The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages
The project is formidable, and to be approached from below, while one looks up to it: nothing less than an explanation and defense of the Western world’s literary tradition from beginning to end, supposing it has either beginning or end. To encompass the outline is one thing; to fill in the complexities, contradictions, and particular complications adds an order of difficulty that must appear inevitably self-defeating. Only an audacious and arrogant mind would undertake such an overwhelming project. Only a pedant would object that in it suggestion, speculation, and confident assertion take the place, very often, of demonstration. There’s no making an omelet, Lenin once said, without breaking eggs. The ground around Harold Bloom’s audacious book is littered with shells and less agreeable yolks, but the structure stands, and one can learn a lot from the way it’s been put together or forced into conjunction. The title is The Western Canon.
A canon, though never closely defined here, is, according to Professor Skeat in his great dictionary, a rule, model, or standard of right. It is to be associated with a carpenter’s rule, a measure of correctness. In discussion of literature, “canons” take on many special associations. They may imply a standard of correctness as derived from an authoritative exemplar (“the classics” for instance); the invocation of “canons” implies literary evaluations upheld by an ongoing tradition; “canons” are, or used to be, the principles underlying the study of particular books in a curriculum. That there is a single standard of rightness to be applied to all writing produced in the Western world (and why not the Eastern as well?) over the last five thousand years is a thought to be viewed with some preliminary suspicion. Of course, as a matter of practical fact, various enclaves have established for themselves various books which they call “canonical.”
This status is achieved, as a rule, over a period of time; it involves consensus sometimes, just as often a measure of compulsion; inevitably it is subject to periodic revision. Professor Bloom, modeling his description of the phases of the canon on Vico (but modifying them radically, as he is entitled to do) distinguishes the Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic, and Chaotic, but disregards the first of these and instead of Viconian ricorso to an earlier stage substitutes the fourth as looming in the future. (As late as page 351, we are unexpectedly presented with an Aesthetic Age, “a perilous transition between the Democratic and the Chaotic,” so apparently the stages of the canon can be freely multiplied or subdivided.) In any case, Bloom lays no particular weight on distinctions within the canon. That leaves the canon amounting to little more than Matthew Arnold’s high, vague phrase about “the best that has been known and thought in the world.” In any case, the present book, though it focuses on only twenty-six authors, departs from them so freely to trace influences and parallels and unlikenesses that it comes close to presenting a history of the Western culture from Genesis to Joyce from the special viewpoint of Harold Bloom’s literary preferences.
Stylistically, the book is various to a degree. For the enemies of the canon—whether feminist, Marxist, or Neo-Historicist—the critic has nothing but contempt, and he careers off in pursuit of them every so often without however indicating much more about them than his hostility. They are sometimes tumbled together in a phrase such as “the School of Resentment” or “the current cultural materialists.” Mostly, however, Bloom hews to what will be recognized as a popular lecture style—polysyllabic and rebarbative on occasion, but mostly conversational and laced here and there with personal recollections, jocular asides, and allusions to friends and enemies in about equal number. His most impressive pages partake alike of incisive paraphrase and appreciation. Given a book for which he feels sympathy, such as Goethe’s Faust Part II or Leaves of Grass, he writes with such rapt enthusiasm as to be all but irresistible. It won’t have escaped the reader that the two books just cited can be quite as easily represented as non-canonical, un-canonical, or anti-canonical works. Let it stand to Harold Bloom’s lasting credit that he can write so generously of books which the canonical critics of their day, and some even of our own, have found rude and formless.
Bloom makes a great point of “strong” critics and “strong” poets as the models lesser writers must contend with, and he frankly aspires to be a “strong” writer himself. Supremes, uniques, and absolutes are scattered liberally across his pages, to the point that a reader is likely to laugh and remark, “Oh, come on, Harold.” They do no particular harm, being recognized before long as a rhetorical mannerism. A more serious difficulty is the professor’s evident compulsion to compare every other book, poem, or author to the work of Shakespeare, inevitably to the literary advantage of the Bard. But this calls for separate discussion.
To give some notion of Bloom’s range of prose styles, let me first quote briefly from the discussion of Faust:
If the essence of poetry is invention, as Dr. Johnson rightly maintained, then the classical Walpurgis Night shows us what poetry essentially is: a controlled wildness, a radical originality that subsumes previous strength, and, most of all the creation of new myth. Goethe confirms his place in the literary canon by adding more strangeness to beauty (Pater’s formula for the Romantic) than any Western poet has accomplished since. Goethe’s sublime extends the grotesque further than I would have thought it could go.
Then from the discussion of Whitman, taking off from a poem of Wallace Stevens—
In the far South the sun of autumn is passing
Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore.
He is singing and chanting the things that are part of him,
The worlds that were and will be, death and day.
Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end.
His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.
How happy Whitman would have been with this as an appropriate evocation of his Emersonian power! Stevens packs it all in: Whitman as the lion sun, autumnal and elegiac, a passerby, refusing finalities, denying the promised end. Always in the sun, sunset and sunrise, singing and chanting the divided self and the unknowable soul, Stevens’s Whitman is no divinity, but he kindles with a flame that surpasses natural fire. And without actually echoing the “each and all” intertwining chant that ends the “Lilacs” elegy, Stevens intimates its rhapsodic intensities, its confidence that there are indeed “retrievements out of the night.”
And last from the account of Emily Dickinson, a set of wire-drawn, inward intensities:
Literary originality achieves scandalous dimensions in Dickinson, and its principal component is the way she thinks through her poems. She begins before she begins, by the implicit act of unnaming she performs upon the Miltonic-Coleridgean-Emersonian blank, with her hidden Shakespearean substitution. She next unpacks the trope by restoring its diachronic aspect; she knows implicitly more than we do about the temporary inadequacy of metaphor. Some of it she learned by reading Emerson, but more of it is her own; he did not manifest anything like her suspicion of the historical tyranny of metaphors for poetic immorality or for spiritual survival. And though she is High Romantic enough to seek what Stevens was to call an ever-early candor, her sense of her White election was again more mistrustful of the cost of a reachieved earliness.
The prose bestowed on Emily Dickinson calls to mind the old maritime litany:
Six days shalt thou labor and do all thou art able,
And on the seventh—holystone the deck and scrub the cable.
It’s the work of the seventh day that one feels to be missing from Bloom’s essay.
The multiple comparisons with Shakespeare mentioned above are more than a mannerism; they take on, after a while, the character of an obsession, against which editors should have offered protection. By “Shakespeare” Bloom means the five big tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra) with an occasional assist from As You Like It. Nobody denies that these are very great plays, but that they are the criterion by which all other plays, as well as fictions, poems, and criticism itself must be judged, verges on the preposterous.
Consider, for instance, Bloom’s account of Paradise Lost, a pillar of the canon but far inferior to “Shakespeare.” One notes to begin with that Bloom’s frequent incidental allusions to Paradise Lost are for the most part acute and sensible. But his main chapter on Milton is badly vitiated by his attempt to show that “Satan is the heir of the great hero-villains—Iago, Edmund, Macbeth—and of the darker aspects of Hamlet the counter-Machiavel as well.” First off, this is a four-way comparison of disparates (apples, oranges, eggs, and basketballs) to be borne in mind while reading Paradise Lost, a text which in itself has been thought to deserve some mental concentration. It involves particularly the construction of an indefinite number of connections with Hamlet, such as hardly any critic has ever attempted before. It ignores the fact that in the economy of the whole epic Satan is neither hero nor villain but a set of false alternatives for Adam to bypass. Then it ignores the fact that Milton was recasting a story which for him and his readers was Holy Writ—therefore to be tampered with as little as possible. And finally, while writing an epic that would encompass “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” Milton had to bear in mind models like Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, DuBartas, and Spenser, to name no others.
Bloom quotes Milton as saying Spenser was his Great Original, but interprets the phrase as a desperate effort to conceal the fact that Shakespeare was his Great Original. Interpreting the record this way, one can reach any conclusion one wants; and, in fact, Bloom on the strength of his criticism changes within half a sentence the entire subject matter of Paradise Lost. It is really, he says, “the tragedy of the fall of Lucifer into Satan.” But there’s nothing of the sort in Milton’s text, which fights notably shy of using the archangel’s “heavenly” name at all and cannot afford any more than the Bible to be interested in his prelapsarian state. (Going back far enough, from Eve to the apple, to Satan, to Lucifer, one inevitably concludes that God is responsible for everything in the world, including the evil. Satan exists, among other reasons, to stop that uncomfortable regression.) Actually the fall of Satan from heaven is only one of a series of falls which the poem represents—a series of falls and partial recoveries stretching out into the present and then into the remote future as far as the Second Coming. What we feel behind Satan is the deadly gravity of Chaos which can only be offset by the desperate, intermittent efforts of a few good men. Contrary to Bloom’s account, this isn’t a Shakespearean perspective or scale of values—which is all the better for our appreciation of the canon and its rich range of options.
As is only to be expected of a critic with multiple interests, Harold Bloom is better attuned to some topics than others. His first affinity was with the Romantic poets, and it’s too bad that his pursuit of the canon has drawn him away from Blake and Charles Baudelaire toward the more peaceful vein of William Wordsworth. He really does not have anything convincing to say about Bleak House or the plays of Henrik Ibsen. His own excessive ingenuity seems responsible for the low point of The Western Canon, an effort to provide what he calls a Shakespearean reading of Freud. I don’t think there’s any other word for this essay than “deplorable.” When we start with Freud’s indelible conviction that the Earl of Oxford, after his own death in 1604, produced most of the First Folio, there’s no way to go but down. Bloom sheds a little light on the murky confusion that follows, but not enough to make clear why he chose to struggle with this non-subject in the first place. It’s painful to reflect on the use that could have been made of these wasted twenty-two pages had they been applied to Henry James, who is almost completely ignored.
But the chapters on James Joyce and Virginia Woolf atone for a great deal. The first argues, predictably, Joyce’s subjection to the overpowering influence of—whom? Well, yes, Shakespeare, naturally. And Virginia Woolf, though it’s hard to make her an ardent disciple of Shakespeare, can at least be rescued from the feminists by making her a passionate addict of literature—which in fact she was. While the direction of these demonstrations is predictable, they muster such a quantity of loving details and lucid nuance as to make the criticism a genuine pleasure to read.
As we enter what Bloom calls “the age of chaos,” it gets less and less clear what is the present value of the canon. A determined “strong” critic can impose the values of any predecessor on a helpless successor. Even more formidable is the pressure exerted by a determined “strong” critic using his interpretation of a major, a magnificent, poet to define a later or a modern writer. Add to this the weight of a canon constructed out of all the great writers of the Western world, and we have an interpretative-evaluative machine like a Sherman tank. Who needs it? No doubt the School of Resentment, in which is included the remnants of Marxism, the vanguard of feminism, and the cohorts of political correctness, may look formidable within the ivied walls of the academy. But in the big, diverse, slovenly world where I live by preference, varieties of literary and unliterary standards pretty much take care of themselves. The instant effects are, often enough, appalling, but the lasting results seem on the whole to be very few.
Some sixty years ago, when I was first starting to take an interest in letters, the tides of literary opinion were much agitated by a belligerent disturbance called for short the New Humanism. The chief agitators were a couple of Harold Bloom’s Ivy League predecessors, Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt. Their basic program—making allowance for the different dialect of those distant days—was to reaffirm the classical (canonical) literary values. Babbitt gave the movement a decisive turn by publishing an influential book against Rousseau and Romanticism arguing, very much in the spirit of Harold Bloom, against what was not yet baptized the “School of Resentment.” The New Humanists had an important if by no means permanent influence on T. S. Eliot and gave rise also to T. E. Hulme’s memorable phrase about Romanticism being a spilt religion.
For a while something like military discipline came to prevail in academe. Mr. More was reputed to have in his office a war map of the United States with the strategic location of the New Humanists and their sympathizers marked by thumbtacks. Those were the days of strong criticism indeed! Though it created a considerable stir for a limited time in limited circles, the New Humanism faded without a climactic battle into the Old New Humanism, then into the Late New Humanism, and finally into a formula which now arouses nothing more than an incurious “Huh?”
I don’t recall these picturesque days of now-faded belligerence in order to imply anything more than a vague parallel with Harold Bloom and his effort to renew or revive an authoritative canonical tradition. Bloom himself—whom I have never met—seems to be a gentler and more accommodating man than the New Humanists ever were. His canon does not seem designed to divide the figures of Western literature and those who study it into sheep and goats. Yet I remain wary of divisions handed down from on high and limiting literary traditions. The best word that Paul Elmer More had to say for Ulysses in my day was “an explosion in a sewer.” And More was a liberator, a voice, however ambiguous, of the future! In graduate school I experienced the depressing and constricting effects of an established canon applied blindly, fatuously.
Harold Bloom at his best is a rewarding and humane critic; one feels obliged to express gratitude for his many passing generosities before dismissing his Western canon with a gentle “Thank you, but no, thank you.”