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Loose Canons

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages

By Harold Bloom

Harcourt Brace

578 pp.; $29.95

The Blooming wilderness.

The encomiums on the jacket of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages do not do justice to the work or its author, who, a blurbmeister himself, should probably have written his own: "Bloom takes his place in that strong tradition of critics beginning with Jeremiah who lament the failure of their age to pay sufficient attention to themselves." The great irony of Bloom's book is that he is howling in a wilderness he helped create, one in which imagination is the only reality and literary history is the contentless struggle of authors to overcome their predecessors.

The Western Canon is among the most belated and amusing additions to the growing list of highly marketable, finger-wagging elegies to literary and intellectual culture in America. For the most part, they are the work of windbag humanists-filled with the swirling vapors of piety-who seem to have little more to offer than saying reading is good and that close, appreciative reading of great authors for their own sake is even better.

The great precursor for The Western Canon is, of course, the work of another Bloom: Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, in which the late Straussian argued that America had become a B-movie entitled Nietzsche Meets the Sunshine Boys. For that Bloom, nihilism was valid so long as you didn't enjoy it. Bloom the scholar made out like an investment banker and started something of a trend. We have had E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, William Bennett's The Book of Virtues, David Bromwich's Politics by Other Means, Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education, Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals, Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature, Sven Birkert's The Gutenberg Elegies, and the late Christopher Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites. Harold Bloom, in clear agony over a predecessor with the same name, has joined the pantheon of doomsday prophets turning profits. No cowering humanist, he has descended from the mountain with tablets inscribed by Nietzsche under one arm and a golden calf under the other.

There are real problems in the academy to which Bloom is responding. Ideological reductions have turned literary study into social work or group therapy. The writings of Foucault have been used to feed the resentment of thousands of professors and students who do not like submitting to a hieratic conspiracy of great dead white males and even some dead white females who cannot be made radical enough. Politically charged criticism had filled the void left by its great precursor, the New Criticism, which had focused on the aesthetic and linguistic qualities of a poem cut off from any other reality. And New Criticism, in turn, had filled the void left by humanists who proclaimed they knew greatness when they saw it or when it illustrated an important clich of intellectual history. The New Historicism may be the same, as some have quipped, as the old historicism, except that the old historicists actually knew what happened and believed in human agency. Above all else, structuralism, poststructuralism, and the New Historicism killed that horrible incubus of hegemony-the author.

Bloom has spoken from his pillar of cloud and fire to restore both literary history and authorship by positing a panorama rivaled only by Will and Ariel Durant: "The Aristocratic Age," "The Democratic Age," and "The Chaotic Age." In reviving the author, Bloom goes as far as his great precursor Emerson did in making the poet the creator of the world. Several sentences from Emerson's essay "The Poet" could summarize Bloom's entire book: "All that we call sacred history attests that the birth of a poet is the principal event in chronology"; "the Universe is the externalization of the soul" (Emerson's and Bloom's); "the religions of the world are the ejaculations of a few imaginative men" (emphasis mine); and "Dante's praise is that he dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher, or into universality." For Bloom, "universality" insidiously means the West, particularly its individualism ripped from its Christian foundation. (Bloom, the great pundit of surprise and originality, comes up with what could be the required reading list at Groton and a canonical core that takes us back to T. S. Eliot.)

And what are the "autobiographies" in Bloom's pantheon about? In the case of Dante and Shakespeare-nothing. "The canonical greatness of Dante, for a final time, has nothing to do with Saint Augustine, or with the truths, if they are truths, of the Christian religion. At our present bad moment, we need above all to recover our sense of literary individuality and of poetic autonomy." Dante represents, for Bloom, the self as unity; Shakespeare represents the self as multiplicity. Other than that, these two magnificent freaks are not about anything except individuality manifested as aesthetic achievement. Nothing will come of this nothing except John Ashbery, a poet Bloom praises as the embodiment of aesthetic individuality. As Calvin Bedient wrote recently in praise of Ashbery and his book And the Stars Were Shining: "He knows as well as Heidegger that the future is the present's fizzle, both its champagne and expiring tire. . . . He's a poet of the ontological (and linguistic) blahs" (Poetry, October 1994).

Bloom asserts the need and the right to make passionate preferences. To say that one work or author is greater than another is better than submitting to the gulag of egalitarian resentment. Fair enough. But on what basis do we make these choices? We need Emerson, the great father, to explain his child Harold: "I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation." Bloom spends 500 or so energetic pages not explaining his whims-just proclaiming and repeating them. There are few of the great insights that a provocative and eclectic critic should provide. William Empson, for example, is much more interesting than Bloom on Milton, because he believes that Paradise Lost is about something other than Milton's genius. Counter to what Bloom says about him, Empson's ultimate concern is not with the aesthetic experience of reading Milton but with the poem's barbaric power as a sign of its important moral contradictions.

Instead of criticism, Bloom issues prophetic utterances: (Behold!) "At once no one and everyone, nothing and everything, Shakespeare is the Western Canon" or (Behold!) Emily Dickinson's "originality is unmatched even by the strength of her poetic descendants: Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop. Her canonicity results from her achieved strangeness, her uncanny relation to the tradition." Bloom's romantic ideal of being original and strange is all that matters. Of course we shouldn't reduce Dickinson's poetry to "gender-derived ideology." But proclamations of her "cognitive strength and rhetorical agility" are not sufficient criteria for judgment. An understanding of what Dickinson thinks about the world is important and inextricably related to her rhetorical and formal achievement. Thought is rarely simple, and ideas do not reduce simply to ideology. For Bloom, the world does not exist other than as an imaginative or aesthetic construct. Sure, the imagination is real, but it isn't the only thing that is real.

So why does this nihilist Harold Bloom bother attacking the yahoos of resentment if the world is nothing more than the great and strange song of himself? Who is he to attack feminists and Marxists, who at least believe-even if they get dangerously inflexible about things-in the reality of women or of the poor? They arrived in a void created, in part, by Harold Bloom, an individual as much responsible for the cultural enshrinement of the literary critic, the demise of the importance of the author, and the exaltation of the creative possibilities of nihilism as any of the French critics he condemns. Bloom's elegiac stance reminds me of an old definition of chutzpah: killing your parents and then throwing yourself on the mercy of the court as an orphan.

To assuage his pain, Bloom would do well to read a speech by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer entitled "Prospects in the Arts and Sciences." Oppenheimer, a most devoted reader of Aristotle, Dante, and the Bhagavad Gita in the original tongues, never let his great reading interfere with mastering a destructive force that became an icon of what Bloom calls "the chaotic age." While Oppenheimer understood the desire for order and tradition, unlike Bloom he also learned to accept the chaos of the twentieth century:

This is a world in which each of us, knowing his limitations, knowing the evils of superficiality and the terrors of fatigue, will have to cling to what is close to him, to what he can do, to his friends and his tradition and his love, lest he be dissolved in a universal confusion and know nothing and love nothing. It is at the same time a world in which none of us can find hieratic prescription or general sanction for any ignorance, any insensitivity, any indifference. When a friend tells us of a new discovery we may not understand, we may not be able to listen without jeopardizing the work that is ours and closer to us; but we cannot find in a book or canon-and we should not seek-grounds for hallowing our ignorance.

These are words for both Bloom and his enemies. (Disciples of the postmodern, please note: those nave, Enlightenment-encrusted scientists of the 1950s had a well-expressed thought or two and, mirabile dictu, they hadn't even read Foucault or Jameson!)

Bloom may be too quick, like many moderns, to accept a myth of decline or increased darkness without really believing in the Christian eschatology from which it came. In a fit of bad Yeatsianism, Bloom writes: "The shadows lengthen in our evening land, and we approach the second millennium expecting further shadowing." This kind of rhetorical chiaroscuro is nothing more, as Robert Frost pointed out, than authorial bombast: "We have no way of knowing that this age is one of the worst in the world's history. Arnold claimed the honor for the age before his. Wordsworth claimed it for the last but one. And so on back through literature. I say they claimed it rather for themselves. It is immodest of a man to think himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by god."

In the future as in the past, the greatest writers and the greatest readers will direct their talents to answering the question "What is true?" Pundits, professors, and proclaimers will have little to do with their success or failure.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review


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