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The canon question

A rejoinder to an essay on the application of the British literary canon to the teaching of Pakistani English Studies

The canon question
Harold Bloom.

In his two-part essay titled ‘The lingering canon’ published in The News on Sunday (November 5 and 12, 2017), Mahboob Ahmad has referred to some significant “sins” of omission and commission regarding the British literary canon in Pakistani universities. While doing so, he has engaged in certain broad generalisations about “the debilitating presence of canonical thought in Pakistani English Studies” that warrants an answer based on my experience as an academic in a Pakistani university. My argument addresses his criticism of the “myopia” of policy makers in Pakistani universities, his eulogisation of the western/American scholars, and his take on the responsibilities of Pakistani academics and critics.

Ahmad was prompted to write on the lackadaisical approach and what he calls “intellectual stagnation” of Pakistani academia and “some very prestigious institutions in Pakistan” regarding a radical revision of university syllabi. His argument about American universities challenging the authority of British canon gives one a feeling as if he has preferred to ignore the shift of power centre after the Second World War. Since he has not mentioned the existence of American canon, my discussion would also help investigate if we have this intellectual inertia only about the English canon and why we allow equal space to the American canon. It is also likely to ask why Ahmad is concerned with the continued presence of the [English] “canon” in the curricula, and not American.

Endorsing Emerson, Bloom writes: “Without Shakespeare, no canon, because without Shakespeare, no recognizable selves in us, whoever we are. We owe to Shakespeare not only our representation of cognition but much of our capacity for cognition.”

Cannibalising a huge chunk of time and history, Ahmad compares Pakistani universities with those in America as if the histories of the two countries, ground realities, research facilities and level of initiative were the same. The intellectual achievements and initiatives depend on the kind of histories both countries have. In my view, Pakistani universities stand no comparison with what is happening in the higher education institutions in the US. With more than two hundred years since 1783, it is a rather belated initiative at Yale and other American universities to make Shakespeare optional in their courses. On the contrary, Pakistani universities are taking him off their syllabi or are just deliberating (which I will argue about shortly) only 70 years after the country’s birth.

First of all, it would be pertinent to say that during these seventy years, since the end of the English Summer in the subcontinent, we conveniently graduated to the lure of American imperialism. So what difference does it make if we get Shakespeare off our university syllabi and start teaching Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Edward Albee, and Tennessee Williams? Why should we be fine with changing our masters and their canons? Ay, there’s the rub.

Read also: The lingering canon – II

When Ahmad uses the word ‘canon’, it is the British canon that he presumes is lingering in our university syllabi. He does not refer to the fact that Americans have their own canon. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994) includes all celebrated Euro-American writers like Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ibsen, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Borges, and Neruda, inter alia. What interests me about Bloom’s book is his inclusionary approach; he discusses Shakespeare (English), Dante (Italian), Whitman, and Emily Dickinson (American) along with Borges (Argentine) to show that the West stands out among the marginalia of eastern nations, and so does its canon.


As for the question of the possibility of removing Shakespeare from our syllabi in Pakistani universities, I would like to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harold Bloom (both renowned nineteenth and late twentieth century American intellectuals) from The Western Canon. Doing his spadework to write his essay on Shakespeare, Bloom refers to Emerson who wrote about him in his book Representative of Men: “Shakespeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors, as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably… For executive faculty, for creation, Shakespeare is unique.”

Endorsing Emerson, Bloom writes: “Without Shakespeare, no canon, because without Shakespeare, no recognizable selves in us, whoever we are. We owe to Shakespeare not only our representation of cognition but much of our capacity for cognition.” Bloom finishes his second chapter ‘Shakespeare, Center of the Canon’ with this sentence: “At once no one and everyone, nothing and everything, Shakespeare is the Western Canon.”

What irks the reader in the essay ‘The lingering canon’ is the “well-meaning ignorance” of what is happening here in Pakistani universities and the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Ensconced in the research-friendly atmosphere of American universities where the coloured professors with roots in the global south are treated as university subalterns even today, Ahmad writes with a know-all panache. But, just to update the writer on our decolonising strategies, Dr Saeed Ur Rehman from The University of Lahore gave a talk on ‘The Ir/relevance and Canonicity of Shakespeare’ at International Islamic University, Islamabad early this year. The dean, faculty of English Studies, Dr Safeer Awan, kicked off a fierce debate on the inclusion/exclusion of Shakespeare in our syllabus revision meeting last summer at NUML, Islamabad.

Finally, it was decided that if we were willing to teach American canonical writers without demur, instead of taking Shakespeare off our syllabus, we had better teach his works with the application of literary theory, focus on aporias in his plays, and see how his sonnets could be read in multiple new ways.

Living in these global, postmodern, post-human, and multicultural times, thinking in terms of binaries does not hold good anymore. With a neither-reject-nor-accept approach, we need to move on with an inclusiveness that chimes with contemporary times. Both International Islamic University and NUML have been teaching modules like Postmodern American Literature, Postmodern fiction, Literary Theory and Practice, Postcolonial Studies, Women’s Writings, along with Anglophone Pakistani and South Asian Literature, since 2004-5. Since Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Poco, Pomo, and Ecocritical Studies are antifoundationalist, the contingence of meanings and the play of hermeneutics is native to all such courses of studies. The HEC wants to ensure that all universities regularly revise syllabi in all disciplines. That is why the generalisation that the teaching of literary theory in the US since 1980s “stands in direct antagonism to the system of belief” in Pakistani universities where the professors “have been brought up to believe in one final interpretation of a text” is but an uncalled for pontification about Pakistani academia working in the departments of English.

Here one is reminded of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s famous essay ‘On the Abolition of the English Department’ back in 1972. That was a message to the global South to work on their cultural egos and make some strong decisions whether to educate themselves through the “civilising” influence of English Literature or do away with “the assumed centrality of the English Department, into which other cultures may be admitted from time to time,” and “orientate [themselves] towards placing [Pakistan and its literature and culture] in the centre.” Ngugi was of the view that “education is a means of knowledge about ourselves. Therefore, after we have examined ourselves, we radiate outwards and discover peoples and worlds around us”.

But, since we did not take his cue, went on with the hangover of the British empire, and got hitched with the neoliberal capitalist imperialist American agenda, we had to jump on the globalisation bandwagon. Therefore, we kept teaching English and American canonical writers along with the new rage of 1980s — literary theory.

What we have ignored, however, is the necessity of developing our own canon of Anglophone Pakistani Literature. The likes of Mathew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, and Harold Bloom are available to the west to define and contour the English and American literary canons. What is regrettable for us is that the canon of Pakistani Anglophone literature is being constructed by the critical writings of the westerners, not Pakistanis. Cara Cilano (National Identities in Pakistan: The 1971 War in Contemporary Pakistani Fiction), Madeline Clements (Writing Islam from a South Asian Muslim Perspective: Rushdie, Hamid, Aslam, Shamsie), Claire Chambers (Imagining Muslims in South Asia and the Diaspora: Secularism, Religion, Representations), and David Waterman (Where Worlds Collide: Pakistani Fiction in the New Millennium) are, doubtless, doing useful work on Pakistani literature, but where are Pakistanis whose efforts could free Pakistan from the position of “an appendix or a satellite of other countries and literatures,” to use Ngugi’s words?

Therefore, an odd loner like Dr Aroosa Kanwal does us proud when Palgrave publishes her and her critical scholarship on Pakistani Fiction, Rethinking Identities in Contemporary Pakistani Fiction: Beyond 9/11, is awarded first prize in Karachi Literature Festival. Asma Mansoor, a promising young scholar at International Islamic University, wins the best Research Paper Award 2015/2016 in Humanities and Social Sciences in 6th HEC Outstanding Research Awards for her paper “Deconstructive Pedagogy and Ideological Demystification in Post-colonial Pakistan,” published in W-category, ISI and Thomson Reuters indexed, impact factor journal, Curriculum Inquiry. If we could find a crop of such local scholars, we would be able to establish our canon ourselves; if not, we would work only as “native informants” as Spivak would say.

Sibghatullah Khan

Sibghatullah Khan
The writer is a PhD and teaches English Literature at National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad. He may be reached at [email protected]


  • Adnan Ashraf Warraich

    There you are. This is what distinguishes the sagacity of an experienced researcher and teacher from the raw attempts of a novice to assimilate himself/herself as the final authority on a subject. This single piece of writing by Dr. Khan not only does effectively counter every immature argument in Ahmed’s two articles but also treats the question of ‘canon’ in a comprehensive manner. The theorization of Pakistani literature is still underway. Tariq Rehman’s A History of Pakistani Literature in English, Shamsie’s Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English and Dr. Kanwal’s Rethinking Identities in Contemporary Pakistani Fiction Beyond 9/11 are the moves in a right direction. The research papers and theses of Dr. Sibghatullah Khan, Dr. Safeer Awan, Dr. Jamil Asghar Jami and Prof. Asma Mansoor inter alia about the various patterns in the indigenous literature are of great importance for the academics related to English Studies in this part of the world.

  • It’s really a good read and teaches a lot not only to the pedagogues but the andragogues. Such wirds and thoughts can only come out of such an experienced Pen

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