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The Western Canon by Harold Bloom

The Western Canon by Harold BloomPublished in 1994, Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon is a celebration of great literature. It has achieved a certain notoriety for Bloom’s taking a stance against what he saw as the unwanted politicisation of literary criticism (‘the School of Resentment’ as he calls it, being deliberately provocative), when for him the key to all ‘deep reading’ is the experience of the individual, alone with a book. ‘Such a reader,’ he says, ‘does not read for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a solitary existence.’ But the real core of the book is Bloom’s attempt to, as he puts it, ‘confront greatness directly’. Doing this, he necessarily talks about ‘the canon’ — his particular Valhalla of great works from Western literature — but whether you agree with his choices or not is beside the point. It’s the conclusions he draws, or the aspects he celebrates, that are the reason to read The Western Canon. My own experience certainly chimes with his:

‘When you read a canonical work for a first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfilment of expectations.’

As well as the standard reasons you’d expect for a work to be considered great — ‘mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction’ — Bloom adds another, ‘strangeness’:

‘…a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.’

Bloom_ShakespeareWildest of Bloom’s many wild ideas is that the way we’ve come to see ourselves as human beings has been, at least in part, formed by the representations of human beings in our greatest literature. For him, Shakespeare is the greatest of the greats, and the most influential on human nature itself. His pronouncement that ‘The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare, the more one realises that the accurate stance towards them is one of awe’, may sound overblown, but frankly, it’s nice to be in the presence of someone who allows themselves a little bombast when talking about what they love. ‘Shakespearean drama,’ Bloom writes, ‘seems at once utterly familiar and yet too rich to absorb all at once.’ And whether you agree or you don’t — or whether such statements could ever be lived up to by any work by any writer — I certainly find them inspiring, both as a reader as a writer. And that’s one of the things I like about this book: it makes me want to read better, to read ‘deeper’ or ‘stronger’, as he puts it. Bloom’s model as a reader (and critic) is Dr Johnson, who is, he says, ‘everything a wise critic should be: he directly confronts greatness with a total response, to which he brings his complete self.’

Reading properly, then, makes you both human and whole.

Bloom’s canon is no mere dusty list. It is, rather, an eternal battlefield on which current works must fight it out with the greats of the past to win a place: ‘a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.’ Bloom’s judgements and summaries of writers and their works have a wonderful strangeness of their own, being utterly unverifiable but always illuminating, intriguing, and provocative, like the literary criticism version of Zen koans. ‘Shakespeare,’ he says, ‘is the inventor of psychoanalysis; Freud, its codifier.’ Or, to put it another way: ‘Hamlet did not have an Oedipus complex, but Freud certainly had a Hamlet complex and perhaps psychoanalysis is a Shakespeare complex.’ Later he says, ‘Freud, slyly following Shakespeare, gave us our map of the mind; Kafka intimated to us that we could not hope to use it to save ourselves, even from ourselves.’

Agon by Harold BloomThe thing that brought me to Bloom’s book was when someone told me he’d included David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus in his long list of canonical works (a list required of him by his publishers, apparently, rather than being something he set out to compile). In an earlier book, Agon (from 1982), Bloom devotes a chapter to sketching out a ‘theory of literary fantasy’, which he then applies, in some detail, to Lindsay’s novel (as well as offering an explanation of sorts for his one venture into fiction, his — dull, in my opinion — attempt at a Lindsay-esque novel, The Flight to Lucifer). This ‘theory of literary fantasy’ is short, but I’ve always found it to apply whenever I pause to test it on a work of fantasy I’m reading. Rather than an all-encompassing theory, it’s an attempt to understand a peculiar aspect of fantastic literature: why, when given the freedom to invent anything, and therefore to potentially indulge oneself in nothing but power-fantasies and pleasurable daydreams, great fantasy literature ends up confronting genuinely difficult and meaningful themes — in other words, what rescues truly good fantasy from the accusation of escapism:

‘What promises to be the least anxious of literary modes becomes much the most anxious… The cosmos of fantasy, of the pleasure/pain principle, is revealed in the shape of a nightmare, and not of hallucinatory wish-fulfilment.’

Fantasy, for Bloom, is the ‘compounding of Narcissism and Prometheanism’ (which sounds like a neat counterpart to Brian Aldiss’s definition of SF as ‘hubris clobbered by Nemesis’). It certainly applies to the best of the fantasy books I’ve reviewed on this site — think of, for instance, Ursula Le Guin’s Threshold, where two characters seek to escape from their daily lives in a fantasy world, only find themselves on a quest to face something even more dangerous and difficult; or a similar situation in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark, where an escape from a difficult home life is illuminated by a parallel quest to destroy a truly disgusting dragon.

Harold Bloom, photograph by Jeanne Bloom

Harold Bloom, photograph by Jeanne Bloom

Bloom’s The Western Canon has persuaded me to read a few of his choice of great books (among them, appropriately, Jane Austen’s Persuasion), though by no means all of them. But always, dipping into it, I’m revitalised as a reader. My canon is not, and will never be, Bloom’s (I’d put Peake’s Gormenghast books in there for sure, as well as Le Guin’s first two Earthsea books), but I can’t help but agree with him about the core purpose of reading, and of writing about what one reads:

‘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.’

‘Our ultimate inwardness’ — the thing I, for one, certainly search for between the covers of a book.

“David Lindsay’s The Violet Apple” in Wormwood 21

Wormwood 21I have an essay in the latest issue of Wormwood, on David Lindsay’s posthumously-published novel, The Violet Apple. Of all Lindsay’s novels, it’s the one I most wanted to write about, perhaps because it’s one of his lesser-known and rarely-read works, but also because, although his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, is undoubtedly the most impressive in terms of sheer ambition, The Violet Apple is his most muted, and human — the novel of a writer with some experience and craft — as well as perhaps being his most artistically unified. I even named my website dedicated to David Lindsay after it. (I’ve always thought it the most filmable of his novels, too, and would love to see it as a sort of Merchant Ivory style period piece!)

I hope I managed to set down exactly what it is I like about the book, and why it should be approached on its own merits, not just as “another book by the author of A Voyage to Arcturus“. It’s a great pity there’s no affordable edition out at the moment; I always feel guilty recommending a book it’s expensive to buy.

Anyway, I’ve been reading Wormwood since its first issue, so it’s great to be a contributor, and I’m now looking forward to reading the rest of the issue.

(My essay has gained a glitch in the first paragraph — the last sentence uses “He is described as…” to refer to a tower; I just had it starting “Described as…” — but hopefully it still makes sense!)

A letter between writers

Whether it’s Clark Ashton Smith to George Sterling, or David Lindsay to E H Visiak, reading letters between writers, you often find things getting a little formulaic. So, if you ever get caught in a writerly correspondence (highly unlikely, nowadays), here are all your epistolary requirements met:

Dear [fellow writer]

First of all, apologies for not having replied to your previous letter sooner. You know how life is!

[Then, either this paragraph:]

Thanks for the copy of your latest book. A work of genius, though few of course will see it. Critics are, in the main, dullards. As for me, it has left my head so full of thoughts that I cannot set them down just yet. A second read, and a bit more leisure, will allow me to do so. Now, of course, you must immediately set about writing something new! The world awaits your next masterpiece!

[or this paragraph:]

Commiserations on your continued efforts to find a publisher. Publishers are, in the main, dullards. It will, I am sure, one day soon find a home.

[Finally:]

As for my own writing, I have been rather lax of late. All this business with moving house, and so on. You know how life is! I will endeavour to do more!

Yours,

[your name, in a slightly less formal version than in the last letter, till you hit on a pair of silly nicknames for one another]

Should we bowdlerize Lovecraft?

I like the way there’s always one fact you know about an author, even if you know nothing else about them. If you know only one thing about Jane Austen, for instance, it’s that she, the great writer on marriage & marriageability, was herself unmarried. If you know only one thing about Charles Dickens, the great writer on (and righter of) social wrongs, it’s that his father was imprisoned for debt and young Charles had to work in a blacking factory, an experience he loathed & feared for the rest of his life. If you know only one thing about H P Lovecraft, it’s that he was a racist. The main difference with the Lovecraft fact is that, while you can read the entire works of Dickens or Austen and never guess their particular fact, if you read enough Lovecraft, you’re sure to stub your toe against his enough times to grow more than wary. And if you do enjoy his fiction for its unique take on the weird, it always does feel like stubbing your toe — both painful & angry-making.

For anyone who likes to read old fantasy, horror, and weird fiction, it’s a constant hazard. Sometimes it seems that no sooner do you find an author you like, you discover some objectionable opinion they held. (Why is this such a hazard for fantasy, horror & weird fiction enthusiasts? Perhaps because we’re more likely to read the not-so-great writers in our genre’s past.) I remember the sinking feeling I experienced when I first read David Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor (1932) and encountered its passages — from an author who had previously written that “nationalities, and the patriotism that attends nationalities, are inconsistent with true mental freedom and progress” — having one of his characters explain how “Christ was blue-eyed, belonging by descent to the North”. (I also remember the sense of relief I felt when I read Tolkien’s letter to his would-be publishers in pre-WWII Germany who had asked if he had any Jewish blood; he replied that he was sorry he hadn’t, but would be proud to admit it if he had.) There’s a watershed at World War II, before which racism, and (in Britain) Imperialism and classism, were strewn quite freely through the works of so many writers. (Casual racism, of the “it’s the word we always used, we never meant anything by it” type was still the norm amongst my grandparents’ generation.)

But should we bowdlerize Lovecraft? No. Lovecraft’s racism is part of the man we encounter whenever we read his fiction, and as it’s often the most noticeable of his objectionable characteristics, perhaps that’s one reason for keeping it — it alerts us to the fact that these stories are not the products of an entirely healthy mind. The very thing that draws me to reading Lovecraft — his portrayal of a very bleak and inhuman, even anti-human, universe — is centred on his own intently-held fears and beliefs. Lovecraft had a deep terror of life (which I’m not saying was groundless), and particularly of the body, and in a sense it was only because his racism was, at the time, the most socially acceptable part of his profound world-rejection, life-rejection, and body-rejection, that it comes out so explicitly in his fiction.

Lovecraft’s horror of otherness — most crassly expressed in his fear of the foreign faces and cultures he found himself surrounded by in New York — is ultimately the horror of his own body, and the shadow part of his mind. There is in his fiction a mixed loathing for and longing for union with that “other” — as there always must be, the psyche seeking to heal its self-division — and so we get that moment at the end of “The Outsider” where the protagonist sees his own horrific form in a mirror (which is not simply the end of a cheap twist tale, but a depiction of how far a man can go to deny what he knows is most horrific about himself), but also all those fantasies of having one’s mind transplanted into other, alien bodies, which Lovecraft strained to imbue with horror whilst quite plainly longing to experience.

Should we not read Lovecraft, then? My interest in Lovecraft’s fiction is as much with the man who wrote it as the stories he produces, but I don’t at all mean that I admire him through and through. Lovecraft is the picture of a man struggling at the edge of life, caught between the desire to live and the impulse to reject it all. An intelligent, sensitive, self-limited man, he strove all his life to try and solve the very alien equation at the core of his own psychology. He certainly didn’t achieve perfection at any point, but I believe it’s possible to find in his fiction evidence for the very difficult self-healing, or self-unifying (“I am it and it is I”), process we all undergo, and which is all the more explicit in the works of artists and writers who address the darker realms of the mind. Which is also the reason we go to those works, to try and illuminate our own self-healing, self-unification, and the struggle that goes with it. All authors are fallible human beings, and it’s in none of our interests to pretend they aren’t, to make a cult of them, to revere them unreservedly. Far better that they teach us to be always wary of what we read, and work out our own values for ourselves.

As for whether we should admire such authors, quite often it’s not a question of admiration — it’s fascination, that combination of repugnance and attraction, as much as anything, that brings us back to the work of the most powerful artists. It’s seeing ourselves, in however warped, exaggerated, and difficult-to-take a form, that brings us to their work — just like Lovecraft’s ghoul seeing itself in a mirror. Certainly, that’s what brings me back to Lovecraft.

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