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The Western Canon by Harold Bloom

The Western Canon by Harold Bloom (Harcourt Brace, copyright 1994)

I first heard of Harold Bloom after he wrote a recent book about how to enjoy poetry, which seems to me about as useful as an introduction to chocolate.

When I dissed him in personal correspondence for this singularly trendy act (on the heels of Dana Gioia but before Billy Collins), I was quickly informed of his eminence as "Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale," the author of over twenty books. So I went to my local library to find something representative of his work and found The Western Canon. I read most of it and scanned the rest. Only the first and last chapters are really worth reading, as they contain his argument and conclusion, though his idolatry of Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Whitman, Freud, Kafka and Joyce is a thing to behold.

Briefly, Bloom argues for a western canon that transcends the Balkanization of modern English Departments, which he cheerfully predicts will eventually be gobbled up by Humanities Departments until only a few faithful scribes remain, like the handful of professors who still teach Latin and Greek ("Tereu, tereu").

The qualities Bloom chooses to qualify an author for the canon (each author's work differing "in degree and kind") are 1) subsuming the tradition, and 2) departing from it. So Virgil departed from Homer, Dante from Virgil, Joyce from Shakespeare, all laboring in a shadow to raise an original light. Yet Bloom tends to favor departure over continuity and displays a love of the grotesque in his choice of twenty-six representative authors. For instance, he considers Whitman nearly untouchable for the sake of originality, even if the main literary tradition he subsumed was Emerson. He chooses Kafka as most representative of the modern age because most original; he thinks Goethe, especially Faustus Part II, sublime for originality though less readable than Finnegan's Wake. When all is said and done, he hails Dante and Shakespeare as the foundation of the Western Canon, and who can argue with that? But when considering antiquity or modernity, I find it hard to believe that Bloom is either a scholar or an important critic.

Beginning with the beginning, he admits the Torah into the Canon but not the Bible entire, especially the New Testament, of which he is marvelously ignorant, so ignorant, in fact, that Augustine does not qualify among the pre-Dantean ancients. More incredibly, he proposes the 'J' source of the Torah to be Bathsheba the Hittite, purchased by murder, wife to David and mother to Solomon. Here his love of Shakespearean tragedy betrays his sanity. Ironically, he roasts Freud for a similar error: refusing to believe that Shakespeare was the son of a glove maker. Bloom details at length how Freud convinced himself, against all evidence, that Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford, who, like Lear, had three daughters. As odd as this intellectual blind spot is in Freud, who had many, Bloom's belief in Bathsheba as the 'J' source is even stranger. It would make many conservative Bible scholars laugh until they wet their cassocks, even though Bloom has wasted a whole book on the subject (in which he did not as yet endorse Bathsheba outright, The Book of J, 1990).

Bloom's ignorance of Christianity fuels his contempt of Eliot, who does not make the canon, of course, except as a footnote in the appendix; he associates Eliot with a theocratic/New Criticism cabal against which he rebelled in his academic youth, and says so freely. But as a measure of his stupidity, Bloom dismisses Eliot as a "fusion of Whitman and Tennyson," ignoring Poe and the French Symbolists outright and Eliot's connection to Dante as well. Curioser and curioser. And though I find large areas of agreement, his egregious errors of valuation and interpretation make me routinely doubt any pronouncements he makes about writers with whom I am less familiar than he.

To return to Dante for a moment: Bloom asserts that it is amazing the church accepted the Divine Comedy, particularly since it creates a "new god" in Beatrice. Professor Bloom, I got news for you: the Catholic Church has subsumed more gods than you'll ever know, and one more incarnation of the Divine Mother isn't going to put the Pope's panties in a twist. It is precisely such aberrations of perspective that cause me to doubt much of what Bloom asserts.

In my essay (Melic Archives link here) "Introduction to Logopoetry," I posited four ages of western literature since the Elizabethans: Theism, Deism, Weism, and Meism. Bloom makes the same divisions: The Theocratic Age, the Aristocratic Age, the Democratic Age, and the Age of Chaos. But this is not enough for him, as he must appropriate the prophet's mantle as well. Seeking some Hegelian or Teilhard de Chardin closure, he cheerfully predicts that the next age in literature will be theocratic once again, and blames Eliot, to a degree, for sowing the seeds thereof. This is science fiction, at best, but cannot be disproved, as it is only a prediction.

One recurrent tension in Bloom's valuation of anything Canon-worthy is originality (difficulty) vs. universality: "The strongest poetry is cognitively and imaginatively too difficult to be read deeply by more than a relative few of any social class, gender, race, or ethnic origin." (pg. 520) Compare this with, "What Johnson and Woolf after him called the Common Reader still exists and possibly goes on welcoming suggestions of what might be read." (518) While he praises Shakespeare and Dickens for their originality and universality, he avers the very best poetry is unavailable to most, just as Eliot remarked, "Poetry has always been for the elite."

In my Logopoetry essays I have argued repeatedly that the very best artists are not only greatly original, but universal in appeal. This narrows the Canon considerably, eliminating Joyce and Goethe, for instance. Such a categorical narrowing might even bar the simplistic but grotesque Whitman, who projects himself on nature beyond anything Wordsworth imagined. Dante is another problem with regard to difficulty, but I believe a good translation without footnotes would be enjoyed by the Common Reader, which I define as someone with a liberal arts BA or its autodidactic equivalent, which, given the state of education according to Bloom, isn't asking much.

For any interested, here are the twenty-six authors Bloom chooses as representative of the Western Canon, not including the ancients: Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Montaigne, Moliere, Milton, Samuel Johnson ("The Canonical Critic"), Goethe, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Whitman, Dickinson, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Borges, Neruda, Pessoa, and Beckett. Up to Montaigne I think there can be very little argument, excepting Petrarch, perhaps. But afterwards the choices become as revealing of Bloom as they are of any tradition, with the possible exception of Wordsworth, Dickens, Tolstoy and Whitman (three of whom I don't particularly like).

Bloom does us a service in asserting that certain authors do rise above the crowd, best confirmed by history, independent of current social prejudice. In fact, perhaps the most valuable thing he says in the whole book is: "As an addict who will read anything, . (I) return to tell you neither what to read nor how to read it, only what I have read and think worthy of re-reading, which may be the only pragmatic test for the canonical." (518)

Now this struck me as immediately true, and in my mind bloomed my own canon: The Bible, Homer, Virgil, Augustine, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Dickens, and possibly Swift, Poe, Mark Twain and Balzac. Properly presented, any of these authors can not only be understood and enjoyed by the average literate person, but bear re-reading, preferably without footnotes, which rob the reader of continuity and too often insult his intelligence.

Notice that my condensed list stopped with the last century. I think it takes at least a hundred years to properly value anything in our culture, and any judgment of this century's authors would be presumptuous; nevertheless, if I had to, I might choose Steinbeck, Mann, Faulkner, Proust, and Marquez, as we live in the age of the novel, and few read verse anymore, or, should I say, we have lived the age of the novel and now live in the age of film.

I cannot recommend this book except for the first and last chapters, "An Elegy for the Canon" and "Elegaic Conclusion." Bloom's ignorance of the influence of Christianity on western literature, particularly the New Testament, is inexcusable. Jerome's Vulgate, Luther's translation and the King James Bible are the only works that have influenced our culture and tongue more than Shakespeare, and Bloom's ignorance of this fact I find as shocking as he does the ethno-gender-politico-centric Balkanization of traditional literary criticism. Furthermore, Bloom carefully avoids all mention of values in literature, relying upon originality of invention, or genius, to support his "art for art's sake" arguments for canonicity. I have argued before [see Poetry and Morality] and will continue to argue that without a belief in cosmic order, neither Dante nor Shakespeare, his two canonical favorites, would have achieved such preeminence. I think much of the vapidity of existential (or post-modern) literature results from this very lack. In a world without justice there can be no poetic justice, and without poetic justice great tragedy is near impossible. True, Shakespeare's greatest works ascend beyond poetic justice into the void of chaos, particularly King Lear, but without his Elizabethan world view as footing he could never have ventured into the abyss. Likewise, without the legacy of the "Moral Pagans" like Seneca and Virgil and the hierarchy of the Catholic religion, Dante's art would be considerably diminished, if it existed at all.

Using Bloom against Bloom, could his prediction of a coming theocratic age in literature be an admission that aesthetics are not enough? Such an admission would be at once more heretical and canonical than anything he has to say.

      — C.E. Chaffin