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Critical Essay by David Dooley
SOURCE: "Bloom and The Canon," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 333-38.
In the following review, Dooley notes that The Western Canon marks a "significant change of direction" for Bloom.
Consider the two following kinds of critical writing:
1) I must admit that each time I reread [Bleak House], I tend to cry whenever Esther Summerson cries….
2) [T]here are no texts, but only relationships between texts.
The first quotation may seem naive or at least old-fashioned, not only pre-Derrida but pre-New Criticism. The second kind of writing is immediately recognizable as a specimen of academic deconstruction or literary "theory"; the source is the first page of Harold Bloom's A Map of Misreading (1975). Surprisingly, the first quotation is later, not earlier, than the second; it comes from Harold Bloom's new book, The Western Canon. Part of the interest of The Western Canon lies in measuring the distance Bloom has traveled from books like A Map of Misreading and The Anxiety of Influence (1973).
One cannot understand Bloom's criticism, especially The Anxiety of Influence, without imagining the situation of a very bright, very well-read young graduate student and teacher at Yale in the 1950s. No other university was then so closely identified with the New Criticism, which had by then securely established close reading of the self-contained art object as method and the Modernist and Metaphysical canons as preferred subject. Most of the prominent New Critics were at least sympathetic to high church Christianity. Bloom was Jewish, and he mentions in the new book, the son of a garment worker. Eliot and Pound, gods for most of the New Critics, had on occasion written anti-Semitic poems. Is it any wonder that Bloom sought to overturn most of the pieties of his elders, or that a key concept in his work has always been "belatedness"?
Yet another well-known critic must be mentioned in any discussion of Bloom's work: F.R. Leavis, perhaps the most prominent English-language critic during the fifties and sixties. Although Leavis was no Tory in either politics or religion, like the American New Critics he advocated the Metaphysical poets at the expense of Milton and the Modernists at the expense of the Romantics. Part of Bloom's career seems to have been devoted to changing Leavis' pluses to minuses and minuses to pluses. Leavis attempted to lower the reputations of Milton and Shelley; Bloom worked equally hard to raise them again. Leavis placed Hopkins far above Browning and Tennyson; Bloom just the reverse. Leavis praised Blake's Songs of Experience; Bloom preferred the prophetic books. If for Leavis, Yeats became a great poet by outgrowing his Romantic origins, for Bloom, Yeats ended as a stronger Romantic poet than he began. However well or ill Bloom's theory in The Anxiety of Influence applies to any pair of poets, it definitely sheds light on the sense of oppression Bloom felt because of Leavis and because of his New Critical elders at Yale.
If poetic originality is difficult, and it is, how much more difficult is critical originality. Even his chosen subject of poetic influence was not new; W. Jackson Bate's The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (1970), though it primarily deals with eighteenth-century writers, offers a more comprehensive and less reductionist guide to the subject than Bloom has yet given us. What enabled Bloom to lessen his burden of belatedness, both in The Anxiety of Influence and in subsequent books, was the creation of a vocabulary and frame of reference unavailable to, and no doubt unwelcome to, his predecessors: Gnosticism, Orphism, misprision, the Covering Cherub, revisionary ratios, Lurianic Kabbalah, all creating a Bloomspeak before which any reader must feel "belated."
The Western Canon marks three significant changes of direction for Bloom: he has changed his mind about the significance of Freud for literary criticism; he has reoriented his stance toward the common reader; and, whereas his work from The Anxiety of Influence at least through Agon (1982) was perceived to be generally friendly to deconstructionism, he has now joined battle with the deconstructionists and their allies.
Bloom writes in The Western Canon that "The anxiety of influence is not an anxiety about the father, real or literary." Twenty years ago he wrote that "the anxiety of influence, from which we all suffer, whether we are poets or not, has to be located first in its origins, in the fateful morasses of what Freud, with grandly desperate wit, called 'the family romance.'" Bloom's "revisionary ratios" of influence were not only "tropes" but "psychic defenses," though he granted that his "transfers from Freudian theory to poetry" might seem "curiously literal." Bloom now speaks of "Freud's curious overvaluation of what he called the Oedipus complex." Freudian literary criticism, like the old joke about the Holy Roman Empire, is "not Freudian, not literary, not criticism." A Shakespearean reading of Freud illuminates and overwhelms Freud; a Freudian reading of Shakespeare reduces Shakespeare. Whereas Bloom previously invoked the authority of Freud (in part, perhaps, to be able to accuse his critical opponents of being in denial), his chapter on Freud in the new book emphasizes Freud's borrowings from and blunders about Shakespeare—for example, Freud's belief that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays.
Equally as remarkableas Bloom's change of mind about Freud is his new opening to the common reader. Most of Bloom's earlier books were seemingly written to impress other academicians, with many sentences like "Daemonization, as a revisionary ratio, is a self-crippling act, intended to purchase knowledge by a playing at the loss of power, but more frequently resulting in a true loss of the powers of making." The chapter on kenosis in The Anxiety of Influence and the fifth chapter of A Map of Misreading could almost have been written by Nabokov's Professor Kinbote in Pale Fire. Despite Bloom's Kinbote-like ability to find Gnosticism in most of his favorite authors, he states quite accurately that his new book "is not directed to academics, because only a small remnant of them still read for the love of reading." Such an "old-fashioned sense of reading," in which one identifies with characters like Esther Summerson in Bleak House, now seems to Bloom "the only sense that matters."
Keeping the common reader in mind has significantly improved Bloom's prose. Many readers will enjoy the wit of "[Whitman's] poems of heterosexual passion have convinced no one, including Whitman himself" and the deeper wit of "Ibsen had the mysterious endowment of the true dramatist, which is to be able to lavish more life on a character than one possesses oneself." Bloom shows a welcome insight into human behavior in suggesting that "a secure faith in theater may have given [Molière] a certain detachment or serenity."
The Western Canon defends the validity of the traditional literary canon and celebrates some of its most prominent authors. Bloom does not define the canon theoretically, but offers numerous descriptive metaphors. The canon is "the relation of an individual reader and writer to what has been preserved out of what has been written." The pragmatic function of the canon is "the remembering and ordering of a lifetime's reading:" The canon is "a standard of measurement that is anything but political or moral." It is "a gauge of vitality." Writers elect themselves to the canon by wagering on their writing. Bloom suggests that "The strength of the canonical is manifested in the quiet persistence of the strongest writers." Ultimately, "the Western Canon is Shakespeare and Dante," a judgment with which Pound and Eliot would have agreed. One test for the canonical is that "unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify." Bloom places particular emphasis on the original strangeness of the canonical work: "works are appropriated by [the canon] for their singularity, not because they fit smoothly into an existing order."
Bloom ably upholds the canon against attacks by the six divisions of what he calls "the School of Resentment: Feminists, Marxists, Lacanians, New Historicists, Deconstructionists, Semioticians," whom he excoriates as "amateur political scientists, uninformed sociologists, incompetent anthropologists, mediocre philosophers, and overdetermined cultural historians." He observes that "left-wing critics cannot do the working class's reading for it." Indeed, if someone believes that aesthetic value "is only a mystification in the service of the ruling class, then why should you read at all rather than go forth to serve the desperate needs of the exploited classes?" We all know the answer to that one: a purported concern for the exploited classes is a status symbol for a subclass of bourgeois intellectuals, not intended as a principle for actually altering one's own life.
Bloom further argues—rightly, I think—that "primarily each ambitious writer is out for himself alone and will frequently betray or neglect his class in order to advance his own interests." Great writers, he suggests, "are influenced by one another without much regard for political resemblances and differences." The devotion numerous left-wing American poets have felt for Ezra Pound offers a striking confirmation of Bloom's thesis. Bloom demonstrates that although Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt were diametrically opposed politically, they praised Milton in similar terms. He points out that those who contend that the canon is arbitrary must be able to show why the "dominant social class" selected Shakespeare rather than Ben Johnson to center the canon. I would add that they must also show why As You Like It was assigned a higher role in the canon than The Two Gentlemen of Verona and why no English-language play between Farquhar and Shaw has been admitted to the canon. They must also show why popular authors like Judith Krantz—and there have been scores of such authors since the eighteenth century—who do represent the world-view of the dominant social classes have not been admitted to the canon.
Some of Bloom's most eloquent words concern the decline of his profession due to the School of Resentment. He writes that
many of the best students will abandon us for other disciplines and professions, an abandonment already well under way. They are justified in doing so, because we could not protect them against our own profession's loss of intellectual and aesthetic standards of accomplishment and value.
He suggests that literature and teaching depend on "people who were fanatical readers when they were still small children," and fears there may be "no more generations of common readers, free of ideologicalcant." Departments of English and American literature, as opposed to "cultural studies," may become as small and beleaguered as classics departments are now. Obviously The Western Canon is written in the hope that this will not be the case.
As strong as the polemical sections are, most of The Western Canon is devoted to celebrating canonical authors from Dante to the present (oddly, Bloom includes no essays on Greek or Roman authors). Bloom offers many interesting and provocative ideas: that Shakespeare's characters develop by overhearing themselves talk; that most critics underestimate the intellectual complexity of Emily Dickinson's poems; that the autoerotic is an important component of Whitman's work; that Hedda Gabler is a troll-like character no societal possibilities could satisfy; that an asexual aestheticism pervades even Virginia Woolf's seemingly political writings. The sections on Persuasion, Bleak House, and Tolstoy's Hadji Murad catch the tone of each novel especially well. Noting that Chaucer rarely writes an unironic passage, Bloom suggests that Chaucer's irony is his principal instrument for discovery, by compelling readers to determine for themselves precisely what he has invented. Curiously, given his interest in writerly anxiety, Bloom mentions in passing but does not discuss the theory that the relationship of Clov and Hamm in Endgame reflects the real-life situation of Beckett and Joyce. The Shakespearean references Bloom finds in Endgame seem extremely far-fetched by comparison. Like many critics, Bloom finds more merit than I do in the work of Borges, who seems to me the most overrated fiction writer of the twentieth century. Borges' reputationmay result less from his charming if slight fictions than from his implicit reassurance to professors that literature is, after all, only an intellectual game.
Perhaps the most controversial part of The Western Canon is the list of canonical authors and works at the end of the book. In general, Bloom's lists through the nineteenth century should cause relatively little disagreement, although the medieval section omits the splendid Anglo-Saxon poems The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Battle of Maldon, along with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl, and Piers Plowman. The twentieth-century selections will occasion the most debate. The list, though absurdly long, still leaves out notable works. According to Bloom, the Western Canon includes Myra Breckinridge but not Lord of the Flies, Brideshead Revisited, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, Zorba the Greek, Franny and Zooey, or Lord of the Rings. Bloom omits the short stories of Doris Lessing and William Trevor (which demand comparison with the short fiction of James, Lawrence, and Hemingway), as well as the remarkable nonfiction of Robert M. Pirsig, Annie Dillard, and Peter Matthiessen. Matthiessen's Conrad-like novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord is also left out.
The most egregious omission is probably Edward Albee. As often happens with canonical works, the weaknesses of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were apparent from the beginning but have proven to be much less important than the energy and vitality of the whole. Albee's Martha is one of the four classic stage roles for American actresses, along with Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night. Albee is not the only important dramatist omitted. While one can imagine arguments against including Noel Coward, John Osborne, Caryl Churchill, William Inge, Lanford Wilson, Peter Shaffer, Christopher Hampton, or Brian Friel, to ignore all of them while choosing David Rabe, David Mamet, and especially Edward Bond seems peculiar, to say the least.
An inevitable difficulty of attempting to define a canon is deciding when to honor one's own critical judgment and when to defer to received opinion. Some works are in the canon; some works should be in the canon. The categories overlap considerably but are not identical. I dislike John Marston's The Malcontent, but it is part of the canon of Elizabethan drama. I think Thackeray's novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon is a brilliant tour de force, every bit the equal of Vanity Fair, but Vanity Fair is canonical, and thus far The Luck of Barry Lyndon is not. Bloom notes that he is including the poetry of Robert Lowell and Philip Larkin against his own taste. In other instances he might also have deferred to critical consensus. He may wish that Irving Feldman, Alvin Feinman, and Allen Grossman (all of whom he includes) were canonic and that Allen Ginsberg (whom he does not) were consigned to oblivion, but such is not the case.
Bloom describes some of the writers included in Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets as "fit precursors for many of our prematurely canonized poetasters and inchoate rhapso-dists." This quotation came to mind often when I read Bloom's long list of twentieth-century American poets. Does Bloom seriously believe that Kenneth Koch, Jean Garrigue, and J.D. McClatchy—to choose only three examples—are canonic authors? Such better-known poets as Hayden Carruth, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Kenneth Rexroth, and Anne Sexton are all missing from Bloom's list, as is Jack Gilbert, the contemporary poet not in the canon who most surely belongs there. To Bloom's choices from the admittedly weak interregnum generation (b. 1934–1943), which include Charles Wright, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, and Alfred Corn, I have no hesitation in preferring Robert Hass or the Louise Glück of The Wild Iris. I was amused to discover in Bloom's canon two books published in 1994 that I greeted less than rapturously in the Winter 1995 Hudson Review. To Bloom's credit, he includes some worthy writers I would not have expected him to like: Weldon Kees, Edwin Muir, and Donald Hall, for example.
At the very least, Bloom's list of canonical authors and works provides a useful starting point for discussion. The Western Canon is an intelligent, stimulating, and, wonder of wonders, readable account of both the crisis facing English departments and the literary inheritance which proponents of the School of Resentment are eager to discard. Just as some people believe that only Nixon could have changed American policy toward China, perhaps Bloom is now exactly the right person to make the case for literature, aesthetic value, and the Western Canon.
This section contains 2,723 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)