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