Rated 5 out of 5 by RoyT Frodo Lives!
I have long had an interest in lists of recommended authors and works, and have a favored spot on my bookshelves for Clifton Fadiman’s ‘The Lifetime Reading Plan’. I was, therefore, a sucker for this TC course, and I am very glad I bought it. I started the course not at the first lecture, but at the next to the last, “Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’—Literature?”, as it is one of my favorite books. I had never thought about the possibility of it being in a literary canon. Professor Bowers’ treatment of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ is excellent. Little did I know, however, that Tolkein and his works would be mentioned in what I estimate to be about half of the course’s lectures, nor that by listening to the course I would, through Professor Bowers’ connection, qualify as one of Tolkein’s “great-grandstudents” (page 7). That is all fine with me!
Until I listened to this course, much of what I assumed about the Western Literary Canon turns out to be wrong or considerably off-base. Professor Bowers does a great job in explaining what the Canon is, how it got that way, and indicates the possible future directions it might take. This is an eye-opening and mind-expanding course on western literature.
According to Professor Bowers, “Like the biblical canon, the Western canon only looks rational and well-organized when it shows up in textbooks…it is a messy mix of accident, politics, and, on occasion, the special pleading of other authors” (Course Guidebook, page 7), and is really a “’survivor’s list’, a work-in progress, always generated backward, expanding to welcome new members and dropping authors who no longer speak to the needs of current readers” (page 173) and “At the end of the 20th century, the Western Canon is enriched by writers whose origins lies in the East…the Western literary canon is hardly recognizable as ‘Western’ anymore—or even narrowly literary..” (page 3). Professor Bowers selects what he considers 35 canonical works based on his personal interests.
Like the Western Literary Canon, however, Professor Bowers’ lectures sometimes seem messy and may disappoint (or even anger) those expecting neatly packaged presentations on the 35 listed works. The operative words in the course title are “in Context”, but this does not seem to come even close to what Professor Bowers does for the selected canonical works. Rather than providing a detailed summary and/or analysis of each, Professor Bowers most often only briefly treats the standard elements to explore the place of the work in the canon, the influences on it from earlier and contemporary works, relevant social, political and other factors, and the author’s impact on later writers who come to be accepted into the canon. In the process, Professor Bowers goes way beyond the 35 listed writers in mentioning scores of others (including even movie adaptations) by way of comparison and contrast. At times things can get almost out of hand. For instance, in the lecture on ‘Hamlet’ he brings in a good deal of Viking history and lore as background, and in the lecture on ‘Moby Dick and Global Literature’ Professor Bowers discusses at length William Langland’s ‘Piers Plowman’, a 14th century work from the age of Chaucer. But, I have to admit, the messiness works, as Professor Bowers shows that despite “… all its veneer of Renaissance culture, [‘Hamlet’ is] a story rooted in Viking history” (page 87), and how the “…urge of the Langlandian hero, a shadowy character wandering the world and experiencing spiritual wonders, reemerges in Melville’s protagonist Ishmael, as well as in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman” (page 124). The course is chock full of such connections and insights, casting many familiar works in a new light.
In discussing canon formation, Professor Bowers operates on the principle of progressive revelation. To be sure, there is a good discussion early on using the formation of the Biblical canon as a reference, but Professor Bowers hones in on specific criteria in the discussions of individual works, expertly using the context and content of the work to illustrate his points. For instance, Saint Augustine’s ability to interpret classic pagan texts as Christian illustrates an important aspect of the Western canon that works must “…have an intellectual challenge built into them, that require ‘exegesis’” (page 52) and ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ demonstrates “…one requirement that we have not yet discussed: They have to be well-written, well-constructed, and display universal human values” (page 66). In making these judgments, he relies on a wide range of literary resources. For me, the most important are Eric Auerbach’s ‘Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature’ and Harold Bloom’s ‘The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages’.
After listening to this course, it is now apparent to me that the canon is more a concept than a definitive list that everyone agrees on. After all, even though Professor Bowers makes much of including ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ in the canon, it is not included in Harold Bloom’s personal list of hundreds of canonical works.
There is a lot of fun and interesting information in this course. Professor Bowers, for instance, highlights Bloom’s contention that development of the Western canon is attributable to male rivalry, and touches on it in many of the lectures. He also manages a fairly good Irish accent in reading from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’; shows how well the movie ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ hews to the Arthurian story, attributable to the medievalist writer/director; credibly (but also, incredibly) connects The Charterhouse of Parma with War and Peace and Moby Dick; expounds on Shakespeare as an English export; and, toward the end of the course, treats extensively on matters of gender, homosexuality, race, and ethnicity.
Professor Bowers’ presentation style is pleasant and enthusiastic, a joy to listen to, and the lecture content provides much to ponder and further pursue. Next on my reading list are the Auerbach and Bloom studies. As noted above, however, some may be put off by the apparent messiness of the content and the lack of significant summary information on the works treated. My advice is not to be put off by first impressions (as I nearly was). Stick with it and you will be surprised how it grows on you. I really do not think that the lack of detailed summaries should be a deal-breaker on this course. Professor Bowers provides enough detail to get at least a rough idea about each work and, if more information is needed, there is always Wikipedia. Finally, this is a course that is best appreciated by listening from beginning to end rather than dipping in here and there (though that works too, but not nearly as well). I am going to be revisiting this course frequently.
November 7, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by NYNM Wonderful wonderful course
I agree that this is one of the best courses I've heard from TTC (and I have quite a few).
Bowers has a special gift for discussing literature (itself informative) in the context of history, politics, social developments, etc. In that way it is many courses in one.
For example: when he discusses Dante of course he presents themes, plot, etc. But further, he gives a background of medieval Europe of the day, highlighting such complex influences as church history requiring mandatory church attendance, thus requiring the building of more churches and thus the establishment of more universities to train more priests in the vernacular, the development of Christian religious orders and thus development of more literature, and "ergo", a Dante.
Such sophistication and complexity is delivered in each lecture. And in a very easy-to-take, low-key, relaxed delivery. Thus it is easily a social history course combined with a literature course. I know I will return to this course again and again to digest its riches.
Yes, I hope for more from the prof!!!
April 26, 2009
Rated 2 out of 5 by TOMC Not Up To Teaching Company Standards
Somehow listened to every lecture in spite of
-- irritating voice inflections of professor
-- constant repetition of material using such phrases as (remember, as we discussed before, you'll recall, etc.
-- too much context and not enough text (or content)
-- too much filler material including inappropriate personal anecdotes
--a 36 lecture series that should have been 18 (at most)
--first time I finished a TC course without feeling I learned a lot and enjoyed the process
January 21, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by BGZRedux With Respect, a Lonely Dissent
I am sincerely glad that almost every other reviewer found this course to be wonderful, and I hope everyone else who takes it thinks so too. For me it was a near complete disappointment.
The course ought to have been entitled "The Context of the Western Literary Canon," as it is the context which is the focus of the course; the time devoted to a discussion of the books themselves is miniscule. Instead, it is a compendium of literary trivia, with fact after unedifying fact presented about literary forebears and descendants, no matter how tenuous the connection with the work ostensibly being discussed.
Much time is also spent stressing the obvious fact that which books make it into the canon depends to a great extent upon sheer luck and circumstance. Remarkably, almost nothing is said about what makes any of the works great literature.
It would also have been very helpful if the good professor had followed Aristotle's advice, which he does reference, that a work ought to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Instead, the structure of the lectures is almost random, with little sense of where we are coming from or going.
There are quite a number of errors, perhaps not surprising given the breadth of the material. Most are relatively minor, such as equating the Hellespont and the Bosporus (lecture 4), and giving Napoleon the French rather than the Italian version of his surname in the first sentence of "War and Peace" (lecture 27), this actually being a moderately important leitmotif of the novel. And the idea, even after a detailed argument, that Fortinbras is "the real hero of the play 'Hamlet'" seems just silly (lecture 19).
I have two major objections, however. First, regarding Nietzsche: It is just wrong that Nietzsche wrote "The Will to Power" (lecture 25). That "book" is a tendentious selection of his unedited notes published posthumously by his anti-Semitic sister. And Nietzsche never "idealized" any war-like "primitive Germanic virtue" (lecture 30); Nietzsche was disgusted by Germanic culture. These sorts of gross misrepresentations have contributed greatly to the completely wrong-headed image of Nietzsche as some sort of proto-Nazi. In fact, Nietzsche hated anti-Semites and anti-Semitism with a passion, and would have loathed Hitler and everything he stood for.
And second, the discussion of "Moby-Dick" goes out of its way to emphasize the stereotype that it is a "work more often listed as canonic than actually read," and gives little reason for actually reading it (lecture 26). For what it's worth, it is my choice for the greatest piece of writing in English, ever, and it is an astoundingly wonderful experience to read. (Hint: try it as an audio book first.)
I should, at least, note the one bright spot for me: the discussion of Tolkien and "The Lord of the Rings (lecture 35) was both fun and fascinating.
So - I humbly recognize that my negative impression of this course places me in a tiny minority. I don't expect, and wouldn't want, to have much influence on anyone's choice, given the many magnificent reviews. I only ask, if you do take it, to share your opinions here. Enjoy.
October 19, 2013