What is the literary canon? If you are looking for a picture, a temple may come to mind, something like Valhalla. The busts of the great poets are well ordered, at a respectful distance from each other. This illustration evokes a common objection to the idea of the canon: Where should there still be room for something new? Can classics be expected to move closer together? If this seems unimaginable, you have chosen an image that is too static, too classic. Terry Eagleton takes a counter-image from modern everyday life to illustrate T. S. Eliot's thoughts on the anti-ceremonious adaptability of the canon. "There are jerking sensations and recoil effects throughout the canon, while its occupants, like the passengers of a crowded subway car, move a little to make room for the newcomers."

Patrick Bahners

Feuilleton correspondent in Cologne and responsible for "Humanities".

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In Eliot's theory of poetry, Eagleton is interested in the moment of the superpersonal, here the idea that the canon forms a context in which the relationship between an author and all other authors determines its value. In his latest book, Eagleton, who celebrates his eightieth birthday today, canonization himself. As "critical revolutionaries" he portrays five founding fathers of the field, which he popularized as a professor in Oxford, Manchester and Lancaster and as an outrageously prolific author. They are said to have turned the subject of English upside down, as academic literary studies which, as "criticism", commits itself to a double critical claim, firstly by starting from critical value judgement and, secondly, by using literature as a medium of social and cultural criticism. One could also say: This discipline comes from the review and wants to become sociology.

Such a chair was something very comfortable

Raymond Williams, Eagleton's mentor, and F. R. Leavis, Williams' teacher at Cambridge, carried out their work on the canon of English literature – Leavis cultivated a legendarily narrow concept of the "Great Tradition", Williams, conversely, expanded the objects of investigation to include popular culture – in a habitus of prophetic criticism of the times. Precisely because they resolutely claimed their responsibility for non-literary matters, Eagleton treated them as heroes of professionalization: in a world in which professors made themselves as comfortable in the chairs as in their armchairs in the London clubs, because they already considered connoisseurship to be science, Leavis and Williams imposed the question of truth, the methodological test or "scrutiny". which was announced by the title of the magazine founded by Leavis and his wife Queenie without subject restrictions.

In Eagleton's view, I. A. Richards and William Empson, the pioneers of over-precise reading techniques, also associated with Cambridge, paved the way for socially engaged literary studies not only through their working methods, through demonstrations of the power of concentration, but also with the basic ideas of their research, their interest in linguistic structures of meaning beyond the individual properties of individual books, on which the conventional judgment of taste is fixed. As a counter-model to philistine liberal individualism and prefiguration of a community of implicit readers, Eagleton also interprets Eliot's concept of tradition: In this way, he can place the poet scholar, sorted as a cultural conservative in the theoretical canon, at the head of his revolutionaries.