HAROLD BLOOM and THE WESTERN LITERARY CANON.
‘I read for the lustres.’ -Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Serfs do too, ( some of the time). Hope you do likewise, dear reader.
There’s a scene in the film version of Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose,’ set in a Medieval monastery in the Alps, where a singed Sean Connery 🙂 (Brother William of Baskerville,) emerges from a burning library labyrinth with an armful of illuminated manuscripts. It is a poignant moment. So few books saved, so many potentially immortal works lost to the flames. One classic manuscript lost is Aristotle’s Second Book of Poesie, a book celebrating human laughter, a book central to the novel’s series of mysterious events. Aristotle’s Second Book of Poesie is deliberately destroyed by the Keeper of the Library, the Venerable Jorge, a zealot who considers it too dangerously liberating to be read by anyone other than the Library’s guardian of secret knowledge because laughter kills fear, without fear there can be no faith, and ‘without fear of the Devil, says Jorge, ‘there is no need of God.’
Preserving the writings of the past, including a treatise on the divine comedy, reminds me of a scene from another film, the spoof horror-movie, ‘The Mummy,’ where Evelyn, the female lead, exclaims: ‘Look, I …I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gun-fighter, Mister O’Connell, but I am proud of what I am… I …am a librarian!’ The comment invokes laughter, ‘a librarian,’ you visualize a safe career among the filing cabinets, and yet … also a field worker in the keeping of the literary canon. Western Culture salute your librarian!
Viva la librairie!
All sorts of useful books in libraries and book stores. Histories of past events, rise and fall of empires and political systems, studies of the invisible hand working in city trade and the economies of nations, and more. But what good the papery whispers of fictitious humans in literature?
In my 13th Edition of Serf Under _ ground, I put forward a modest proposal with reference to reading literature, viz, ‘That literature, in mysterious ways, expands our human consciousness and understanding of our human condition,’ a guided index to life, you might say, ambition, angst, sometimes even altruism.
Now I know you’re likely to disagree with this in a number of ways. Considering that we’ve all experienced the difficulties of communicating, in the here and now, with real people out there, and considering difficulties in historical studies, overcoming present bias to identify human problem situations of the past, what’s to be gleaned from the fictional characters in literature?
My answer is that behind these fictional characters and plots hides a silent creator, the author, a real person. The canon of literature that avid readers turn to for enjoyment and more, again and again, books that include many points of view and modes of exploring them, are written by authors with rich imagination and perception, who turn the characters in their creations into living human beings involved with a particular aspect of human experience.
Salute to the canon.
Harold Bloom, in his book, ‘The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages.’ (1994.) is defending the concept of a body of great literature existing through history to be read for the lustres, a concept which should scarcely need defending, but a concept under attack from Marxist and Foucault inspired anti-canonists.
Bloom examines twenty-six writers that he chooses to write about in The Western Canon, from the five hundred or so canonical writers that he names in the appendix of his book, great literature from different historical eras and countries. He arranges the canon into periods he labels, * The Theocratic: e.g. Homer, the Greek Tragedians The Bible, Virgil; *The Aristocratic Age, spanning the five centuries from Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy ‘to Goethe’s ‘Faust,’ * The Democratic, a period when the strength of Russian and American literature begins, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Melville and Whitman, a number of great English and French writers, and * The Chaotic Age, writers as yet untested by time, among them poets, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, dramatists, Samuel Beckett, Berthold Brecht, novelists, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, essayists Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi, the list goes on. Bloom omits the writers of the Theocratic Age from this study, you’ll find some of these discussed in his later book, ‘Genius,’ another term not favoured by anti-canonical critics.
So what is this thing with the writers that Harold Bloom calls the canon? The answer, more often than not, turns out to be strangeness, ‘a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange … ‘the cycle of achievement that goes from The Divine Comedy to Endgame, from strangeness to strangeness.’ (H.B. P3)
Strangeness ‘n Originality.
None stranger than Dante Alighieri, powerful and polemical creator of ‘The Divine Comedy.’ Wonder is that the New Historicists and allied schools of resentment, attempting to undo the Canon have not yet gone after him. As Harold Bloom observes, Dante’s Divine Comedy is a work of heresy, his exaltation of Beatrice, sublimated from an image of desire, to an angelic status and crucial element in the Christian hierarchy of salvation, is the poet’s most audacious act, transforming his inherited faith into something that is particularly his own. And here’s hubris for you; as an instrument of Dante’s will, Beatrice’s apotheosis necessarily involves Dante’s election as well. Harold Bloom calls Beatrice the canon’s most daring invention, even surpassing Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Lear.
Bloom places Dante with Shakespeare at the centre of the Canon ‘because they excel all other Western writers in cognitive acuity, linguistic energy and power of invention.’ ( P 43.) But it is Shakespeare, Bloom argues, who sets the standard and limits of literature. He makes the case that Shakespeare gives us most of our representations of cognition and that Shakespeare’s originality has been so assimilated by us that we cease to see it as strange. Bloom goes further, observing that Shakespeare largely invented what we think of as cognition, that most of what we know about how to represent cognition and personality in language was permanently altered by Shakespeare. Bloom’s principal insight in teaching and writing about Shakespeare is that there isn’t anyone before Shakespeare who actually gives you a representation of characters or human figures speaking out loud, whether to themselves or to others, and then brooding out loud, whether to themselves or to others, on what they themselves have said, and then, in the course of pondering, undergoing a serious or vital change, becoming a different kind of character or personality and even a different kind of mind. Bloom says we take for granted this process of reflection in representation, but it doesn’t exist before Shakespeare. It doesn’t happen in the Bible. It doesn’t happen in Homer or in Dante. It doesn’t even happen in Euripides.
Where Shakespeare took the hint, says Bloom, – is from Chaucer, Shakespeare’s only precursor in reflective character; the self aware revelations in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ of the Wife of Bath that gets into Falstaff, and of the Pardoner, that gets into figures like Edmund and Iago. As to how Chaucer comes up with it is the question, says Bloom, part of Chaucer’s shocking originality as a writer. But Chaucer does it only in fits and starts, and in small degree. ‘Shakespeare does it all the time. It’s his common stock. The ability to do that and to persuade one that this is a natural mode of representation is purely Shakespearean and we are now so contained by it that we no longer see its originality’.
Harold Bloom describes a moment in King Lear, an example of this reflective process invoking change, that he finds fascinating, Edmund, the coldest, and most intelligent villain in all Shakespeare, a manipulator so strong that Iago seem minor in comparison, overhearing himself and electing to change. Edmund as a sophisticated consciousness runs rings around anyone else on the stage in King Lear, he is so foul that it takes Goneril and Regan, to match up to him. He’s received his death wound from his brother; he’s lying there on the battlefield. They bring word that Goneril and Regan are dead-one slew the other and then committed suicide for his sake. Edmund broods out loud and says, “Yet Edmund was belov’d.” As soon as he says it, he starts to ponder out loud. What are the implications that, though two monsters of the deep, the two loved me so much that one of them killed the other and then murdered herself. He reasons it out. He says, “The one the other poison’d for my sake / And after slew herself.” And then he suddenly says, “I pant for life,” and amazingly, “Some good I mean to do / despite of mine own nature,” and he gasps out, having given the order for Lear and Cordelia to be killed, “Send in time,” to stop it. They don’t get there in time. Cordelia’s been murdered. And then Edmund dies. But that’s an astonishing change. It comes about as he hears himself say in real astonishment, “Yet Edmund was belov’d,” and on that basis, he starts to ponder. Had he not said that, he would not have changed. There’s nothing like this representation of inwardness, in literature before Shakespeare.
Some other firsts in Bloom’s twenty-six writers from the canon. Miguel de Cervantes, the first novelist, with his masterpiece, ‘Don Quixote.’ Michel de Montaigne, first essayist, and inventor of the term ‘essay,’ as a trial or test of judgment founded upon oneself. Dr Samuel Johnston, first and greatest literary critic of the canon in literature. While literary criticism can be traced back to Aristotle’s Poetics, one of which got lost, Dr Johnston is the first canonical critic, says Bloom, and unmatched by any critic after him.
‘Don Quixote,’ if we take it literally, is a book about a comic-hero crazed by reading. But lots of lustres and strangeness in Cervantes masterpiece. There’s the status of its principle actor, mad or not, the nature of the novel, comedy or what, a fiction-novel or something else?
Seems Don Quixote is only mad north by north- east. ‘I know who I am and who I might be.’ He is neither a madman or a fool, but chooses to play at being a knight errant. Being involved in play, Don Quixote observes what Harold Bloom identifies as the principles of play, faithfulness to his own freedom, to its disinterestedness, its seclusion and to its limits, which he only abandons at the end of the novel.
What Cervantes brings to the creation of his knight apprentice is quixotic courage, literal, moral and visionary. Is he a comic hero in a comic novel? Lots of humour in the quarrelsome exchanges between Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, both, beneath the surface, enjoying the intimacy of equality. But then there’s the punishments Don Quixote endures and cruel jokes played on him, which he bears with a knightly and poignant courage. And there’s this. Observing some peasants carrying carvings of the saints for an altar decoration, Don Quixote is moved to state the difference between the saints and himself: ”’they …fought in God’s wars while I am a sinner and fight in humanity’s.’
There’s an added strangeness in the novel; that everyone that matters most in Part 2 of the novel is accredited with having read Part 2 and knows he is a character in it. Says Don Quixote in Part 2, commenting on Part 1:
‘One of the things most pleasant to a virtuous and distinguished man is to see himself , while he is still alive, go out among the nations and languages of the world, printed and bound, and bearing a good reputation.’
Not only are the Don himself and the novel’s structure, difficult to categorize, but as Bloom observes, so also Cervantes’ relation to his enormous book. ( P 135.)
‘Montaigne certainly is an original;’ observes Harold Bloom, ‘self-consciousness had never before been expressed so fully and so well.’ ( P 142.) ‘Self conscious’ here is not used in the current negative sense. Michel de Montaigne, following Socrates, whom he calls the wisest of men, eloquently presents his own wisdom of self-acceptance, based upon profound self-knowledge.’ I myself am the subject of my book,’ writes Montaigne, and he tells the reader to ‘play the man well and duly,’ that ‘it is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being lawfully.’
The sanest of men, Montaigne advises us on almost every page, to humanize our idealism and is distrustful of transcendental humours, even in Socrates, his mentor.
‘They want to get out of themselves and escape from the man.. That is madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts; instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves. These transcendental humours frighten me, like lofty and inaccessible places, and nothing is so hard for me to stomach in the life of Socrates as his ecstasies and possessions by his daemon.’ ( Essay ‘On Experience’.)
Any strangeness in his writings.? Perhaps sometimes somewhat shocking in candid views expressed, for example, on love and marriage, but in Montaigne’s essays I’d say we’re in the presence of canonical wisdom you don’t find too often elsewhere.
Dr Samuel Johnston and Agon.
Dr Samuel Johnston, like Emerson, his follower in America, is a moralist altogether idiosyncratic, anxious about finalities. Strangeness, you bet, but like Montaigne, he is also a wisdom writer, an experiential critic, arguing that, ‘Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representation of general nature.’ As an experiential critic he will not make aesthetic judgments on ideological grounds:
To an experiential critic,’ Bloom observes, ‘wisdom is the ultimate standard for judging imaginative literature, and Shakespeare provides Johnson with the critic’s supreme test; how can one’s response be adequate to the central writer in the Western Canon? ‘ (P174.) Harold Bloom calls Dr Johnston the canonical critic proper, unmatched by anyone after him. ‘On Milton, whose politics he dislikes, or Shakespeare or Pope, Johnson is everything a critic should be; he directly confronts greatness with a total response, to which he brings his whole self.’ (P 173.)
Regarding ‘one’s whole self,’ Johnson is well aware of the treachery of the human heart. In his Rambler Essay, 93, he somewhat grimly observes that while ‘ there is indeed some tenderness due to living writers,’ ‘this is not universally necessary, for he that writes may be considered as a general challenger whom everyone has a right to attack.’
Johnson’s canonical sense of literature as agon, and his credo as critic is expressed in the following statement:
‘But whatever he decided concerning contemporaries, whom he that knows the treachery of the human heart, and considers how often we gratify our own pride or envy under the appearance of contending for elegance and propriety, will find himself not much inclined to disturb; there can surely be no exemptions pleaded to secure them from criticism, who can no longer suffer by reproach, and of whom nothing now remains but their writings and their names. Upon those authors the critic is undoubtedly at full liberty to exercise the strictest severity, since he endangers only his own fame, and like Aeneas when he drew his sword in the eternal regions, encounters phantoms which cannot be wounded. He may indeed pay some regard to established reputation, but he can by that shew of reverence consult only his own security, for all other motives are now at an end.’ (P 173.)
Their Puissance Their Own?
Bloom argues in the opening analysis of the Western Canon that strangeness may exist in canonical writers without that shock of audacity we find in Dante’s Divine Comedy, but there will always be some originality as an inaugural aspect of any work that incontestably joins the canon.
Western literature, as Homer taught us, is a poetics of conflict that we see, not only following Homer in Greek tragedy, but also in Plato’s incessant conflict with Homer himself, Homer exiled from Plato’s Republic in vain, since he, and not Plato, became the school book of the Greeks.
The literary canon acts as both challenge and stimulus to other writers by what Bloom calls the ‘anxiety of influence,’ an influence that may cripple weaker talents but not canonical genius:
‘The burden of influence has to be borne if significant originality is to be achieved and re-achieved within the wealth of Western literary tradition,’ says Bloom.’ The agon and aesthetics are one.’ ( P8.)
Readings of precursor writers are necessarily defensive for if they were appreciative only, fresh creation would be stifled:
‘Poems, stories, novels, plays come into being as a response to prior poems, stories, novels and plays and that response depends upon acts of reading and interpretations by the later writers, acts that are identical with the new works.’ (P 8.)
That conflict cannot be settled by the judgment of any particular generation of impatient idealists in the name of social harmony and remedying social injustices:
‘Our educational institutions are thronged these days by idealistic resenters who denounce competition in literature as in life … Pragmatically the ‘expansion’ of the Canon, has meant the destruction of the Canon, since what is taught includes by no means the best writers who happen to be women , African, Hispanic, or Asian, but rather the writers who offer little but the resentment they have developed as part of their identity.’ (P 6.)
Bloom says that he feels quite alone these days in defending the autonomy of the aesthetic, but its best defense is in the reading of King Lear and seeing the play well performed.:
‘King Lear does not derive from a crisis in philosophy, nor can its power be explained away as a mystification somehow promoted by bourgeois institutions. It is a mark of the degeneracy of literary study that one is considered an eccentric for holding that the literary is not dependent upon the philosophical, and that the aesthetic is irreducible to ideology and metaphysics.’ (P 10.)
Say, regarding aesthetic criticism, I have to agree with Harold Bloom, perhaps our canonical critic following Samuel Johnson:
‘Aesthetic criticism returns us to the autonomy of imaginative literature and the sovereignty of the solitary soul, the reader not as a person in society but as the deep self, our ultimate inwardness. That depth of inwardness in a strong writer constitutes the strength that wards off the massive weight of past achievement lest every originality be crushed before it becomes manifest. Great writing is always rewriting or revisionism and is founded upon a reading that clears space for the self, or so works as to reopen old works to our fresh sufferings.’ (.P10.)
Oh yes! For lovers of literature, some of them serfs, ‘let us read for the lustres.’