The Western Canon The Books and Schools of the Ages by Harold Bloom Papermac #10

IT IS COMMON KNOWLEDGE, or should be, that what for want of a better word is termed the "Western canon", is under attack. The assumption that certain established texts may be taken for granted in the teaching of English literature, that certain writers were ipso-facto "great" has literally been subverted by a "deconstructionist" technique, Marxist and post-Marxist, which seeks to relativise the value of literary texts by virtue of their intrinsic social, economic context. Marx himself started the ball rolling with his praise of Balzac, not for anything so common as a "good read" but because Balzac, despite his personal politics, (he was a monarchist) was aware of the social significance of ideas and motivations and his awareness came across in his writings, making him, according to Marx, a more truly "progressive" writer than, say Emile Zola. Similarly, for Georgi Lukacs Thomas Mann was the last great bourgeois novelist, a precursor of a socialist future. Here the value of writing is instrumentalised, the very notion of intrinsic value in writing is rejected by Marxist critics. "Intrinsic value" must be "deconstructed" so that its class value assumptions are revealed.

Georgi Lukacs nowhere suggested that a hierarchy of value did not exist in European literature or any other part of European culture, yet the Marxist critique had opened the Pandora's box of cultural relativism so far as the judgement of literary art was concerned. Subsequently, post-Marxist and neo-Marxist critics have taken the notion of relativity several steps further. Art is very much what the beholder chooses to call art. The assessment of value, it is asserted, is based on certain value judgements which themselves reflect precise interests. Enter the Dead White Male, Capitalist Society, Patriarchal Society or a combination of all of these or whichever of them incurs the critic's wrath. A recent statement by the Prince of Wales expressing concern about a "general flight from our great literary heritage" was criticised by Alan Sinfield in The London Review of Books for taking the notion of "our" for granted. "Our" needs to be deconstructed. Who is "our"? Do "we" have a canon?

Harold Bloom, in this work, a counter blast to what he calls "the School of Resentment", presents his candidates for the canon, the Western canon, beginning with the Bible and concluding with Samuel Beckett. This is the school of the ages, here he claims are the authoritative texts, which preach no moral lesson, but which are "authoritative in our culture". This begs the question, again :what is "our" culture? This book makes no attempt to answer the question, perhaps because to do so would be to begin to address the problems of the despised "School of Resentment". What is clear is that Professor Bloom is conscious that the West is in the twilight of its age. A Spenglerian pessimism permeates his writing. Spenglerian too is his ability to draw unlikely but inspiring parallels. Bloom paints a future in which, What are now called "Departments of English" will be renamed departments of "Cultural Studies" where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens... He goes on to ponder that reading culture may well have reached its terminus and that the future will be only audio-visual. Shades of McLuhan here. It is surely the case, that for a number of reasons which are not addressed in this book, literary culture, a familiarity with the literary classics, is in decline throughout the world. In Germany, where the writer of this review lives, the modern Germans' ignorance of the German literary heritage is such that their relationship to Schiller or Goethe may reasonably be compared to that of any semi-articulate barbarian down the ages who finds himself dwelling amid the ruins of a civilization which he neither understands nor wishes to understand and with which he shares nothing in common but language (to a degree) and place (changed beyond recognition). To the extent that we understand "German" in terms of a literary heritage, the modern inhabitant of Germany is not German but, if anything at all, secular Jewish, his literary understanding being limited to pornography, war tales , children's books, and children's nightmare stories, Schmalz, the controlled press and soaps . But Bloom himself is Jewish and he does not like what he sees: Western civilization withering at the vine. Bloom's term for the enemies of the canon, "School of Resentment", recalls the invective which another Jewish writer, Ayn Rand, used to denounce the enemies of "Objectivism". There is a strong similarity in their pleas for reason elitism and objectivity in the face of the subjectivists and relativists. They both believe in the authority of greatness and they both believe that those who do not believe the evidence of human greatness are motivated by resentment at their own lack of greatness. But in Bloom's case the listing of a canon implies a religious element to his devotion to Western culture. The term canon, which comes from the Greek word meaning "rule", has a traditionally religious application. Professor Bloom's love of his texts is indeed religious in its enthusiasm. A special place is given to Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the Western canon Bloom states bluntly, concluding a chapter less dogmatically entitled "Shakespeare, Center of the Canon".

Certainly, Shakespeare possesses an astonishing universality and it is one that seems to be shared by no other known writer. Shakespeare was at once universal and English, Pagan and Christian, typical of his age and timeless. Professor Bloom is right to emphasise his uniqueness. In the demeaning modern parlance, Professor Bloom is a "Shakespeare fan" and may just as well be a "Biggles fan" or "Stephen King fan", for modern cultural criticism accepts no hierarchy of quality. It does not do so because firstly it rejects a hierarchy of value in principle and secondly because in reducing Shakespeare it reduces our heritage. Apart from that, as Professor Bloom rightly points out, good literature is painful to read. A Thomas Mann novel demands from its reader a much greater effort, a much greater investment of energy, and even pain of a kind, than a Tom Sharpe novel does. The old utilitarian argument used by Bentham that Pushpin is greater than Pushkin because he provides more pleasure, is the dominant view today. It happens to suit our hedonist culture to relativise cultural values, since in this way, the largest number of cultural objects can be packaged and sold. Cheap literature is better for sales. Dumbness sells.

If statistics from the United States are to be believed, IQ's are falling so rapidly that within a few generations school children will not only be lexically unable to cope with Shakespeare, they will be intellectually unable as well. The energy required for reading is closely related to literary intelligence. That energy is not nurtured in modern education, which expects the pupils' minds to be concentrated on the appropriation of such knowledge as will later have a monetary value. There is no room for a Western canon here. A literary canon is by its nature the result of non-utilitarian value judgements. It insists that there is a value in literature beyond the original purpose or message of the text and that we can determine a hierarchy of value on the basis of literary authority.

The Bible, Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Cervantes are less and less accorded the reverence which was once given to them when they were implicitly accepted as part of the Western Canon. Professor Bloom is right to point this out and right as well to argue that a relativisation of works of art spells the death of art if by art is understood the expression of "higher man". Nevertheless, Professor Bloom's thesis is too simplistic. He fails to address himself to the principle charge of the so-called School of Resentment, which is can be summed up in the question: "whence originates the authority of those who ascribe authority to the texts?" That is the first problem.

The second problem has already been mentioned: what does "our" refer to? On closer examination we can see that the two questions are inter-related. The authority of the canon finds its source in the notion of who we are. In literature the notion of a universal canon is especially problematic because language of all media, is the most inextricably involved in identity and evaluation. Our very tool for judging literature is the substance of literature. If we have no Welsh how can we make a well rounded judgement as to the value of a Welsh poem? We are necessarily compelled to lean on the context at the expense of the form but in religious poetry especially the form is quite inseparable form the context. How can someone who speaks no Welsh judge the merits of the Mebegedion? Goethe's Faust is greatly impoverished in translation but Harold Bloom includes it in the Western canon in the translation by Stuart Atkins. Here we strike a major presumption of the writer and one shared by the majority of the "School of Resentment", namely the superiority of the English language. In a book devoted to the "Western" canon , it is quite clear that if all Western languages are equal, English is more equal than the rest. The reason for the domination of English is financial, political and economic, not literary,-but literature is obliged to follow along or perish (the Nobel prize for Literature is only given to works written in or translated into, English). Professor Blooms notion of a Western canon is a good deal more subjective than he would care to admit. The French canon (incidentally, Professor Bloom makes no attempt to discuss the relationship of a national canon to a Western one.) will exact harder entry requirements on non-French texts than French ones and every national canon approaches the Western canon in the same way. Dante had a special value to an Italian and if I am not able to read Dante in the original a very large part of my appreciation of the poet, a much larger part than Professor Bloom is prepared to concede, is lost to me, to the extent that it is questionable whether for an English reader Dante is more valuable, more part of his canon, than say, Robert Browning. Professor Bloom makes no mention of the fact that he is writing from the prospective of a native English speaker, that his subjective by virtue of his native tongue. Professor Bloom compares the poets Whitman and Neruda by juxtaposing a passage from Song of Myself with one from The Heights of Machu Picchu. The comparison,, we are told does not favour Neruda. Neruda of course, is quoted in English. How would Whitman fare against Neruda if both were cited in Spanish? Professor Bloom seems oblivious of the obvious bias. One is left to wonder if this bias does not reflect the English language domination of Europe in general, which would be ironical indeed if true.

This brings us back to the problem of the "our". Professor Bloom believes that the rejection of the Western canon is the result of resentment. Surely it is also the case that the Western canon is rejected by those who do not feel it is theirs. In this case they do not resent it, they ignore it. This ignorance is more honest in its intention than Professor Bloom will give it credit for, more honest and ultimately more lethal. Every religion is aware that apathy is a greater peril than opposition. If Black professors ignore the Western canon in favour of hip-hop, it is because hip-hop better represents the interests and abilities of Black people than Western art. Surely this is a more significant reason for the decline of the canon than fanatical resentment against the West. Harold Bloom's own choice of writers in the more recent candidates for the canon, which has not been sanctioned by time is idiosyncratic. It includes Beckett, Pessoa, Kafka, Proust, Joyce and Freud (as an essayist). The Jewish and Irish domination of the later part of a Western canon tailored to encompass this priest's own racial and cultural descent is evidence that there is more to the argument that cultural choice is socially or racially conditioned than Harold Bloom imagines.

This entire book is subjective. Professor Bloom's adulation of Shakespeare leads him to deny other writers their own uniqueness, even authenticity. It may be true that John Webster wrote in Shakespeare's shadow, but there is no reason to believe that he would have been amazed to have been considered his equal, as Professor Bloom asserts. On the contrary, the unique genius of Shakespeare was not recognised in the early seventeenth century, except possibly by Ben Jonson. John Webster possessed a poetic talent which was inimitable, even by Shakespeare, at least Shakespeare nowhere wrote anything which compares to the morbid humour of The Duchess of Malfi or The White Devil. Professor Bloom will have none of this. It is difficult to find room to move in a literary world occupied by the Bloomian Titans of the Canon. The insistence on a hierarchy of writers becomes after a while almost as restrictive as a denial of any hierarchy. This is not to deny the unique position of Shakespeare, but his unique position does not mean that he could do everything better than other writers: he could not. Genius may overshadow but it does not encompass all others. In this connection it is significant that Professor Bloom is anxious to depersonalise the writers of the books of the ages. To a great extent I am sympathetic to this rejection of the importance of biography. The reading public, or what is left of it, is more eager to read a biography of Robert Graves than his poems, a biography of Thomas Mann than his novels. Harold Bloom is not much interested in biography. Writers belonging to the canon are presented as writing in a social vacuum, by criteria or standards which are purely literary. The only concession to social milieu is made in a peremptory division of the canon into three ages, the Theocratic, the Aristocratic, and the Democratic. The separation of literary standards from questions of social ambience and contemporary morality is as extreme as the position of Professor Bloom's opponents to the effect that there are no literary standards at all.

Professor Bloom delights in the notion that Shakespeare the man was insignificant and unobtrusive and the possibility of an authorship by anyone other than the obscure man from Stratford is rejected with derision and horror. Still, the influences which play upon and help to mould a writer but they do not spring ready made geniuses all from the brow of Pallas Athene. A genius like Shakespeare is both unique and belongs to his people, his class and his race, not to speak of his age, the Age of Spain, as the great Spanish critic Madariaga noted. In another time, born among another people (admittedly almost a contradiction in terms) Shakespeare would not have been the genius which in the Elizabethan age he was able to become. Professor Bloom, I suspect, would have him springing up willy-nilly, however unfavourable his circumstances from any cultural ground you cared to drop him into. I write "I suspect" because there is nothing in this book which tells us where the writer really stands in the ages-old nurture versus nature debate as it relates to literary genius, yet is it is critical in appreciating or rejecting the canon. After all, the "School of Resentment" deconstructs nature with the tools of social criticism. To combat this effectively we need to argue for the power of the innate. The truth is that Professor Bloom does not really care to know where Shakespeare comes from: a dubious story about a Stratford butcher suffices for him, all that matters is that He is there. To raise Shakespeare to the level of a canon figure Professor Bloom offers little more than the evidence of time, but why should we accept time as the final arbiter? This is a difficult question but an important one. Professor Bloom is too busy drawing parallels between various members of his canon to address himself to the question of their pedigree.

Blooms Western canon is not the final word on what the Western or any other canon should include or exclude. It serves the principal function of a literary canon, however, which is to offer a guideline to reading. Since we have to start somewhere Professor Bloom's canon is as good as any and as a recommended reading list for the literary young it is excellent. The underlying premise that good literature is hard work but rewarding is sound. Its pessimism concerning the abysmal state of knowledge of our literary heritage is justified by every survey carried out on the subject. A work like Michael Bristol's Big Time Shakespeare debates the cultural authority of the canon by suggesting that reputations are built artificially. This is true in the sense that reputations are probably not made without promotion and who has had more of it than Shakespeare? Not nit-picking at the manner in which particular writers have been favoured but by reading them today is the surest way, the only proper way, to decide if their reputation is justified.

This is the essence of Professor Bloom's cry of anguish: start reading again! Learn to read again! The rejection of Shakespeare by, most famously, Shaw and Tolstoy, indeed reeks of resentment and it is notable that they are critiques of feeling, not rational analysis. Ultimately our acceptance of Shakespeare and a canon in general amounts to a feeling and the feeling (and here Professor Bloom is silent) emerges at least in part from an apprehension of a reflection of our identity. If young people prefer Stephen King to Dostoyevsky, it is not because the simpler art is better or worse but because it is more truly theirs in its banality and shallowness, also in its simplicity and unaffectedness. The choice of art is also a choice of character in the most profound sense. The canon is a subtle interplay of the subjective and the objectively cultural. If there are many who wish to do away with the canon it is not so much for reasons of resentment, Shaw and Tolstoy being exceptions here, this deeply Nietzschean understanding of human motivation originates in an ignorance of the common, that is "non- canonical" man - it is because the Western canon as here presented has become alien to millions. Put bluntly, millions cannot appreciate the Western canon because they are innately unable to do so.

Appreciation of the canon is declining. There are several reasons for this. The rise of technological media is one. The decline in overall intelligence (one of the best documented and least published facts of our time) is another. Not mentioned at all in this book for the usual reasons, but highly significant, is the fact that Western culture is a mixture of Jewish and Aryan traditions (as Thomas Mann, himself part- Jewish, part-German, well understood, though he would hardly have couched the fact in such terms) owing little to any other tradition, pace Salman Rushdie. With the rise in atheism, Islam, international capitalism, the cultural references of the canon become yearly more obscure to more people. As this is an "environmentalist" argument of a kind, Professor Bloom does not mention it. True, he does mention that some writers in the canon are "closer to us" than others by virtue of social circumstances but he does not go further into this aspect of the subject than that. That is the one slight nod in the direction of those who claim that attention should be paid to the environment in which literary works are produced.

The canon is not for everyone. Even here one must be careful of hyperbole: education or the lack of it plays a considerable role in the perpetuation of an artistic canon. Here Professor Bloom hits the nail on the head: a decline in the education which fosters reading will inevitably lead to a decline in the appreciation of literature itself. There is a case for arguing that the decline in the written word will help produce a more "present-oriented" hedonistic and a historical individual unable to exercise good taste through historical comparisons. If we do not agree with Professor Bloom's choices, then to quote a writer included by Harold Bloom in the Western Canon, William Blake: I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's. Our system must be based on a self-knowledge as sure as Professor Bloom's and with an erudition to match. Now did I say "our" again?

Dominic Campbell

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