Commentary Magazine


The Western Canon, by Harold Bloom

The Battle of the Books

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.
by Harold Bloom.
Harcourt Brace. 578 pp. $29.95.

As has been recorded in dispiriting detail by numerous observers, the wholesale embrace of multiculturalism in our universities has mainly led not to an opening-up of the curriculum to other cultures, but to a denigration of the products of our own Western tradition. Worse, the multiculturalists have been joined in spirit by two other academic movements: the gender-feminists, and the “new historicism.” The gender-feminists aim to undo the Western “canon”—the commonly accepted great works—as the cultural traces of male privilege or “patriarchy” (to use the agitprop slogan). The new historicists reduce literary works to ideological manipulations; in this reading, the great books of the West amount to a sorry parade of racist, sexist, chauvinist, and hyper-rationalist apologetics.

To be sure, there have been counteroffensives to these attacks on the Western cultural tradition, but most of them have been confined to arguing with the philosophical premises of the radicals, or to exposing the solecisms and irrationality hiding behind the scholarly veneer of multiculturalist “theory.” Valuable as such fusillades have been, there has been a missing dimension, and that is why one approaches the latest work by the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom with high expectations.

Like some other commentators, Bloom expresses open contempt for the radicals, lumping them together under the droll rubric of the “School of Resentment.” But though he gets off some choice polemical rounds—vigorous if not especially fresh or well-thought-out—the main purpose of The Western Canon is not to attack but to defend. What Bloom defends is the notion that “aesthetic merit” is, and should be, the only valid criterion for judging the worth of literature; by that criterion, an objective pecking order of greatness emerges, which Bloom contends it is necessary for us to respect.

The bulk of Bloom’s book consists of discussions of 26 of the great literary figures of the West; among these primi inter pares are Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Dickens, Tolstoy, Proust, and Beckett. In appendices at the end, Bloom also offers the names of hundreds of other major figures as a guide to further reading.

With an exception here or there, few are likely to quarrel with Bloom’s principal choices, but the lists at the end are more contentious. Dividing them according to a scheme borrowed from the 18th-century Italian philologist, Giambattista Vico, Bloom gives us four ages of Western literature: a Theocratic Age, an Aristocratic Age, a Democratic Age, and our current Chaotic Age. Unfortunately, as the time draws nearer to our own moment, Bloom’s confidence in what constitutes canonical status appears to fade.

There seems to be something almost arbitrary in many of Bloom’s choices of contemporary authors. We may note with relief the absence of Alice Walker—who comes in for some nasty invective in the main text as a representative of the “resentment” school—but why should the no less ideological Toni Morrison be accorded the laurel? And we may wonder at Bloom’s showily idiosyncratic insistence that he felt obliged to include the distinguished poets Robert Lowell and Philip Larkin only because they are esteemed by other critics (but not by him), while without any special pleading he casually lists that universal “Catalonian” poet J.V. Foix. (Good luck in finding his poetic oeuvre in your local bookstore.) And then there are Bloom’s cute acts of log-rolling, as when he canonizes his fellow academic superstar, Frank Kermode, for The Sense of An Ending—a worthy book but a work of criticism, not literature.

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But there are larger problems with The Western Canon, and they have to do precisely with Bloom’s notion of aesthetic merit, his criterion of canonical status. For him, the essence of aesthetic merit is “strangeness.” Indeed, it is notable how often, in discussing great works, he repairs to what is especially peculiar, offbeat, or weird about them. In general Bloom’s tastes run to the grotesque as much as to the sublime, and from that point of view alone, The Western Canon may be the least traditional defense of tradition ever penned.

What explains this obsession with strangeness? Bloom started his career as an ingenious interpreter of British Romantic poetry—William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley being his special favorites. Where earlier critics had tended to see the Romantics as sentimental, nature-worshipping pietists, Bloom emphasized their Promethean side, turning them into visionary questers. And Bloom himself has always identified with this Romantic Prometheanism—the battle of man to overcome the limitations imposed by the gods. For him, there is no higher divinity than the exalted sublimity of our deepest self (or Self).

In the early 70’s, Bloom started developing a theory of literary influence, in which he married this Promethean theme to Freud. According to the theory, first articulated in The Anxiety of Influence (1973), writers become great through a symbolic slaying of their literary forebears; this attempted Oedipal vanquishing of the “father” is accomplished by swerving away from or deflecting the powerful metaphors and myths of the great figures of the past. Put another way, the writer becomes great by throwing off the shackles of past invention and learning to find his true self.

By the late 70’s, Bloom had turned to the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah to find interpretive analogies for the methods used by aspiring poets to ward off the ghosts of literary ancestors. Soon he was exploring mystical traditions more widely, and came to embrace the shadow religion of gnosticism.

Scholars tell us that gnosticism, which coexisted with Judaism and Christianity in the early centuries of our era, is an esoteric tradition in which a secret knowledge of the divine—a “gnosis,” from the ancient Greek term for knowing—is passed down from adept to adept. In Bloom’s revisionist gnosticism, however, the spiritual circuit that should run from reflection on the secret things to worship of the divine as the source of those secret things is cut short. Why not, he seems to say, just stop with the reflecting Self? Bloom adopts gnostic trappings, in other words, not to proselytize for a renewed spirituality but to trumpet his antinomian trust in himself—his often-expressed pride in living and thinking outside the higher law.

So it is not surprising that Bloom tends to define the greatness of his canonical authors through their embodiment of a similarly extreme narcissism—which it sometimes requires all the hermeneutical brilliance of a Harold Bloom to bring to light. Doing so, indeed, means that other concerns go by the boards in The Western Canon. Thus, although Bloom pays extravagant lip service to the notion of the “aesthetic,” one finds in this book virtually no mention of the art of writing, or anything more than passing regard for the special beauty of great poetry and prose. This is a shame, since one of the worst effects of the new political reductionism in literary studies has been to wither any appreciation for the sensuous wonders of great writing. Bloom, who warns against the puritanism and philistinism of the multiculturalists, thus inadvertently contributes to their de-aestheticizing view of literature.

Even as he dispenses with traditional notions of style as an important element of literary greatness, Bloom also dispenses with traditional notions of meaning. Not content to attack the radical Left’s appropriation of literature for political aims, he also professes himself dismayed by the view—which he attributes, mystifyingly, to “the Right”—that great writing may have moral lessons to teach. For Bloom, literature, even when it is the exercise of supreme intelligence, has no cognitive content.

The center of Bloom’s canon is Shakespeare—not, however, because of the transcendent beauty of Shakespeare’s writing, and not because of Shakespeare’s unrivaled ability to show us the human world in all its multifarious complexity, but rather because no one else has had Shakespeare’s power to imitate life by teaching us “how to speak to ourselves.” It is through the Shakespearean soliloquy, writes Bloom, that we learn how to “overhear” ourselves, and thus to reckon with our deepest selfhood. If this is the sum and substance of Shakespeare’s genius, it is bad news for anyone who believes that great literature can teach us about the world, or about social experience, or about humane values.

Bloom’s obsession with the self is even more strongly evident in his treatment of traditional religious themes. Take his reading of Dante, the greatest Christian poet of our literary tradition. In The Divine Comedy, Dante created an immense narrative poem reflecting his own—and by extension any professing Christian’s—journey to redemption through faith. It is a work of staggering originality and richness, combining political allegory (of the dynastic struggle of the Guelphs and Ghibellines for control of the Florentine city-state), spiritual autobiography, and doctrinal teachings; and it accomplishes this within an epic form which does nothing less than reinvent the Italian language as a vehicle for the “high style” of abstract thought and sublime sentiment, while retaining all its vernacular energy and worldliness.

And what of these things can be found in Bloom’s account? Again, there is precious little reflection on the beauty and inventiveness of Dante’s language—which can be felt even in translation. As to doctrine and religious sentiment, Bloom dismisses—with the kind of grudging admiration that barely conceals contempt—the many learned exegetes who have contributed to recovering the theological context of Dante’s allegorical scheme. For Bloom, Dante may have been a religious poet, but he was first and foremost a poet, and great poets can have but one true faith: the faith in their own “sublime” poetic self.

Thus, where Bloom locates Dante’s “true” greatness is in his invention of Beatrice, the quasi-angelic guide who leads Dante (as a character in his poem) to divine grace. Beatrice was a real historical person, a banker’s daughter who died young and for whom Dante harbored an unrequited passion. To Harold Bloom, the fact that Dante in his poem elevates Beatrice to the status of spiritual mediator, much higher than that of the nominal angels and saints, suggests that Dante is, in effect, telling the world that he is like God, for he too possesses and embodies the miraculous power of creation.

Perhaps Bloom has captured here some psychological truth about Dante the man. (Anyone who has ever attended a literary cocktail party knows that even the most minor of poets can be a colossal egotist; how much more so, we can imagine, the truly great.) But in its own way Bloom’s reading is amazingly reductive: Dante’s life, his historical setting, his understanding of Church teachings, his poetics—above all, the transforming power of his artistic imagination—are all tossed aside in order to pay tribute to his alleged deification of himself.

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As it happens, there are writers whose work is well served by Bloom’s gnostic bent. For instance, he is entertaining on the very strange second part of Goethe’s Faust, which he amiably likens to a “monster movie”; perhaps his discussion of it will help this work, long confined to specialists, gain new readers. And Bloom has always had interesting things to say about the American Romantics, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” about the “the real me” and “me myself,” and Dickinson’s angst-ridden wrestling with a highly personalized God, are engaging subjects for Bloom’s gnostic treatment.

Yet in the end, Bloom’s approach to literature, even when it “works,” is a peculiarly airless and smothering one. Missing from it is any sense of literature as a living medium, involving multiple webs of influence, chains of interaction, all the stuff and matter of worldly life, and beautiful writing to boot. It is good to have so eminent a figure as Harold Bloom in the battle against the ideological philistines; but we need a more capacious and vital defense of our literary civilization than the one he affords us.

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