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Canon Fire

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The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, by Harold Bloom, New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 578 pages, $29.95

So many books, so little time.

That is, at rock bottom, every reader's lament. There is simply so much stuff to plow through—and so much more being published by the minute—how can anyone decide what's worth reading, much less the order in which things should be read? Even when you restrict yourself just to literature—poetry, drama, fiction, and criticism of the same—the matter looms larger and more humbling than Everest.

In fact, limiting the discussion to literature raises an even more basic question: Why read literature in the first place? The idea that literature is frivolous at best and subversive at worst has a long and distinguished pedigree. Plato, of course, famously banned poets from his Republic because they sacrificed the "truth" for aesthetic effect. (Ironically, literature departments are among the few academic outposts in which Plato is still regularly read.) Educational reformers in revolutionary France disparaged literary studies (along with most of the humanities) as irrelevant in a "rational" world order, a charge echoed by contemporary academicians in professional programs and the hard sciences who wonder aloud what the point is of carrying English and comparative literature departments which pull in few (if any) grant or research dollars.

Harold Bloom's The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages attempts to state authoritatively what's worth reading and why. Bloom is one of the most influential literary critics of the past 30 years. As the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale and the Berg Professor of English at NYU, a past MacArthur "genius" grant winner, and the author of some 20 books and editor of over 100 more, he is certainly in a position to offer definitive answers—or as close to definitive as we might manage.

The Western Canon consists of essays on the 26 post-classical-age authors Bloom considers central to Western literature. Bloom's literary dream team—Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Molière, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Wordsworth, Austen, Whitman, Dickinson, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Borges, Neruda, Pessoa, Beckett—contains no surprises (except perhaps by omission). The book ends with a series of appendices in which Bloom lists another 800-plus writers, from the Gilgamesh poet to Tony Kushner, whom he feels are also worth browsing through.

But even without the provocative list at book's end, it's clear that Bloom is padding the count. For him, Shakespeare is the alpha and omega of literature. "Shakespeare is the Canon. He sets the standard and the limits of literature," writes Bloom. Shakespeare's genius is so overwhelming, in fact, that he "recenters" Western literature, says Bloom. All literature, whether written before or after Shakespeare, must be measured against the literary yardstick left behind by the Bard of Avon (and inevitably found wanting).

Well, sure. But asserting that Shakespeare is the tops is like saying Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player of all time: It's an eminently defensible position, but it ultimately provides no guidance on what to do next. Should we stop playing and watching baseball (whether with true major leaguers or replacement scrubs)? Given our limited reading time, should we confine ourselves just to Shakespeare? This is counsel that Bloom, a self-confessed "addict who will read anything," manifestly ignores; he is conversant even about books he thinks are junk.

And indeed, Bloom ultimately seems less interested in boosting Shakespeare's reputation (which hardly needs the lift) than in besmirching the current lit-crit scene. Bloom is an entertaining, hyperbolic stylist, quick to spout fashionably anti-P.C. soundbites: "We are destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences, in the name of social justice," he writes at one point. These are "the worst of all times for literary criticism," he insists at another. Such claims fairly beg for clarification and qualification—are we destroying "all" standards, or merely altering the ones Bloom values?—but he doesn't deign to fill in the details.

The wellspring of Bloom's discontent is what he calls "the School of Resentment," the "academic-journalistic network…who wish to overthrow the Canon in order to advance their supposed (and nonexistent) programs for social change." He identifies six branches of this particular école (Feminists, Marxists, Lacanians, New Historicists, Deconstructionists, and Semioticians), each of which seeks in its particular way to recast "great" literature as the product of some impersonal, material cause (gender politics, class ideology, etc.) rather than of transcendent genius.

And so, for instance,"Shakespeare criticism is in full flight from his aesthetic supremacy and works at reducing him to the 'social energies' of the English Renaissance, as though there were no authentic difference in aesthetic merit between the creator of Lear, Hamlet, Iago, Falstaff and his disciples such as John Webster and Thomas Middleton," says Bloom. This is, in fact, an overstatement. Even critics who chalk up Hamlet and King Lear to social energies generally admit that those social energies are better than the ones that scratched out, say, Webster's Duchess of Malfi or The White Devil.

"To read in the service of any ideology is not…to read at all," says Bloom. Fair enough, but he himself spins out a personal party line as reductive and blinkered as the overtly political ones he derides. Shunning voguish extra-literary criteria such as race, class, or gender, Bloom insists instead on "the autonomy of the aesthetic," by which he really means his aesthetic, the "anxiety of influence."

"The anxiety of influence," writes Bloom,"is…an anxiety achieved by and in the poem, novel, or play. Any strong literary work creatively misreads and therefore misinterprets a precursor text or texts." Great literature, says Bloom, is inherently "agonistic" and cannot be "detached from its anxieties about the works that possess priority and authority in regard to it."

While this approach can yield interesting results with writers and critics who are explicitly obsessed with their place in literary history (such as Milton, Samuel Johnson, or Bloom himself) it is less helpful in explicating authors who seem uninterested in such matters—including, ironically enough, Shakespeare. As Bloom notes,"Shakespeare puzzles us in his apparent indifference to the posthumous destiny of King Lear; we have two rather different [source] texts of the play, and pushing them together into the amalgam we generally read and see acted is not very satisfactory. The only works Shakespeare ever proofread and stood by were Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, neither of them worthy of the poet of the Sonnets, let alone of Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth. How can there have been a writer for whom the final shape of King Lear was a careless or throwaway matter?"

More to the point, doggedly pasting the same stencil over every work of literature tends to obscure precisely what Bloom claims to value above all else in great literature: "strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange."

So while he is right to chide "resentment" critics for their overarching, overbearing, and overdetermined grand theories, Bloom's own approach to literature differs only in degree, not kind. The tendency toward "totalized" systems (to use a trendy but nonetheless accurate term) is an occupational hazard among literary critics, and Bloom falls into the trap as readily as the next fellow. Feminists chalk everything up to gender, Marxists to class conflict, New Historicists to social energies, and Bloom to the anxiety of influence.

Trying to match the predictive power and ever-rising institutional prestige of the hard sciences, and taking methodological lessons from people such as Marx and Freud, some literary critics feel a need to create the aesthetic equivalent of a unified field theory, a single system by which every work ever written (or yet to come!) can be perfectly and fully explicated.

Like many a nascent scientific theory, literary "theories" often start off as promising explanations for a particular set of phenomena, only to become increasingly tortured as they try to make sense of more and more disparate data. But like their counterparts in the social sciences, literary theories are notoriously difficult to disprove. The supply of data—or texts—is essentially infinite and infinitely manipulable. The result is often that a provisional hypothesis intended to guide observation and analysis becomes instead an ironclad conclusion that weeds out or ignores contravening evidence. Once that point is reached, literature—the purported object of study—becomes dispensable to the whole operation. Texts only become "interesting," or "great," or "exemplary" to the extent they confirm a foregone conclusion.

Of course, that's not to say literary theories can't be "disproved." They may fail to excite interest among other readers, they may become outdated as new information about an author or historical period becomes available, or they may collapse under internal contradictions. Bloom, for instance, acknowledges his failure in passing in his first chapter. The "Western Canon," he writes,"is anything but a unity or a stable structure. No one has the authority to tell us what the Western Canon is….It is not, cannot be, precisely the list I give, or that anyone else might give."

There are, in other words, as many canons as there are readers. This is as it should be—individuals negotiating with the past and present and, by their choices, laying the groundwork of the future. And, to the degree we collectively recognize a common list of texts, a canon, we should understand it to be a fluctuating, provisional, evolving affair, with no endpoint in sight.

And what of the more difficult question: Why read literature in the first place? Bloom dismisses out of hand right- and left-wing notions that reading certain texts under certain circumstances will inculcate "the seven deadly moral virtues" or hasten progressive "social change." "Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens," says Bloom.

Bloom denies a social purpose to literature (he endorses Oscar Wilde's maxim, "Art is perfectly useless") and insists instead on reading as a "solitary" act. "I think that the self, in its quest to be free and solitary, ultimately reads with one aim only: to confront greatness. That confrontation scarcely masks the desire to join greatness, which is the basis of the aesthetic experience once called the Sublime: the quest for a transcendence of limits. Our common fate is age, sickness, death, oblivion. Our common hope, tenuous but persistent, is for some version of survival," writes Bloom.

In a sense, Bloom is absolutely correct: Reading the Divine Comedy or War and Peace will not necessarily make us more or less likely to help old ladies across the street, more or less likely to vote or pay our bills on time. But literature can certainly have a great effect on the social sphere. A quick example: In The Western Canon, Bloom makes several dismissive remarks about Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel that did so much to define and galvanize northern opposition to slavery.

Perhaps the social and the individual are not truly separate categories, as Bloom holds. In fact, even in the passage quoted above, he implies they are complementary, shifting as he does from the first-person singular (I think) to the first-person plural (Our common fate, our common hope).

Indeed, it strikes me that we read by design as individuals, but not in pursuit of freedom or solitude. To the contrary, we read to become absolutely engaged with our world and its history. We read to connect to other people, places, and times, and to realize that our hopes, pains, and aspirations are not entirely original to ourselves. Literature, which has remained accessible and intelligible over the ages, provides such a bridge.

As F.A. Hayek pointed out in The Counter-Revolution of Science, it is "only" through the study of literature and languages (Hayek included history, as well) that one gains "knowledge of society, its life, growth, problems and its values." Literature, says Hayek, opens up "the great storehouse of social wisdom, the only form indeed in which an understanding of the social processes achieved by the greatest minds is transmitted."

We read, then, not to confront "greatness," however defined, but to learn from it. We read not to transcend our limits, but to better understand them.