The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Tradition is not only a handing-down or process of benign transmission; it is also a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.
As far as I know, Harold Bloom is the last major proponent of the ‘Great Books’ paradigm of higher education. This makes him something of an apocalyptic prophet. With great solemnity, he predicted (this was in 1994) that the Western world was about to enter into a new cultural era, a new Theocratic Age, wherein dogmatism would drive out aesthetic criteria from literature departments. These new dogmatists Bloom dubs the School of Resentment—a catch-all term that includes Marxist, Feminist, and post-structuralist literary critics. All of these approaches, says Bloom, seek to replace an aesthetic motive for a social or political one, and thus miss the point of literature.
Bloom sets out to defend his familiar Western Canon, and does so by analyzing twenty-six writers to see what makes them canonical. Why do we keep reading Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, and Tolstoy? The answer, Bloom finds, is because these works are strange: “One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies.” Canonical works are those that are always beyond us somehow, those that are too rich, deep, and original to fully absorb.
How do artists achieve this exquisite strangeness? Bloom’s answer is that authors creatively misread the works of their predecessors to clear a creative space for themselves. This is Bloom’s famous anxiety of influence. Every writer feels anxiety about what they owe to their predecessors, so they attempt to find a weakness or a shortcoming—a place where there is still room for originality. But almost no author is original enough to outperform every one of their literary forebears. In Bloom’s opinion, there have only been two writers who have done so: Dante and Shakespeare. (I would add a few others to the list, personally.)
While Dante is given his due, Shakespeare is the real center of this book. Bloom is obsessed with Shakespeare: he worships him. For Bloom, Shakespeare invented the modern human. By this he means (I think) that Shakespeare’s characters redefined what we think of as personality and the self. Every writer since Shakespeare has so deeply internalized Shakespeare’s version of human nature that we can’t portray people in any other light. Shakespeare’s mind was too vast, acute, and convincing for us to get beyond it. Thus all writers after Shakespeare are forced to misread and misunderstand him in order to find a space for creativity.
Since Bloom thinks Shakespeare is so inescapably central, he discusses Shakespeare in every chapter—even the chapters on writers who predated Shakespeare: Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, and Montaigne. But Shakespeare is not the only writer whose influence Bloom discusses. Bloom’s whole model of literary originality consists of reading and misreading, influence and anxiety, so he is constantly comparing and contrasting writers. One of his favorite activities is to trace out literary ancestries, saying which writer descended from which.
It is hard for me to know what to make of all this. I find Bloom’s model of the anxiety of influence really compelling. But it is clearly the theory of an avid reader, not a writer. As is obvious on every page, Bloom is obsessed with reading; so it’s natural for him to reduce the writing process to reading and misreading. Bloom’s approach also leads to a rather inordinate amount of name-dropping. He mentions scores of poets, playwrights, and novelists on every page, often in long lists, and sometimes this seems to be for purposes of intimidation rather than illumination. What is more, Bloom’s approach requires a great deal of comparing and contrasting between different authors, which can make it seem as though he is more interested in connections between authors rather than authors themselves.
Bloom’s writing style, while appealing, can also be off-putting. There is something incantatory about it. He repeats similar observations, drops the same names, inserts the same quotations, and asserts the same points in different contexts and to slightly different purposes. His mind seems always to be swirling and buzzing rather than traveling in a straight line. He also has the bad habit of arguing from authority rather than with reasons. His treatment of the so-called School of Resentment is dismissive at best. He does not address their arguments, but rather talks of them as lost souls, blinded by worldly things. Another fault is that he makes assertions about authors that are not properly substantiated. The most noticeable of these was his claim that all of Freud’s theories are contained in Shakespeare—something he says repeatedly, but never adequately demonstrates.
I found Bloom to be consistently good in his criticism, but not great. There are many excellent and thought-provoking observations about writers and books here. But all too often Bloom’s criticism consists of little more than repeatedly insisting that this author is one of the best. His belief is that aesthetic appreciation can’t be taught; thus if you are not so endowed, you simply have to trust Bloom that certain writers are better than others. To be fair I think it’s impossible to “prove” that Shakespeare is better than Dan Brown. Nevertheless, Bloom’s attitude of authority can be seriously disagreeable. To question the motivation of your opponents (which he does) and to position yourself as an oracle and a prophet (which he also does) are not healthy attitudes for an intellectual.
Despite all of these misgivings, however, I still largely agree with Bloom’s judgments. In my experience the writers in Bloom’s canon are in a league of their own for the depth of literary pleasure they can provide. And although I am not so convinced of the autonomy of the aesthetic, I also think that aesthetic criteria are ultimately the most important in literary judgments.
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