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.

Comments (8)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

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

    I think this is the yardstick by which all ‘good’ and ‘great’ literature is differentiated, with technical virtuosity being secondary. Great literature forces us to re-analyse the way we look at the world and because such books are outside our comfort zone, our first impression is of unfamiliarity and disorientation: what exactly is going on here? What is the author trying to say? Etc, etc. And it says something about a really good book that it can be canonical (with the result that you bring a certain set of expectations to it) and still have the capacity to surprise you.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    It’s certainly true that whenever I’ve read a ‘classic’ — Heart of Darkness, The Brothers Karamazov, or most recently The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie — I’ve brought to it a misconception of what the book’s going to be like. I actually started an immediate re-read of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (it’s a short book, so that helped), to get a better second impression. It still has strangenesses…

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Just got a copy of ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ out of sheer curiosity!

  4. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Interesting book. I’m reminded of the LWW, maybe because I read it recently. In both cases, the writer is more interested in the psychology of the traitor than in that of the person being betrayed- a natural enough theme in postwar England, I suspect. And in both cases the traitor is modelled on Judas Iscariot. Given the religious convictions of both writers, maybe this was inevitable?

  5. Murray Ewing says:

    Mind you, I saw Miss Brodie as worthy of betrayal, as she has, in effect, too much power, or is using it wrongly. (At one point, she’s compared to the Calvinist version of God, who decides that some people are ‘Elect’ and therefore going to heaven, just as Brodie has her ‘set’, who will be the ‘créme de la créme’.) But I don’t usually see religious parallels, so I didn’t get the Judas parallel till you pointed it out. What intrigued me was how Sandy kept saying that ‘betrayal’ wasn’t a word that applied, though I never understood what she was getting on about. It seemed Sandy hadto betray Miss Brodie because she was the only one who couldn’t just shrug her influence off. Anyway, it was certainly an interesting tangle of characters.

  6. Aonghus fallon says:

    That’s a really interesting perspective! It also proves how the book is open to a number of interpretations. For example; a lot of the Goodreads reviews see Brody as a brave individualist and a victim of the establishment.

    I may be reading far too much into the book (let’s face it, I probably am) but – running with the religious analogy – I think Spark never makes it entirely clear if Brody is a malign or positive influence on the girls and that this evasiveness is deliberate: firstly because any deity should remain a mystery to her worshippers, secondly to keep the focus on Sandy. I also feel Sandy acted from tainted motives (whatever the long-term benefit of her actions) as she only betrayed Brody because she resented Brody’s hold in abstentia over a man she happened to be sleeping with.

    What is interesting (as with the LWW) is how betrayal is equated with personal growth: the character gets a measure of him or herself, and by knowing themselves, learns how to empathise with others. Rightly or wrongly, I could see this being a core theme in a post-war world still preoccupied with the whole notion of loyalty and betrayal.

  7. Murray Ewing says:

    That’s good, about betrayal being necessary for personal growth. The interesting characters are often the morally grey ones. And I think you’re right about loyalty & betrayal being a core post-WWII theme. Think of all those spy novels in the 1960s & on!

  8. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Absolutely. Also 1984, come to think of it.

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