying abroad (hey Madeleine and Laura!). He continued by questioning whether pieces of literature are truly able to transcend their context to be universalized and, if so, be considered a cut above the rest in terms of quality. Mr. Zawora, ever the computer science major, brought up the practical problems of a canon: for a canon to be useful it would have to be limited, but you cannot limit a canon. Furthermore, even if a canon could be created, Mr. Zawora posited that any book within it could only apply to one individual. Because some human wrote every piece of literature, it means that every book sheds some light on what humanity is. Putting it in scientific terms, “there are a lot of outliers on the regression of being human”, and so by choosing a subset of these experiences, you are calling a piece of literature and a facet of humanity “less human.” And is this really justifiable?
Chancellor Drew (SFS ’10) opened the floor by telling the audience to love the Philodemic while we are here at Georgetown. He then addressed the resolution by pointing out that picking a few books that are great leads to a better understanding that refusing to choose any at all. Ever ready to speak, Ms. Burke promptly responded that this view of the canon restricts the perception of what we value and who from. Mr. Riscassi (COL ’13) disagreed though, and clarified that having a canon doesn’t restrict you to one and only one canon but just gives you a reference point to improve communication. But Mr. Spagnuolo (SFS ’14) was quick to note that a canon generally makes us ignore the depth of a novel for its talking points.
Chancellor Prindiville (SFS ’14) added his newly found Mississippian perspective, announcing that a canon is invaluable because it creates a common framework for everyone to work within. Yet another chancellor followed, with Chancellor Deutsch (COL ’07) stating that novels that deserve to be canonized already rise to the top—a canon had no value above being “an artificial placement” of works. Extending that logic, however, Ms. Egan observed that Twilight should be in the canon and then began to rebut Ms. Burke’s point by uncovering how marginalized good writers are—they are the insane, unaccepted, and poorly educated of society at times. Mr. Arber declared that the problem lay in this very fact: insanely genius writers experience life really differently from us. Not to mention that a canon chains us to certain understandings of a book precisely because we can’t always innately figure it out.
On the other hand, Chancellor Marsh (COL ’13) proposed that every person is an outlier and that “the canon exists to be a guide in the darkness”. However, asked Mr. Perez-Reyes, can words truly capture our lives? Rather, a canon would just be “a pale imitation of the life you’re trying to lead.” Mr. Mouch decided to change the tone of the debate, and asserted that we can extrapolate a list of rules to decide what “good” literature is, and, as such, the canon is justified. Mr. Naft also tried to steer the debate, positing that you cannot just select a few books to be on the canon—the words do not transcend the pages and everyone would pick a different book. Mr. Willis then refocused the debate a bit, by positing that there is something that ties all of our feelings, and if we can identify one canon-worthy book, we can identify the whole thing.
The non-member speaking time then began with Mr. Garrett Hinck (SFS ’18) who also addressed the practical effect of the canon: by teaching those books (often with a rebellious message) in classrooms via teachers, we would actually be diminishing the value of those books. On the flip side, Ms. Sana Jamal (COL ’16) said that our problem isn’t having a canon, it is thinking that ours is the only canon. Mr. Connor Sakati (SFS ’18) subsequently took up Mr. Hinck’s idea, proposing that our canon-worthy authors wouldn’t want to be institutionalized. But Ms. Maneesha Panja (NHS ’15) agreed more with Chancellor Drew, asserting that we need a canon to “help to condense the vastness of the world” in order to explore it better. Ms. Katherine Landau took the opposite stance though—that a canon actually inhibits you from exploring other books because you only want to read the “good” ones. Last but not least, Ms. Margaret Crownover (SFS ’16) said that the defining factor of the canon isn’t that it’s the only institution—it merely serves as a guide to worthwhile reading.
Mr. Kleinman restarted the member portion of the debate by saying that “each and every one of use has our own canon”, and to have that many canons means that we must negate. Mr. Rosenberger acutely pointed out that “a” canon implies many canons though, and that a canon challenges us. Vice President Wilson gave a rousing defense of the negation after Mr. Rosenberger’s comments, asking “what is a canon, really?” and answering that “canons build worlds”—a world that is not universal and timeless. Sergeant Edgar still could not be convinced: he described how a canon permits you to truly engage with a book because it gives you a group of people who have also read the book and can discuss it with you. Our last chancellor of the evening, Chancellor Rugg (COL ’09), asked the audience if culture wasn’t truly the common ground that our Sgt. described; not everybody even here has read one book in common—the canon is therefore an attempt to impose culture.
President DiMisa took his prerogative at this point, questioning Chancellor Rugg’s perception of justification. For the President, if a canon can help us to understand anything at all, it is worthwhile. Yet Mr. Quinn asked if we need a canon at all—if we need a canon to tell us what is human, than it certainly isn’t human, and a canon that tells us what qualities are human lets authority figures dictate what and who are socially acceptable. Mr. Mellon then grounded us suddenly—what if not everyone understands a literary canon? His canon is music, but even then Mr. Mellon could agree that a canon is justified because it helps at least some people to define the world. This was not enough utility for Ms. Grace though, who proceeded to assert that a canon is merely a set of access points to literature and, by being limited, restricts our access points to humanity. And, ending the night, our dear Membership Secretary Mr. Whelan mentioned that the negation is not only contradicting itself, but that we need some sort of access point, “otherwise we’d be drowning on the stacks of Lau.”
Mr. Zawora then gave an incredibly brief closing keynote (it takes a skilled inductee to know the value in that!), and told Mr. Whelan that when he picked up a book off of his father’s bookshelf, the best part of the scene was that he picked up the book without being told to—something a canon doesn’t let you do. Mr. Zawora reiterated some floor positions, like pointing out that we have culture for a reason, and then closed by saying that it should be alright if someone relates to Twilight more than to Romeo and Juliet.
Ms. Coccia didn’t let him get away with that last line though—she quoted Romeo in an instance where she believed we could all, including Bella, relate: “Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?” Then she began to rebut the negation’s points. First of all, a canon gives us a taste of a world we have not (and perhaps may never) experience, but that being said, everyone is free to ignore the canon if they choose. Ms. Coccia mentioned a moment with her professor, when he told her that, as an aging person, he now wants to read what matters—and that means going to the canon for guidance. The canon is also immensely useful because it evolves with us. The very classics we read in high school change their meanings in college and then later on in life. Finally, the canon allows us to question things especially because the very authors within it all disagree. The canon is the story of man engaging in the struggle, and a lesson in “how we will do it.” Although the details of each book may be character specific, the lives, the turmoil, and the larger story of survival is universal.
After a wonderful debate, the floor divided and, with a vote of 49-2-18, resoundingly affirmed the resolution. Once again, congratulations to Mr. Zawora! He bravely faced the Society’s master of literature and held his own. He is a wonderful addition to the Philodemic.