Do we need a literary canon?

Richard Jenkyns in Prospect Magazine:

Essay_jenkyns We live in a world without heroes. The one exception is Nelson Mandela, and his canonisation testifies to the void which he helps to fill. The middle of the last century saw men such as Churchill, Mao and De Gaulle who, for better or worse, were big figures. Two decades ago there were leaders like Thatcher, Gorbachev and again Mandela. Today, on the other hand, it appears that not one of the nearly 200 nations of the world is led by a person of truly exceptional quality. Perhaps we are fortunate to live in an age that calls for technocrats rather than titans, but something has been lost.

We lack cultural heroes, too. Isaiah Berlin used to say in his last years that there were no geniuses left in the world: no great novelists, poets, painters or composers. That judgement may or may not be true, but it surely expresses a general perception. On the surface there is a good deal of chatter about young British artists or brilliant novelists and filmmakers, but deep down we feel that nothing very large is coming to birth. Architecture is the main counter-example: Santiago Calatrava seems to me clearly a genius, Frank Gehry may be, and perhaps there are others. But architects are less crushed by the burden of the past than artists in other fields: modern technology opens up to them forms of expressive possibility unknown to earlier generations. Writers and painters do not share this advantage. I remember in the 1970s a distinguished person passing the Listener to me and saying, about The Old Fools, “There is a poem that will last for 500 years”: it was Philip Larkin’s latest. It is a sentence that one cannot easily imagine being spoken today. The present standard of musical performance, by contrast, is astonishingly high, but it is significant, again, that the best interpreters of our time receive the kind of veneration that used to go to composers: it reveals an absence.

More here.