W. Scott Poole speculates in his book about H.P. Lovecraft In The Mountains of Madness (sent to me by the publisher, Soft Skull Press) that “the classic stories ‘The Call of Cthulu,’ ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth,’ ‘The Haunter of the Dark,’ and ‘The Colour Out of Space’… will not be the horrific things baristas and bartenders of the next generation… will want to talk about with middle-aged patrons pondering over Lovecraft books….” He proposes that “more readers will begin to discover the haunting vision quests [Lovecraft] wrote between 1918 and 1923.”
After Poole identifies the “haunting vision quests” he means (“Celephais,” “Polaris,” “The Quest of Iranon,” “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” “The Nameless City,” and “Hypnos”), he writes, “I wonder, and worry, that ‘Hypnos’ might even become a standard college reading for the hip classroom.”
Why worry? He explains:
If this occurs, maybe the idea of “Hypnos” being on a college syllabus will acquire the same outré patina as reading Naked Lunch in the 1970s, or seem as exciting as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the 1990s. Maybe its reputation will say to future college students what it says to them today when they read a David Foster Wallace essay or check out one of Chuck Klosterman’s more incisive and less opaque essays. An adult who “gets you” has given you this VERY RELEVANT work that will change your life and open the gates of perception.
I say I worry as well as wonder about this because canonizing means domesticating and containing the power of such texts and their histories.
Oh my. Where to begin? Poole is a college professor (see his faculty page here). As a professor, he can’t really believe that canonization = domestication. If he does, he’s failed to understand that there’s a difference between the belief that you know a work and actually knowing a work. A work may seem domesticated because it’s well-known, but when readers cast aside what they think they know and pay attention, that perception dies.
A student might assume a canonized work is by definition stale. That’s why you put a professor in the room—because the professor knows otherwise.
Canonization does nothing to the power of a great text.
And to what canon does Poole refer? The imaginary canon that includes Burroughs, Gilman, Wallace, and Klosterman? Maybe he means a more conventional canon? Say, the Norton Anthology of American Literature? Is there a poem or an essay or a novel in the Norton Anthology of American Literature that’s domesticated and contained? And if you think so, ask yourself: when did you last pay attention to that work?
Poole adds (specifically regarding “Hypnos”), “It’s a tale that deserves something better than such a fate. Hopefully, to quote Stephen King writing about Lovecraft, ‘the chickenshit academics’ won’t get their tenured mitts on this one.” It’s easy to understand why King might bear animus toward academics, but why does Poole? He is an academic. To what end does Poole perpetuate trite clichés about intellectually timid professors? Is this a manifestation of self-hatred?
What kind of professor hopes a text stays out of the classroom?