The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages

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17 October 2019
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This is an excerpt from the IPA’s publication The 100 Great Books of Liberty on The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages by Harold Bloom.

Canon: In relation to literature, this term is half-seriously applied to those works generally accepted as the great ones. A battle is now being fought to change or throw out the canon. —A Glossary of Literary Terms, Robert Harris

By defending and defining the notion of a ‘Western Canon’, the literary critic Harold Bloom earned the ire of what he calls the School of Resentment. But he is not a philosophical conservative: rather his mission is to re-establish literature on its own terms, unfiltered by the sieve of ideology.

Bloom cannot be called a ‘big-C’ conservative because he has not defined a canon in order to fortify your morals with a sort of literary oatmeal:

Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything.

Bloom, a long-serving Professor of Humanities at Yale University, takes up arms against all ideological readings. For instance, he rescues the feminist icon Virginia Woolf from the limitations of a feminist reading, while also launching broadsides against the Church’s appropriation of Dante’s Comedy as a theological treatise rather than the profoundly personal and strictly speaking heretical work it is.

So if not a conservative, in what sense is he a liberal, and for what reasons should someone concerned with personal freedom read The Western Canon? Are poems and novels necessary? Why not simply read the classical liberal authors in the original?

The answer is simple: economists and philosophers are not enough. At the heart of liberalism is a concern for the individual, and each individual’s freedoms of action and of conscience. A liberal polity can only exist as a lived society if the individuals within it can conceive of their separateness, their uniqueness, and listen to and act on the promptings of their self. For Bloom, this modern sense of self that underpins liberalism was created not by philosophers but the great books of the canon, particularly Shakespeare and his greatest character, Hamlet.

Shakespeare is at the center of the Canon at least in part because Hamlet is. The introspective consciousness, free to contemplate itself, remains the most elitist of all Western images, but without it the Canon is not possible, and, to put it most bluntly, neither are we.

When, 250 years after Hamlet, Walt Whitman writes a Song of Myself— placing himself as author in distinction to himself as subject—he is heir to the new cognitive form and language brought forth by Shakespeare and embodied in Hamlet. Bloom’s principal contribution to literary theory is his concept of ‘influence’—as great writers draw upon but also seek the originality necessary to escape the influence of those who have gone before—and has reached the conclusion that no-one can escape the influence of Shakespeare.

This quest for originality provides unexpected linkages: Freud, the theorist of denial, represses the influence of Shakespeare because of his own egotism; T. S. Eliot, the arch-modern, unwillingly echoes Whitman—the ‘poet of the American religion’—even as he tries to establish his new form of poetry.

An understanding of the Canon and the line of influence between the authors brings forth a picture of the evolution of the concept of selfhood over the past six or seven centuries.

For Bloom the self-evident proof of this evolution is in the remarkable characters found in the literature: the line from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Don Quixote, through Hamlet and Falstaff to Peer Gynt and Walt Whitman (the character created by the writer, Walt Whitman). The expansion of cognition achieved by the great writers comes partly as their creations take on a life of their own, and ‘overhear themselves’ talking. The readers’ own conception of the world and self changes as the characters take over their consciousness: Bloom writes of the greatest ever literary critic, Dr Johnson, taking in so much of the Falstaff of Henry IV that their personas became somewhat fused.

Reading great literature assists us to learn our own process of ‘self-overhearing’, which fortifies our sense of individuality while inoculating us against the excesses of the modern cult of self (or solipsism). This conception of literary and cognitive development is itself startlingly original, and justification enough to read this book.

Bloom says the Western Canon was not designed to be a ‘lifetime reading plan’, but it could certainly serve that purpose—at least as far as literature is concerned. An appendix provides a long list of some four hundred books reaching back to the ancient Greeks, but the focus of the book is modern Western conception of literature (1300 onwards). The greater part of the book consists of Bloom examining the particularities and also the links between the writers of a canon within a canon: Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Molière, Shakespeare, Milton, Dr Johnson, Goethe, Wordsworth, Austen, Whitman, Dickinson, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Borges, Neruda, Passoa, and Beckett.

Our time for reading is finite and we need to make selections. Bloom’s notorious objection to the Harry Potter series of books is not so much that it is written badly (though he says it is) but that it lacks the originality to make it worth reading or remembering. Bloom says this is ‘the principal pragmatic function of the Canon: the remembering and ordering of a lifetime’s reading. The greatest authors take over the role of ‘places’ in the Canon’s theater of memory’. He claims his remarkable memory for the written word simply does not function when it comes to what he calls ‘period pieces’—works produced for ideological reasons or which merely record, without originality, a particular time and place.

Even the truly time-poor can still sample the Canon. A short story of Borges or an essay by Montaigne can be read on the 7:10 train between Frankston and Flinders Street Station, or Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilich on the holiday flight to Phuket. This addresses the chicken and egg problem of Bloom’s Canon—the criticism does not make much sense until one has read the author’s work, but sometimes the criticism is a vital aid to making sense of the book (sometimes but not always: War and Peace is long, but can be read first simply as a ripping yarn). Sample, refer back, then expand the selection.

At the heart of Bloom’s project is what he calls his ‘addiction’, the love of reading for its own sake. It is a sign of our illiberal age that even this necessarily solitary pastime must be defended, in the sense that Isaiah Berlin had to defend ‘freedom from’ alongside the traditional ‘freedom to’. What we read should not be reduced to a political act, the stance that unites the various forms of the ‘School of Resentment’ (defined here by Bloom as Feminists, Marxists, Lacanians, New Historicists, Deconstructionists, and Semioticians):

The idea that you benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare is one of the oddest illusions ever promoted by or in our schools.

For liberals who are interested in political action, the understanding that Bloom brings is an essential support in the debates that rage. It is all very well to lampoon and/or deride the absurdities of our universities’ schools of ‘cultural studies’, but the Bloom critique strikes much harder through the particular examples he gives of how the ideological readings fail:

Shakespeare’s eminence is, I am certain, the rock upon which the School of Resentment must at last founder.

Unless liberals can mount a cogent defence of canonical literature then very soon even its last traces will indeed be ‘thrown out’ of academe. In such a case perhaps our best hope is that the Western Canon will be passed from hand to hand amongst undergraduates like some kind of ‘samizdat’ pamphlet, and its conclusions picked up in informal book clubs around the nation.


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