by Laurie McMillan
[with my apologies to David Bowie for my remixed title]
The chapter on “The Pleasures of the Canon” in Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature (2011) celebrates memorization as a form of owning a text, making it one’s own (73). I completely agree in many instances, and I know I’m not alone in collecting quotes, poems, and songs—not systematically, but as I’ve been touched or moved or entertained. Memorizing means I can take the text out when I want to and relive it or share it, bringing it into my life to speak anew.
That last part is important. Texts speak anew. That is, texts change. They mean differently in different contexts.
Garber gets at this point more literally when recounting the way “The Pledge of Allegiance” has changed over time. And the change is both in terms of words—the addition of “under God”—and in terms of context: the Pledge was initially a marketing device used to help sell flags (74). But, of course, often when the Pledge is recited, it is recited by rote, without thought or interpretation or new life. And, often people are uncomfortable with the idea of the Pledge changing in any way over time, to the point of minimizing any mention that it has ever been different.
This worry (or fear?) has something to do with being able to rely on certain things. The idea that many things are not completely reliable is scary. We don’t want to have a good text used for bad purposes. We want control over meaning.
I don’t think that desire is one that will ever disappear, either among individuals or among groups of people. But I do think that knowing complete control is impossible helps us keep a healthier perspective, and I also believe that we can exert some control.
Finding out that a single perspective is not the only perspective is incredibly empowering. It means being able to consider alternate ways of seeing a single thing, and seeing options means being able to choose among these options. It also means being able to communicate better since knowing that multiple meanings are possible means recognizing that others may be holding assumptions that are different from my own.
It’s like the time my roommates and I went to the grocery store together to prepare for a party. Two of us set off down the fruit and vegetable aisle on the far right while the third roommate went straight up the soup aisle with a plan to circle back to the produce aisle eventually. We laughed, and we each talked about the “right” way to go through the grocery store and our reasoning. I don’t remember which way we went, but it was a neat thing to find that my default method was not the only way to go, and that I may be missing out on a better shopping experiences (and less-smushed bananas) by opening myself up to a new path.