Constructing the Canon: Problems in Bengali Literary Historiography
Let me begin by stating very clearly that this paper does not claim to be exhaustive in any respect; it is rather a tentative articulation of some issues and problems that have interested me as a student of literary history. I should also mention that I consider literature or literary history very much an aspect of the larger cultural history of the people at a particular time and place. In this short paper, I would like to look into the problem of constructing a canon of texts while writing a "history" of literature with particular reference to the history of Bengali literature.
Peoples or nations construct histories of their past for various reasons. These narratives help in formulating a desired sense of identity among societies, and post-structuralist theorizing has commented profusely on the very constitutive nature of any discourse or narrative. Events of the past do not possess any intrinsic meaning by themselves, they acquire meaning in the light of what comes after them and the way these discrete happenings are arranged in a narrative by a historian or a story-teller. In this sense, all history-writing involves mediation and explicit or implicit conscious manipulation to cater to contemporary demands.
Histories of literatures are narratives of the same kind; they are attempts at retrieving and representing a canon which would meet the requirements of changing historical periods. That is why each age interprets facts and texts in a different manner, and there is no dearth of "histories" written at different points of time according to the needs of a particular constituency occupying a certain geographical space. A literary canon takes shape in the form of a narrative that constructs a coherent account of the growth of the literary culture of a people, and necessarily reflects the demands as well as the constraints that remain implicit in the agenda. In any such construction, narratives seek to preserve or emphasize only those texts that perpetuate
Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad.
Social Scientist, Vol. 23 Nos. 10-12, October-December 1995