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12 March, 2012

Literary Canon: the Art of Remembering

The parameters of the classical Ukrainian literature canon have greatly changed over the past years

The canon is the skill of remembering and a way to organise a vast cultural heritage. Lists of must-read literary texts are and will continue to be criticised as long as the choice is dictated by largely personal tastes and political, ethical or other incentives that have nothing to do with the quality of the writings themselves. That is why cases like the removal of Maksym Rylsky, one of our best 20th-century poets, from the external testing programme for high school graduates are unavoidable.

The canon of Ukrainian classics was formed in the mid-19th century around Taras Shevchenko. His belated imitators utilised the romantic style almost until the beginning of the 20th century. Literary revolutions are almost always accompanied by carefully orchestrated scandals, and there was no shortage of bold attempts to dethrone Shevchenko in the era of modernism. For example, Mykhailo Semenko symbolically burned Kobzar, as befits an orthodox futurist. The fearless polemist Mykola Khvylovy said through a character in Valdshnepy (Woodcocks), who can be viewed as his alter ego, that Shevchenko had “castrated our intelligentsia.” Modernisers of the canon tried to establish two first-calibre authors, Hryhoriy Skovoroda and Panteleimon Kulish, and put them next to Shevchenko. Skovoroda represents the Ukrainian culture that still preserved its natural ties to the European community and has not been degraded. The West-loving Kulish commanded admiration the same way.

Since the mid-1920s, a Soviet canon was elaborated which was little short of an antithesis to the canon as such – not the art of remembering but the skill of forgetting, filtering and sorting to suit the political tastes of the day. This is when the unshakable core of the canon was revealed – something that could not be taken out and cast into oblivion. The Soviets had the most trouble in trying to eliminate unacceptable names and texts from their canon as nearly all Ukrainian classics fell into the category of “bourgeois nationalists.” There are apocryphal accounts of the difficulties of canonising Shevchenko as he seemed a nationalist like no other. His poetry defined Ukrainian national identity itself and was indispensable to establishing the centre of the classical canon. Nevertheless, Shevchenko’s genius had to be “adapted” to the political situation. Soviet critics lectured him, almost patting him condescendingly on the shoulder and reproving him for a failure to understand certain things that were clear as day to them. And yet he remained the central figure of the canon.

As far as the history of 20th-century literature is concerned, neither the concept of canon nor that of style fit into the national dialogue. Social realism was designed to “cancel” modernism. Theoreticians of social realism seemed to think that it came to stay almost forever. No new stylistic trend emerged in the six decades that followed. The Soviet canon as an art of amnesia dovetailed with the ideological dictate of the time. For example, five excellent modern prose writers – Volodymyr Vynnychenko, Khvylovy, Valerian Pidmohylny, Maik Yohansen and V. Domontovych – were pushed off the literary pedestal.

Soviet hierarchies completely lost their value today. Moreover, aesthetic quality is becoming perhaps the deciding factor in literary evaluation. After previously banned authors were read, the question naturally arose about who was “better” and who was “worse,” and the pillars of the Soviet canon receded far into the background. It appears that the only one of them whose authority rests on extraliterary factors is Oles Honchar, a central figure in the late Soviet canon. A person with a measure of aesthetic taste will hardly dare say today that Honchar “wrote better” than the leading authors of the 20th century. Admirers of his works point to the role his Sobor (The Cathedral) played in raising national consciousness, but none of these things has anything to do with the aesthetic level of his texts, so Honchar’s exit from the canon is imminent. In the 21st century, the national literary canon is finally freeing itself of ideology and literature is regaining the memory it once lost.


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