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How we decide on cultural canons

Libraries, museums, and galleries are a few of the places where humanity attempts to preserve and transmit its cultural memory. The contents change depending on the period, even the time of the year, the community, and the target audience, but the aim remains the same: to preserve and renew memory and by extension to transfer and circulate knowledge. The same applies to canons: literary canons, religious canons, music canons, film canons, art canons. The best, the most known, the most prominent, the most famous, those who made it through time, would form the select group that would make it in the list, the canon, any canon. In all of these cases what is selected in each category represents and embodies a fragment of the whole, and in turn the whole embraces and encapsulates all individual parts, be they items, names, or titles. Recognizing this interdependence is what allows the selection to function as a canon and each individual part to be identified as canonical.

Selective processes that result in the creation of canons were a feature of antiquity as much as they are a feature of the present time. The same questions can be asked for both then and now: Who chooses what will be included in the canon? When is this selection made? What is valued in order to make something canonical? Does the canon change, and if so, how often, under what circumstances, and by whom? Greek literature knew of many literary canons, especially for literary genres that were represented by more than one author or for literary creations that were spread in time through the centuries: comic, tragic, iambic, lyric, historiographic, and oratorical canons, all collections of names of individuals who represent a certain time-period, a certain kind of writing, a certain corpus. Each of the names prompts genres, poems, speeches, writing styles, even biographical stories and anecdotes.

The most stable of the literary canons of ancient Greece was the Lyric Canon that comprised nine lyric poets, who, according to the first source that transmits this selection, ‘constituted the beginning and end of lyric poetry’ (AP.9.184). The emergence of the Lyric Canon did not come out of the blue; to its creation and establishment contributed authors, philosophers, and scholars from the fifth to the third century BC, and so of course did the well-established fame of the poets themselves. The nine lyric poets—Alcaeus, Alcman, Anacreon, Bacchylides, Ibycus, Pindar, Sappho, Simonides, and Stesichorus—were active in the Greek world from the end of seventh to mid-fifth centuries BC, and although these poets are not called canonical in any of the sources where their poems are recalled, the ease with which their personae and poetry are evoked testify to their wide-spread fame and recognisability. The reception of the nine in the classical and post-classical eras and the transmission of their poetry follow a pattern that remains unchanged from the fifth to the third century BC when it is inherited by the Hellenistic scholars in the Alexandrian Library. Their names as the selected nine are, subsequently, set in stone in the epigrams that preserve the Lyric Canon (AP.9.184 and 9.571).

Canons retain the past as actively circulated memory, which is intended for continuous use and re-use in both the present and the future. Canonical selections preserve memory, but not as dusty archives or storehouses; they communicate in new presentations and frameworks what is meant to be remembered. As they connect the present with the past within the broader context of the collective, the uninterrupted circulation and (re-)affirmation of the value of canons contributes to the making and to the preservation of cultural memory. Similarly, the constant activation of cultural memory enables communities to gain historical consciousness, to develop their self-image, to realise a sense of belonging, and to form their identity, both social and cultural. In other words, cultural memory creates, enacts, and re-enacts cultural inheritance.

Within this cycle, therefore, canons are turned into carriers of memory. Aleida Assmann states emphatically that cultural memory is transmitted and embodied through performances and practices, and this performative feature connects any theory on cultural memory with Greek lyric. What is for modern readers a poem on a page was for the Greeks a performed song, sung and often danced to music. Think of music and dance performances nowadays. Every melody in a classical concert, every pas de deux in a classical ballet carries a history that is shaped by earlier performances; different dancers, choreographers, directors, musicians, different stage, but the same piece. Every performance re-embodies cultural memory, and re-enacts its past. Similarly, the names of the nine in the Lyric Canon embodied their own poems and performances in antiquity, and throughout the centuries sustained this cultural memory that passed as cultural inheritance from generation to generation. This chain remains uninterrupted even down to the present day.

Photo by Steven Shaffer on Unsplash

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