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Thread: The other "Canon"

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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    Question The other "Canon"

    Repeatedly the same discussion pops up again and again on this forum. A question asking us the name what what are the greatest books of Western literature... and invariably the same names arise again and again... and some argue in defense of the merits of these authors... and others (who would have us all imagine them as great liberal free-thinkers) argue for some lesser figures... or attempt to dismiss the notion of any canon outright. Whatever the persons favorites it must be noted that rarely does the name of a single work outside of Western literature arise... with the possible exception of a few near-contemporary Japanese writers. The very term "Western Canon" assumes an other... "Eastern Canon" of literature. My question then is which books do you imagine as central to the Eastern Canon... or if such is impossible for you to say... what books outside of the Western Canon have you resonated with you the most? I ask this with the full knowledge that few, if any of us, are conversant in the languages involved, and as such, will be completely at the mercy of translation.
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    Registered User Etienne's Avatar
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    When I looked at my library I noticed that only 4 (on about 200 plus those that I've read that are not in my library!) books would fall in the category of "western" none of them being before WW2. Choukri's For Bread Alone, Kawabata's Snow Country, Kanafani's Men in the Sun and Djebar's Loin de Médine (and that would probably fall in French literature anyways...). All of them being very good, my favorite being Kanafani's and the most interesting being Djebar's. However I wouldn't go forth to nominate any of them as I'm quite ignorant of the whole scheme...

    With that in mind, however, I'll stay tuned on what would be part of such cannon. And what about post-colonialism literature? There seems to be some kind of blur here, how would Eastern be defined? Is it the language it was originally written in?
    Last edited by Etienne; 08-10-2008 at 07:19 PM.
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    My knowledge of eastern literature is very poor, but I'd say The Bhagavad Gita--its scope is said to rival Shakespeare.

    The Discourses of Confucius and The Tao and The Buddhist Texts. I'll let Arabian Nights linger as a toss up.

    I have read modern Eastern works, but my pantry is scantily stocked here, sorry luke.

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    The Poetic Warrior Dark Muse's Avatar
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    I read this one fabulous little story that is probably quite obsecure called The Ashes of a God, I thought it was quite wonderful.

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    For those who might include the Quar'an I do not, for both philosophical and technical reasons. Adherents say it is not translatable into English.

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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    For those who might include the Quar'an I do not, for both philosophical and technical reasons. Adherents say it is not translatable into English.

    Jozy... don't you find that a refusal to read the Qur'an is a position that is increasingly unacceptable... if not dangerous in our present world? By the way... the Catholics declared that it was equally impossible to translate the Bible from God's language... Latin .
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    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    StLuke, I think you're going to have to define what you mean by "Eastern" canon. First of all I can imagine the Isamic world having different canon than the Hindu world and still a different canon from the Chinese world and still a different canon from the Japanese word and still yet from the African world. We identify a Western canon because of a shared experience of our ancient Greco-Roman and Christian heritage. The cultures I've mentioned above probably do not have similar shared heritage.
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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    There are the "Big 5" of Chinese classic literature (not that I've read them, but I want to), which are:

    Romance of the Three Kingdoms
    Journey to the West
    Outlaws of the Marsh
    Dream of the Red Chamber
    The Plum in the Golden Vase

    I guess you'd say The Tale of Genji is up there in the most influential of classical literature. Anyone read these? It would probably the take the better part of several years to read through them all as each one is well over 1500 pages.
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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    Virgil... initially my thought was to question what we have read... and found to be of great merit... within the "Eastern Canon"... as such certainly exists as counterpart to the Western Canon. But this obviously ignores literature of Africa and perhaps other cultures not part of the West... nor the East. I have no problem including Arabic, Persian, Indian, along with Chinese and Japanese as part of an "Eastern Canon". I don't question that there is a Hindu culture quite distinct from that of China or Japan... but not any more different than the culture of Biblical Hebrews are from the culture of Icelandic Sagas, Renaissance Spain, or Modernist Paris. Again... I am really just interested... since this topic of the "best of..." continually rears its head... in what books from outside Western culture... however you imagine that... you have read and found particularly strong and worth reading. Certainly one reason we are all here is to get tips about what books we might best spend our time in reading.
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    Quote Originally Posted by stlukesguild View Post
    For those who might include the Quar'an I do not, for both philosophical and technical reasons. Adherents say it is not translatable into English.

    Jozy... don't you find that a refusal to read the Qur'an is a position that is increasingly unacceptable... if not dangerous in our present world? By the way... the Catholics declared that it was equally impossible to translate the Bible from God's language... Latin .
    I know it has been 7 years since luke, but I can never forget that day, nor where I was, and so-- I do have a copy, in English, and there it sits. Read it once.

    But to follow up on Virgil's point, what are your parameters? China, Japan, Mongolia, Arabia... Egypt? India of course.

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    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by stlukesguild View Post
    I have no problem including Arabic, Persian, Indian, along with Chinese and Japanese as part of an "Eastern Canon". I don't question that there is a Hindu culture quite distinct from that of China or Japan...
    I'm no expert, but I don't see how Japan's literature can be lumped with Arabic literature. I just don't see any link, even a tenuous one.

    but not any more different than the culture of Biblical Hebrews are from the culture of Icelandic Sagas, Renaissance Spain, or Modernist Paris. Again... I am really just interested.
    Except that the Hebrew's central tenet was absorbed and intertwined through at least a milenium of time into Icelandic culture. Of course it is one specific text of Hebrew culture. I don't know if there is anything else of ancient Hebrew literature but no one is saying that would be part of western canon. Some may include the Epic of Gilgamesh as part of the western canon, but I have always found that to be a stretch.

    On another note, I forgot to include the Germanic heritage that was absorbed as part of the western canon.
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    If mytholgoy can be counted here I love Gilgamesh and The Descent of Inanna

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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    I'm no expert, but I don't see how Japan's literature can be lumped with Arabic literature. I just don't see any link, even a tenuous one.

    China and India both had direct contact with the Persians and the Arabs through trade along the Silk Road, and through military conquest and invasion. Japan was certainly far more insular as an island nation (rather like Great Britain) but not completely isolated from outside influences... especially from the Chinese... who were in direct contact with Middle-Eastern cultures.
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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    My own experience with literature outside of the Western Canon... with the Eastern Canon, if you will, is woefully limited comparatively. I will simply accept that Hebrew literature is part of the West as a result of the Judeo-Christian tradition... and subsequent Jewish participation in Western culture. By the same token I'll not speak of a Hellenized or Latinized writer from the Middle East or North Africa (such as Augustine of Hippo) as anything but Western. That leaves the whole rest of the Middle-East, Africa, Asia, Native North and South Americans and anything from the Americas pre- Western conquest. A vast world... and yet I'll admit to having read little from it.

    My reading experiences outside of the West are largely indebted to my interests in given cultures as a visual artist. Among the non-Western cultures that have had the greatest impact upon me I would include those of the Middle East (Persia, Turkey, Arab and the Arab/Islamic Empire), China, and Japan. India has only begun to peak my interest with its marvelous temples and sensual paintings and sculpture. But I must admit to having read, as of yet, none of the great Indian texts: Mahabharata, Ramayana, Vedas, Upanishads, etc... This is somewhat embarrassing if only because of the fact that Indian literature is reportedly the source of a great many of the narratives that eventually work their way into Middle-Eastern and European literature.

    My fascination with Middle-Eastern art led to a curiosity about the literature of the culture. Among the strongest works I have read I would count The Arabian Nights or more correctly the Thousand and One Nights (كتاب ألف ليلة وليلة‎ - kitāb 'alf layla wa-layla). Hakīm Abū l-Qāsim Firdawsī Tūsī or Ferdowsi is generally accepted as the greatest Persian poet and his epic Shanameh or Book of Kings is the Persian epic... perhaps second in importance solely to the Qur'an... (which goes without saying as a masterwork of non-Western literature). I have just recently read an acclaimed new translation of the Shanameh, and found it to be a fabulous collection of fables and fantastic narrative. I also enjoyed the Story of Layla and Manjun taken from the Khamsa of the poet Nizami. Of the lyrical poetry of the Middle-East I have certainly read Edward Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam... which however heavily colored by his Victorian tastes is certainly a marvelous work. I also have several collections of poems by Hafez (Hafiz), Rumi, Saadi, Jami and others. I especially enjoy Richard le Galliene's translations of Hafiz which avoid the hippy-ish, new-age spirituality crap that so mutilates a lot of the vast body of translations out there... especially of Rumi and Hafiz. Perhaps my favorite work of Arabic lyric poetry is the slim volume entitled Poems of Arab Andalusia translated by Cola Franzen from the Spanish translations from the Arabic made by Emilio Garcia Gomez. These poems were a major source of inspiration for Federico Garcia Lorca, Rafael Alberti, Miguel Hernandez, and other great poets of the 20th century Spanish "Renaissance". I should add that like Virgil I would include Gilgamesh as a non-Western masterwork.

    China has a history and a culture to rival any Western nation... and yet remains quite unknown to most of us. I even share a studio with a Chinese artist... and yet hear little of his heritage... probably because his own desire is to become assimilated to Western culture. Chinese literature surely dates from nearly as early as that of the Hebrews... but little survived the reign of the notorious "First Emperor", Qin Shi Huangdi (259 BCE – September 10, 210 BCE) who sought to consolidate his rule by outlawing Confucianism and destroying most books before his time thus establishing himself as the start of history. The Analects of Confucius... which may be problematic with regard to attribution, is still a fascinating bit of "wisdom literature". Among China's greatest prose works one usually hears the discourses of Mencius, The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Three Kingdoms, and The Journey to the West the most highly acclaimed. The highest art form, from my reading... just as it was in Persia... was reserved for poetry. The so-called "golden age" of Chinese poetry was that of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) which included poets such as Tu Fu (Du Fu), Li Po (Li Bai), Li Ho, and Wang Wei. To a lesser extent this continued into the Song Dynasty with poets such as Mei Yao Ch'en, Su Tung P'o, Li Ch'ing Chao, Lu Yu, and Ou-Yang Hsiu. The poetry of this period was very elegant... at once formally complex... yet apparently simple... and profoundly intertwined with the art forms of calligraphy and Chen (later "Zen" in Japan) painting in that it often stressed spontaneity, nature, man's place in nature (which was in no way central as in Western culture), and the returning cycles of life. I have greatly enjoyed several volumes of Chinese poetry including the translations by Kenneth Rexroth, Arthur Waley, David Hinton, David Young, Sam Hamill, Tony and Willis Barnestone, etc... Certainly there is no way to go into a discussion in any depth of the vast collection of brilliant lyrical poems and poets. I will simply note that my one of my longest held favorites has been Tu Fu's Jade Flower Palace:

    The stream swirls. The wind moans in
    The pines. Gray rats scurry over
    Broken tiles. What prince, long ago,
    Built this palace, standing in
    Ruins beside the cliffs? There are
    Green ghost fires in the black rooms.
    The shattered pavements are all
    Washed away. Ten thousand organ
    Pipes whistle and roar. The storm
    Scatters the red autumn leaves.
    His dancing girls are yellow dust.
    Their painted cheeks have crumbled
    Away. His gold chariots
    And courtiers are gone. Only
    A stone horse is left of his
    Glory. I sit on the grass and
    Start a poem, but the pathos of
    It overcomes me. The future
    Slips imperceptibly away.
    Who can say what the years will bring?
    tr. by Kenneth Rexroth

    This poem has long struck me with its similarity of mood and imagery with Shelley's Ozymandias.

    Of all the non-Western cultures it is certainly the Japanese that have had the largest impact upon me as as artist. This should not be surprising as Japan has certainly had the largest influence upon Modern art in general. Japanese Screen painting would inspire the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists as well as artists such as Gustav Klimt. The impact of Japanese woodblock prints is immense... continuing into the current comic books and anime, and the simplicity, geometry, and respect for natural materials found in Japanese ceramics and architecture are among the greatest influences upon Modern design. The peak of Japanese culture might be divided between the Heian (794 to 1185) and the Edo (1603 to 1868). The Heian period was epitomized by an elegant, courtly style. Many of the greatest works of literature of the period were the product of women writers. The Tale of Genjii by Lady Murasaki is certainly the most highly respected masterwork of Japanese literature if only one considers the wealth of artistic interpretations by painters the work inspired. A romance... or novel exploring familial and court feuds, intrigues, affairs, and power-struggles, the work also lays claim to being the world's first novel. The Pillow Book, by Murasaki's contemporary and rival, Sei Shōnagon is a fascinating collection of court gossip, poetry, and observations painting a marvelous picture of Heian culture. Beside these two women, the Heian period was epitomized by a great array of lyrical poets... including the famous "36 Immortal Poets" who shared the love of nature... a studied and sophisticated appearance of artful ease or simplicity... spontaneity... etc... To this one should note the common element of brevity. Few poems go on for more than a few lines. A special calligraphic style... often referred to as woman's hand because of the many female poets such as Lady Akazome Emon and Lady Ise who utilized the manner... was stunningly artful:




    Much of this poetry was brought together into large collections such as the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, Kokinshū, and Shin Kokinshū. Translations can be found again by Rexroth, Waley, and others.

    The Edo Period represented a resurgence of an absolutely brilliant cultural era. Japanese screen painting of the era was masterful and sophisticated beyond belief. The print makers such as Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, etc... took an essentially low art form and created sophisticated visual masterworks. Even the erotic/pornographic "Shunga" prints achieved a magnificent artfulness rarely seen in Western erotica. Aubrey Beardsley is a rare example... and he is deeply influenced by Japanese art himself. Edo is also the period of the great Haiku poets such as Kobayashi Issa, Yosa Buson, and Matsuo Bashō. Once again these poets works were often presented in the most elegant of calligraphy which echoed the apparent artlessness and spontaneity of the poems, as in this work by the great painter, Tawaraya Sōtatsu:



    Again... much that I have read of this literature has been read in collected volumes... although I do have a few volumes by Basho, Issa, and Buson... as well as the later poetess, known for her exquisite erotic poetry and her delicate... perfect... "imagist" style. The manner in which both Japanese and Chinese poetry... and to an extent, Persian/Arabic lyrical poetry... often simply paints a visual image (as opposed to telling a story) intrigues me as I consider the importance of calligraphy in their cultures... and the importance of the visual appearance of text... something that was quite lost in the West after the standardization of letter forms under Charlemagne, and the later development of movable type.
    Last edited by stlukesguild; 08-11-2008 at 01:39 AM.
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    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    I believe the central problem is additions. The availability of such books in translation is often quite pathetic, given the availability of European literature. The most common books of canonical works available is clearly English novels, then poetry, then Italian, French, German, and Russian works, then perhaps a few more obscure works. I am hard pressed to find a complete volume of Li Po's poetry for cheap, than I am, for instance, able to find a volume of Tennyson, or from that era, Beowulf.

    In fact, in the addition I had of his work, the translator made it clear that, though one could convey the meaning of the words in English, the actual writing system is able to add different elements to words in pictures, and as a result, can never be translated. Only the bare minimum of the work can be conveyed in another language.

    When we are faced with something like that, it is quite difficult to know what, and how to read, without learning additional languages. As a result, these great works get pushed around.

    And I will agree, that Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Arabic, Turkish, Sanskrit, etc. are all different traditions of literature, and cannot be compared the same way English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and German literature can be.

    That being said, there is no real Eastern canon, because the list would be too long. The so called Western Canon only features works from maybe 1/6th of the world's population (being generous), and neglects over 5 billion people's cultural heritage. When we start to think of it, the amount of books in that canon cannot possibly fairly equal the amount of works in the Western canon, and as a result linguistic, and regional canons within the concept of the Eastern canon must assemble, so you get something like the Indian/Pakistani canon, or the Chinese/Japanese canon, or something similar. An all encompassing Eastern canon is far beyond hope.


    In addition to this, I would like to note that it is also extremely difficult (if impossible) to get volumes on single poets of the Japanese and Chinese traditions, and is far easier to get big anthologies of a period, or a few poets' work. This creates an identity problem, as it is easier to remember something if you have a book of it, than if you have 3 short lyrics of it.
    Last edited by JBI; 08-11-2008 at 02:33 AM.

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