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.

Modern Fantasy by C N Manlove

‘Modern fantasy has a very large readership, and already enjoys considerable academic repute, particularly in America: it is surprising that as yet no serious study of the subject has appeared.’

Modern Fantasy by C N ManloveThus writes Colin Manlove in the preface to his 1975 offering, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies, the first book of academic criticism about fantasy literature (as opposed to books by insiders — Moorcock and Le Guin, for instance) that I read. In it, Manlove looks at the works of five fantasists: Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, George MacDonald’s fairy tales, C S Lewis’s Perelandra, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Mervyn Peake’s Titus books. The treatment of each work is in-depth, looking (briefly) at the author’s life, their stated intentions for their work, and then at how well they realise those intentions.

Each time, Manlove concludes the work to be a failure.

With Peake, for instance, he’s not convinced by Titus’s desire to escape Gormenghast. He says there’s no evidence in the text that having his every spare moment taken up by age-old meaningless ritual has a detrimental effect on the young boy. As this repugnance for Gormenghast’s constant ceremonies and rituals is, really, a fundamental element not just of Titus’s character, but of the three books’ basic worldview, Manlove fails to be convinced by the trilogy.

With Tolkien, he finds three points to criticise. First, that there’s a ‘continued presence of a biased fortune’ in the plot, meaning that ‘it is not mortal will but luck which is the architect of success, the struggles with the evil forces become unreal, mere posturings in a rigged bout.’ Second, that ‘Tolkien has realised [Mordor and Sauron] far more vividly than anything he gives us to oppose them. What we have is… an imaginative imbalance: good is supposed to overcome evil, but since it is less real to us, its victory does not convince.’ And third, that ‘there is no real pain in the laments’ — that the air of melancholy created by the passing of the great ages of elvish magic is no genuine loss, but is, instead, ‘a loss so bejewelled that it is a pleasure to contemplate’.

Gormenghast, cover by Mark Robertson

Gormenghast, cover by Mark Robertson

With all of these points, for both Peake and Tolkien, I find myself wondering just where Manlove is coming from. To me, Gormenghast’s ritual — and, specifically, its effect on young Titus — is so much the sharp end of all that shadowy edifice’s oppressiveness, that to say there’s no evidence for Titus’s dislike of it seems to be missing the massive, and fundamental, weight of Gormenghast itself. (Also, I’d say that Titus is the least interesting character in the books, and to judge them a failure because of Titus’s character would be similar to judging, say, The Tempest a failure because of the limp character of its male lead Ferdinand — ignoring the splendours of Prospero, Ariel and Caliban.) To Peake, a free spirit if ever there was one, the need for freedom was perhaps too fundamental to be stated; nevertheless, oppression saturates Gormenghast’s shadowy gloom and soaks every word of those two fabulous books, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, to the point that every word is, surely, the ‘evidence’ Manlove finds lacking.

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

With Tolkien, I have to say Manlove’s first point may be a genuine criticism, it just never occurred to me while reading the books. (Or watching either Jackson’s films, or Bakshi’s.) Manlove says there are too many narrow escapes from danger for us to believe in them — despite acknowledging that the narrow escape from danger (what Tolkien termed the ‘Eucatastrophe’) was fundamental to the fairy-tale effect Tolkien was after. But does anyone starting to read The Lord of the Rings really doubt the One Ring will be destroyed, at the end? So, we have to accept that, throughout the three books, all we’ll ever have is the illusion of peril, otherwise the quest will fail. And it’s the very narrowness of the escapes from danger that, surely, provide that illusion. It certainly worked for me.

The point about evil in Tolkien’s work is simply bizarre. Manlove argues that ‘Sauron is more real than anything else in The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien has chosen never to present him directly.’ Which surely goes against Manlove’s requirement for ‘textual evidence’ (as in the arguments against Peake). It’s also odd considering most people’s objections being that Tolkien doesn’t do evil very well, precisely because Sauron never appears (Leiber, quoted in Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance: ‘he’s not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards’). I’d say Sauron can’t appear because he’s pure evil, which can’t convincingly be embodied, and it’s a good thing Tolkien didn’t try. Against this, the forces of ‘good’, which Manlove finds unconvincing, are partly ‘good’ because they’re so diverse — because they allow individuals to be individuals, with no single, fixed idea, no ‘One Ring to rule them’, no single figure to embody their various ideals. It’s this very multiplicity — they’re a ragtag many against a totalitarian one — that makes their stand against Sauron all the more difficult.

The Fellowship of the RingManlove’s criticism of the elegiac air of Tolkien’s trilogy comes down to the fact that the elves aren’t dying off, but are merely leaving Middle Earth for other shores. However, they are still leaving our world, and this is perhaps the basis for the feeling of loss in The Lord of the Rings: it’s an elegy for the fact that our world isn’t the world of wonder and magic that we find in fairy tales. Tolkien can’t kill off his elves, because they’re immortal — they will always live, because they live in our imaginations — but still, they aren’t here, with us, and we don’t live in a magical world. This, though, is a poetic fact, something that I find in the books, rather than something Tolkien writes about, and so is, therefore, something ‘serious’ academic criticism can’t address, however vital a part of the reading of the trilogy it is, to me.

I’ve always been interested in the polarising effect fantasy has on people. Some get it, and enjoy it, others not only don’t enjoy it but feel the need to attack it. They can’t just say, ‘It’s not for me,’ they have to say, ‘Of course, it’s rubbish,’ or, at best, ‘Yes, but it’s for kids.’ I still never fail to be amazed to find people writing entire ‘serious’ books on a subject that, at a deep level, they clearly despise. I wouldn’t say this applies to Manlove, who went on to write several more books about fantasy, including The Fantasy Literature of England (1999) and The Fantasy Literature of EnglandFrom Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England (2003), which are less critical (perhaps because they’re overviews of subjects, rather than in-depth looks, and both are very useful for the sheer breadth of their coverage) — but there’s a feeling of inevitability to his conclusion that ‘not one of the people we have looked at sustains his original vision’. Why? I didn’t understand it at the time I first read Modern Fantasy (in the mid-90s, after finding it in our local library), but have since come to think there’s something fundamental missing from the academic criticism of the time, in its approach to fantasy. By writing a ‘serious’ book on fantasy, Manlove is, of course, criticising using the standards and methods he’d use when approaching ‘serious’ literature (as it was once called): by looking at the various elements like plot, characterisation and style — all vital elements — and finding that the work failed in each of these departments. But I think fantasy criticism requires consideration of another basic element, something that’s to be found in all art, but is so much more evident in the fantastic: I’d call it imagination, or perhaps invention, but perhaps ‘wonder’ is the best word for it, here. Great fantasy has, at its heart, a sort of poetry that’s not grounded in character, or plot, or style — it’s what those elements are grounded in. To ‘get’ fantasy, you have to get the wonder, and that is something you can’t get by taking a critical, analytical perspective. You have to give yourself over to it, and then it either works or it doesn’t. With Peake, it’s Gormenghast — the whole gloom-shadowed, oppressive grotesquery of it, and the way it embodies itself in the various characters who inhabit it; with Tolkien, it’s the majesty of the quest, the heroism of the struggle (not the ultimate success, but how harrowing the journey is), and the whole legend-soaked background of Middle Earth, with its melancholy air of fading elvish magic. These are the central points from which all appreciation of these works must come. To me, both of these works work, and any criticism can only ask why they work. Which isn’t to say that all fantasy works, but I think if you’re not open to that key quality of fantasy, you’re just never going to get the works that do. Certainly, diving straight down into details, as Manlove does, is fatal — it’s the old idea of dissecting a frog to find out which part makes it alive. All you end up with is dead, messy frog parts, and no answers; then you start convincing yourself the frog was never really alive in the first place. Poor frog.

The Language of the Night by Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin, The Language Of The NightFollowing my mewsings on Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry & Wild Romance, I thought I’d take a look at another book on imaginative fiction (fantasy and science fiction, in this case) which I came across early on — in one of those wonderful bookshop sales where a single table would be crammed with all sorts, from academic obscurities to battered, failed bestsellers, and where you really could make discoveries, back before the internet neatly ordered everything — Ursula Le Guin’s collection of essays, introductions and talks, The Language of the Night (or the revised edition, anyway, issued by The Women’s Press in 1989). This book contains some touchstones of writing about fantasy that have stayed with me ever since.

In ‘The Child and the Shadow’, Le Guin retells a Hans Anderson fable and relates it to Jung’s ideas on archetypes (particularly the one he calls the Shadow) and the process of individuation. Fantasy, she says, ‘is the natural, the appropriate language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul… Fantasy is the language of the inner self.’ This led to me making several attempts on Jung’s own tangled thickets of prose — books about his ideas are usually better than those he wrote himself, with Man and His Symbols being perhaps the best (it has pictures!). And, whether Jung’s ideas are ‘true’ or not — whether they’re the roots of a very peculiar science or (far more likely) an extended, imaginative metaphor for the inner life — I’ve always found them useful.

TheLanguageoftheNightIn ‘Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction’, Le Guin talks about what a myth is, in terms of what a writer is trying to do when they write fantasy or science fiction, and how it comes not purely from the unconscious, or the conscious, but from an equal meeting of the two, a forging of something somehow universal from the deeply personal — something another favourite writer of mine, Alan Garner, has said, too (‘A writer has to live an insoluble paradox. He requires a public, and can achieve it only by becoming most private.’ To which Le Guin would no doubt have said, ‘Less of the “he”, please.’).

The essential essay, from a fantasy reader’s point of view, is ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’. Here, Le Guin provides an almost cruelly neat test to tell the would-be fantasy that just mimics the proper use of faraway never-never lands, dragons, wizards and magic, from a genuine emanation of Elfland. For Le Guin, it’s style that makes something fantasy. She praises Dunsany, E R Eddison, Kenneth Morris and James Branch Cabell, and says Leiber and Zelazny could do better (‘When humour is intended the characters talk colloquial American English, or even slang, and at earnest moments they revert to old formal usages.’). The test is simple: take any passage, change the names from mock-fantasy ones to mundane ones, and see if it still reads as fantasy. She uses as an example a passage from Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series, which neatly summed up my own feelings the one time I tried to read it — it’s not fantasy, it’s fancy dress.

Elsewhere, there are good short essays on Philip K Dick, James Tiptree Jr., and Tolkien. Moorcock, of course, hated Tolkien with a profound hatred, but for Le Guin, he’s the high point of the genre, a writer she’s glad she didn’t read too early, because that might have skewed her own writing:

‘Those who fault Tolkien on the Problem of Evil are usually those who have an answer to the Problem of Evil — which he did not. What kind of answer, after all, is it to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano?’

Wizardry & Wild Romance cover

Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz (1987), cover by Les Edwards

But here, Le Guin is doing a very different job from Moorcock. She is, mostly, defending fantasy and science fiction for their own sakes — often, defending imagination for its own sake — rather than sifting out the good from the bad. (She does have the occasional go at a specific author — not as frothingly vitriolic as Moorcock, but just as damning: ‘The recent fantasy best-seller Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is a serious book, unmistakably sincere. It is also intellectually, ethically and emotionally trivial. The author has not thought things through. He is pushing one of the beautifully packaged Instant Answers we specialise in in this country.’)

Like Wizardry and Wild Romance, The Language of the Night is very much of its time, as a lot of the essays chart the early stages of SF’s emergence from the ghettoes of the past:

‘SF is pretty well grown up now. We’ve been through our illiterate stage, our latent nonsexual stage, and the stage when you can’t think of anything but sex, and the other stages, and we really do seem to be on the verge of maturity now.’

But some of Le Guin’s exhortations are just as relevant. In ‘Stalin in the Soul’ — a wonderfully-argued piece about the art of art — Le Guin holds up Zamyatin’s We as an example of what she thinks is the best of all SF novels, yet one that was written under a repressive regime, and only ever published outside its author’s home country. She compares this to the sort of art most often produced in her own, free country, which is all too often self-enslaved to the market.

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

Threshold, Gollancz edition. Cover by Alan Cracknell

Perhaps the problem nowadays is that fantasy and SF — in certain forms — are too easily accepted, so much so that we fail to remember what they can do, what they can be. ‘Fantasy,’ Le Guin says, ‘is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is.’ It’s a jolt to read this, in a culture swamped with fantastic imagery, in novels, films, and games. It reminds you there are really profound, great, even dangerous things to be found in works of the imagination, and that they are, perhaps, just as rare today, even when fantasy and SF are so much more culturally acceptable.

‘The great fantasies, myths and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious — symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter.’