Harold Bloom on Canonicity
Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages . London: Macmillan, 1995.
‘An Elegy for the Canon’.
Bloom opens his essay by stating how, ‘[o]riginally the Canon meant the choice of books in our teaching institutions’ and by suggesting that the pertinent question relating to canonicity is: ‘What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?’ (15) Bloom expresses anxiety about the multiplicity of literature and hopes for the reconstitution of a certain order of literature.
Bloom consider the idealization of literature quoting W.H. Auden who apparently stated that reading ‘bad books’ was ‘bad for the character’. (16) In contrast, Bloom suggests that now the opposite is thought to be the case – good books have ill effects on readers:
Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that bad poetry is sincere. (16)
Bloom uses the example of President Clinton’s inaugural poem by Maya Angelou describing it in terms of its sincerity (and consequently implying that it is bad poetry). Bloom resentfully describes that poem as ‘instantly canonical’ and laments the fact that he cannot protest for fear that, ‘our own universities would feel compelled to indict us as racists and sexists’. (16) Bloom blames this on the lack of fanatical readers who have been brought up reading books. The readers that do exist are apparently exhausted by anxiety about who the new readers will be or if they will exist at all. Bloom phrases this rather melodramatically: ‘The shadows lengthen in our evening land, and we approach the second millennium expecting further shadowing.’ (16)
Dismissing the question of who is to blame for the problems outlined above, Bloom turns to the notion of literary criticism praising Aristophanes as its progenitor. Bloom states: ‘Cultural criticism is another dismal social science, but literary criticism, as an art, always was and always will be an elitist phenomenon.’ (17)
Bloom rejects the notion of a canon in the Biblical sense. Rather he thinks of the canon as means to present ‘what has been preserved out of what has been written’ which he labels ‘the Art of Memory’. (17) Bloom sees this ‘Memory’ as one and the same as ‘Hope’, yet he laments the fact that there will no longer be the capacity ‘to institutionalize [sic] hope’. (17) Bloom then lapses into a somewhat elitist diatribe about those who do not recognize the value of literature:
We need to teach more selectively, searching for the few who have the capacity to become highly individual readers and writers. […] Pragmatically, aesthetic value can be recognized or experienced, but it cannot be conveyed to those who are incapable of grasping its sensations and perceptions. To quarrel on its behalf is always a blunder. (17)
This seems somewhat convenient. However, Bloom qualifies his statement registering his interest in ‘the flight from the aesthetic’ and he notes that for Freud flight was a metaphor for repression, displacement, forgetting. Bloom describes the academic ‘flight from the aesthetic’ as a way to ‘assuage displaced guilt’ and he describes academics plunging like lemmings from a cliff-face as they ‘chant the litany that literature is best explained as a mystification promoted by bourgeois institutions’. (18) (Are these academics Marxists?) Bloom explains: ‘A poem cannot be read as a poem, because it is primarily a social document or, rarely yet possibly, an attempt to overcome philosophy.’ (18) According to Bloom, this treatment of poetry either ‘exiles it for being destructive of social well-being’ or employs it for ‘social catharsis under the banners of the new multiculturalism.’ (18) Bloom maintains the rather abstract cause of keeping ‘poetry as fully and as purely as possible’. (18)
At this point, Bloom moves on to talk on the topic of anxiety employing Freud’s definition Angst vor etwas or ‘anxious expectations’.
A literary work also arouses expectations that it needs to fulfil or it will cease to be read. The deepest anxieties of literature are literary; indeed, in my view, they define the literary and become all but identical with it. A poem, a novel, or play acquires all of humanity’s disorders, including the fear of mortality, which in the art of literature is transmuted into the quest to be canonical, to join communal or societal memory. (19)
Bloom suggests that the best works of literature revolve around obsession and desire. The question that follows from this asks why human beings decided that some works of literature would be protected. Bloom rejects Hebraic traditions or Christian mythology as an origin. He wonders about Dante, Petrarch and Shakespeare and notes that there are references in their work to immortal texts. He refers to Curtius who traced the idea of poetic fame back to the Illiad and Horace’s Odes . The idea of a secular canon did not emerge until the eighteenth century. Currently, the religious origins of the canon have been eroded and now the word means a choice among a number of struggling texts.
Why texts are included in a canon is debated in this essay. While Bloom believes that canons are created by ‘late-coming authors who feel themselves chosen by particular ancestral figures’ (a strange interpretation), he also notes that canons are thought to be created by:
• dominant social groups,
• institutions of education,
• traditions of criticism,
• successful advertising,
• and propaganda campaigns. (20)
Bloom has little time for sceptics of canon-making: ‘Originality becomes a literary equivalent of such terms as individual enterprise, self-reliance, and competition, which do not gladden the hearts of Feminists, Afrocentrists, Marxists, Foucault-inspired New Historicists or Deconstructors – of all those whom I have described as members as of the School of Resentment.’ (20) This is frankly laughable!
Like Harris, Bloom refers to Fowler and notes how changes in taste can effect canon-making. Bloom gives examples such as the American prose romance and the journalistic novel. He laments the devaluation of the historical novel.
Returning to Fowler, Bloom explores the idea of the ‘temporary canon’ and the deletions and inclusions that are made with each new age. Bloom agrees with Fowler that aesthetic choice has guided canon-making, but laments the politicised attack on canonicity. He sees the desire to destroy the canon as detrimental: ‘Nothing is so essential to the Western Canon as its principles of selectivity, which are only elitist to the extent that they are founded upon severely artistic criteria.’ (22)
Bloom criticises the idea that the act of canon-making is ideological and using Gramsci as a straw man suggest that thoughts about the intellectual’s domination by a hegemonic social order. Without much self-consciousness, Bloom presents a purely personal view of his role as a critic seeing himself as detached and superior. Rather he sees the anti-canonisers as being in the employment of ideology accusing them of ‘falling into the trap of becoming what they beheld’. (23) Bloom lambastes what he calls the School of Resentment for seeing aesthetic standards as emanating from class struggle: ‘I myself insist that the individual self is the only method and whole standard for apprehending aesthetic value.’ (23) Bloom admits that class conflict or any other conflict can effect one’s perception, yet he does not admit that this can colour aesthetics. For Bloom, aesthetics must be immutable, thus he turns to Shakespeare and asks, if canons are created through struggle (class or otherwise) why was Shakespeare selected and not Ben Johnson? Couldn’t it just be because his work was aesthetically good? Bloom states: ‘Originality is the great scandal that resentment cannot accommodate, and Shakespeare remains the most original writer we will ever know.’ (25) Naively, Bloom believes: ‘All strong literary originality becomes canonical.’ (25)
Using the examples of Milton and Dante, Bloom tries to argue for a universal set of aesthetic standards. He states: ‘The issue is containment, and great literature will insist upon its self-sufficiency in the face of worthier causes: feminism, African-American culturism, and all the other politically correct enterprises of our moment.’ (28) Interesting that Bloom sees these movements as fleeting and of the moment, which is obviously not the case.
Bloom writes how, ‘[o]ne breaks into the canon only by aesthetic strength, which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction.’ (29) Bloom continues trying to remove any links between literature and politics stating that if we read canons in the frame of the social, political or even the personal, ‘ we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation’. (29) To me it seems that Bloom damns himself by his own mouth.