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.

Robin of Sherwood

What a magnificent piece of TV Robin of Sherwood was/is. Rewatching its first two series recently, I was struck by how much it creates its own special atmosphere, its own world. I know this has to be true of every successful TV series, and by being set in a specific historical period, complete with Medieval costumes and crumbling Norman-conquest era castles, Robin of Sherwood certainly has a shortcut to establishing a visual signature that programmes set in modern times don’t have, but the series works its magic in other ways, too. At times, it’s as much mood-piece as it is drama, set in a timeless realm of myth and imagination as much as it is in recognisable English history. And quite appropriately, too, for the retelling of an oft re-told tale, and one which takes the resilience of myth and memory over mortality, and the old ways over the new — its credo is “Nothing is forgotten” — as one of its tenets of belief.

A big chunk of its atmosphere, of course, comes from Clannad’s enchanting soundtrack, which mixes the ancient (folky & medieval-sounding instruments) with the modern (the occasional bit of soft synth). The fact that it reuses a stock set of pieces, rather than (as was the practice with, say, Doctor Who) having a completely original score for each episode, just goes to emphasise this timelessness, as each piece — “Battles” for action sequences, “Strange Land” for mounting tension, “Lady Marian” for romantic bits, and so on — both adds to your anticipation of the particular atmosphere of each scene, and gives the feeling that this is a replaying of an ancient set of mythical, archetypal events. Sometimes a single sound effect does all the work, as with the weird, echoey wolf cry (usually accompanied by a sudden camera zoom) that announces moments of supernatural surprise; and that blurring of the distinction between soundtrack and ambient sound adds to the feeling that this is a magical land we’re in, one as “full of noises, sounds and sweet airs” as the island in Shakespeare’s Tempest. Plus, the music is just a damned good listen on its own.

The show mostly takes place in a quite limited set of characteristic locations, each one with its own distinct feel. There’s the lush leafy greens of the outlaws’ hideouts (it’s never winter in Sherwood, only timeless summer), the heavy stone walls and murky interiors of the Sheriff’s castle, and the muddy peasant messiness of forest-clearing villages. These three settings must make up about 90% of the locations used in Robin of Sherwood, as if this were a three-tiered world, like the various myths (Norse and Christian, for instance) which have three levels or sub-worlds — the Good Place (Heaven), the Bad Place (Hell), and the battleground (Earth) — which their heroes move between, fighting their endless fights.

So much of the dialogue of this series has stuck with me (admittedly, through many viewings over the years). Robin’s counter-curse to the bullying Templar knight: “Evil to him who thinks evil”. His first line to Maid Marian: “You’re like a May morning.” That mad old man in the dungeons: “Feet first — it’s the only way.” And the wonderful comedy of the Sheriff and his sidekick Gisburne (Gisburne: “The halfwit, my lord!” Sherrif: “Which one?”), occasionally joined by the self-satisfied (but cannily fearful of paganism’s powers) Abbot Hugo (“Leviticus? Leviticus!”). You can’t help but love the Sheriff. He’s the ultimate pantomime villain, and Nickolas Grace revels in wringing vitriolic sarcasm from every line (“It’s not a celebration, it’s a wedding!”). (My favourite Sheriff line has to be when he’s driven to mad hallucinations in “The Children of Israel”: “Leeches! See the leeches!” I see them, Nickolas, I see them!)

Most of all I love the way the series took on the supernatural, becoming a sword & sorcery version of the Robin Hood myth, with distinct Hammer Horror flavourings (particularly in the Baron de Belleme and “Seven Swords of Wayland” episodes). Robin of Sherwood takes place in a world where both paganism and Satanism have a real, magical power. (Oddly, Christianity doesn’t. Perhaps, being the established religion, it has enough worldly power not to need it. In the series, it’s seen as the religion of the conquerors, not the peasants and outlaws, a religion of silver crucifixes, gold chalices, heavily be-ringed bishops and gothic churches, not the woods and fields.)

It all comes together to create a timeless world in which the series tells its stories — a world that is part historical, but a good thick slice of myth & fantasy, too. “Nothing is forgotten”, is both the outlaws’ credo and their ultimate defence against the overwhelming might of their oppressors; but it could just as easily refer to the show itself, or the myth it’s retelling — for us, it’s the stories of Robin Hood that will never be forgotten.

Flashman, and other reprobates

I really enjoyed the recent two-week stint of My Life in Books that led up to World Book Day. Hearing Anne Robinson’s guests talk about their favourite books didn’t make me want to rush out and buy them, though, but tended to make me want to re-read my own favourites. The one exception was George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman. I’d heard a bit about it before, and its mention on the programme re-piqued my curiosity, so I decided to give it a go.

Flashman was published in 1969, but the character Harry Paget Flashman dates back to 1857, when he was the bully in Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes. In the Flashman Papers (as the series is called), George MacDonald Fraser has that same school bully narrate the events of his subsequent life — a life in which this self-confessed coward, cad and reprobate becomes embroiled in many of the major historical events of the Victorian Age. (The first book, for instance, sees him slap-bang in the midst of the first Anglo-Afghan War.) The Flashman books are so gleefully un-PC, they can’t be taken as anything but satire — satire on the Empire itself, and on the essential emptiness of the myth of the Gentleman Hero it used to whitewash all the mingled racism, sexism and classism that drove it. As such, Flashman is a paragon — a gentleman to the last, he womanises, he beats his servants, he treats the lower classes with utter contempt, but nevertheless manages to come out seeming, in the eyes of the all-too-ready-to-believe Victorian public, a hero, despite the facts. (Though not entirely without his private comeuppances. The one woman he loves turns out to have just as cavalier an attitude to men as he does towards women.)

I didn’t quite enjoy the book enough to want to read the rest of the series, though. The trouble was, Flashman, as an anti-hero, doesn’t really go far enough. Yes, he’s a reprobate, a coward and a cad, but he never came across as having sufficient relish for his misdeeds, and as a result just seems rather mean-spirited. (Exactly like a bully, I suppose, but that’s not enough to sustain a series.) He was too matter-of-fact about the whole thing, and seemed to have no real motivation apart from escaping with his hide intact. If he’d just been that much more of an connoisseur of his own wickedness, it would have given him that much more vivacity, that much more life, that much more character.

This becomes obvious if you compare him with similar roguish types. Shakespeare’s Falstaff, for instance, who is such a larger-than-life reprobate his very cowardice becomes a sort of heroism. Falstaff is a poet of self-justification. He has such a way with words that, at the very moment he’s talking his way out of being caught lying, he turns it into something that is both wonderfully comic and humanly tragic at the same time. Accused of being a thief, he says: “Why, Hal, ’tis my vocation, Hal; ’tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.” Explaining his running away when the disguised Hal robs him so easily, he talks his very cowardice into a proof that he is in fact a “valiant lion”. His lies are so boldfaced, so brazen and bombastic, but he wins us over by being so very human, so full of life.

Or, to take another historical cad: Edmund Blackadder. Just as much a coward, a cad and a reprobate as Harry Flashman, Blackadder lives for the cunning plan, for the witty reversal of his ill-fortunes, so that while we can laugh at him for his downfalls, we can also feel for him when he comes out on top. What makes you want to feel for him is the joy he takes in his own rascallous actions.

A third example comes from another book I read for the first time recently, Treasure Island. Although it is narrated by the young Jim Hawkins, the character that lingers in the mind once the book is finished is Long John Silver. When Silver speaks, it’s like he’s snatching the pen from Robert Louis Stevenson’s hand. He commands the page. Silver is, of course, a pirate — the very source of all one-legged, grog-swilling, blue-tongued, be-parrotted pirates ever since — but he’s no pantomime villain. He is gloriously, impeccably self-interested. As soon as the pirates are losing, he’s ready to switch sides. He vows his life and loyalty to young Jim, but as soon as there’s a whiff of treasure to be had, he’s ready to switch back again. There’s a wonderful moment when a mere look from Silver reveals his true inner character in a flash of betrayal:

Silver hobbled, grunting, on his crutch; his nostrils stood out and quivered; he cursed like a madman when the flies settled on his hot and shiny countenance; he plucked furiously at the line that held me to him and from time to time turned his eyes upon me with a deadly look. Certainly he took no pains to hide his thoughts, and certainly I read them like print. In the immediate nearness of the gold, all else had been forgotten: his promise and the doctor’s warning were both things of the past, and I could not doubt that he hoped to seize upon the treasure, find and board the HISPANIOLA under cover of night, cut every honest throat about that island, and sail away as he had at first intended, laden with crimes and riches.

Alone of all the pirates, Silver escapes with his life at the end — and, in a sense, escapes the confines of the book, too, for he’s the one character with life enough to become so much more than the words he was made out of.

Compared to Falstaff, Blackadder and Long John Silver, Flashman seems a bit pallid. Perhaps this is just because, in the first book, he’s young, and the above examples are all of people with a bit more experience behind them. Does the series get better? Does Flashman get more caddish, more full of life? If I knew, I’d venture to read some of the rest.