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Bloom at Thermopylae By NORMAN FRUMAN

    "The Western Canon" is a heroically brave, formidably learned and often unbearably sad response to the present state of the humanities. "After a lifetime spent in teaching literature" at Yale University, Harold Bloom writes, "I have very little confidence that literary education will survive its current malaise." "We are destroying all intellectual and esthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences, in the name of social justice." "The Balkanization of literary studies is irreversible. . . . I do not believe that literary studies as such have a future." The responsibility for this previously unimaginable catastrophe lies with "all six branches" of what he terms "the School of Resentment: Feminists, Marxists, Lacanians, New Historicists, Deconstructionists, Semioticians."

     Framed by "An Elegy for the Canon" and "An Elegiac Conclusion" -- both despairing reflections on the present state of literary studies -- this magnum opus focuses on 26 writers from among hundreds whom he later lists as canonical. Bloom regards the 26 not only as great artists, but as the chief representatives of their literary cultures.

      "The Western Canon" concludes with four appendixes in 36 pages listing those works from remote antiquity to the present that Bloom regards as canonical, or potentially so. It is sobering to think that in recent years most of these authors, who collectively have bequeathed us those thousands of poems, plays, epics, stories and novels that constitute our literary heritage and much of our historical and cultural memory, have been dismissed, sometimes with contempt, as "dead white European males."

   In his final statement on the "canon crusades," Bloom writes, with startling bluntness: "Expanding the Canon, as I have said more than once in this book, tends to drive out the better writers, sometimes even the best. . . . Nearly everything that has been revived or discovered by feminist and African-American literary scholars falls all too precisely into the category of 'period pieces,' as imaginatively dated now as they were already enfeebled when they first came into existence." No doubt this is unnecessarily abrasive, but the more serious problem is that the fundamental issues raised here are not likely to be calmly debated in literary or educational terms, but to become mired in the increasingly bitter gender, racial and class politics that are overwhelming literature departments and the entire field of literary studies.

   "The Western Canon" is a passionate demonstration of why some writers have triumphantly escaped the oblivion in which time buries almost all human effort. It inspires hope, despite Harold Bloom's despair, that what humanity has long cherished, posterity will also.

Original text on: http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/11/01/specials/bloom-canon.html






Colossus Among Critics: Harold Bloom By ADAM BEGLEY

      In the pages of "The Western Canon," Bloom strikes a heroic pose, the critic at the barricades defending the literary tradition of the West. He marshals those writers he judges "authoritative in our culture," Shakespeare foremost among them. He sings out the names of the elect; he accounts, with many a virtuoso turn, for their superiority. And he slaps insistently at his enemies ("these resentniks"), an insidious network of politically correct academics and journalists who resent, Bloom claims, precisely what he cherishes: the esthetic value of literature.

        "The Western Canon" is Bloom engaged in an extended series of one-on-one matchups, a lively spectacle and heartening. Here is a truly learned man whose life is literature and who isn't at all ashamed to proselytize. Lindsay Waters, executive editor at Harvard University Press, believes that "Bloom is always asking what would it mean for America to have a spiritual life that is not identified with or rooted in organized religion." The goal of Bloom's criticism, in the view of Waters, "is to goad us into living that life."

   The canon, Bloom believes, answers an unavoidable question: What, in the little time we have, shall we read? Bloom also wants to tell us how to read. "You must choose," he writes. "Either there were esthetic values or there are only the overdeterminations of race, class and gender."

   Even some of Bloom's most loyal supporters have their doubts about the value of this mass-production scholarship. They worry that he's spreading himself too thin, stretching the limits of his admittedly vast competence. But his Chelsea House venture has at least proved lucrative. "He's been a fabulous moneymaker," says Bloom's friend and colleage, the biographer R. W. B. Lewis. "The Western Canon" earned Bloom a $600,000 advance from his publisher, a huge sum for a nearly 600-page book about the greatest hits of literature.

   As an appendix to "The Western Canon," he includes lists of all the canonical authors and their canonical works, from "Gilgamesh" to Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." The lists are partly a marketing gimmick, partly the nose-thumbing gesture of the inveterate provocateur, though his choices, from the earliest epics through the end of the 19th century, are mostly unexceptionable. When it comes to choosing among his contemporaries, however, Bloom's idiosyncrasies take over. What happened to Mary McCarthy, Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg? Why list only one of John Updike's novels, "The Witches of Eastwick," and nine of Philip Roth's, including his latest, "Operation Shylock"? (The answer to the second question could be that Updike once referred to Bloom's criticism as "torturous," while Roth is the would-be canonizer's pal.)

    But the lists are not at all the meat of "The Western Canon." Even if the "declining old Bloom" is spreading himself too thin, or blowing the same note too many times, he's still a wonderful reader. His enthusiasm for literature is a joyous intoxicant. He scatters insight with manic profligacy. M. H. Abrams, Bloom's mentor nearly half a century ago, ponied up a blurb for "The Western Canon." Reading Bloom's commentaries, Abrams wrote, "is like reading classic authors by flashes of lightning." Though Abrams intended an unalloyed compliment, the image works two ways: The illumination is sporadic -- and yet thrilling, unpredictable, powerful in effect.

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The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages



   While the appendices, with their lists of books, are the sections that have prompted the most comments among teachers of literature, they take up only a relatively few of the 578 numbered pages. After his "Preface and Prelude," Bloom indicates the mood of the book by presenting "An Elegy for the Canon." Then, adapting Giambattista Vico's theory of history, he discusses twenty-six canonical writers: from the Aristocratic Age, Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Molière, Milton, Johnson, and Goethe; from the Democratic Age, Wordsworth, Austen, Whitman, Dickinson, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, and Ibsen; and from the present period, which Bloom calls the "Chaotic Age," Freud, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Borges, Neruda, Pessoa, and Beckett. Just before the appendices comes the "Elegiac Conclusion," in which Bloom says he has "very little confidence that literary education will survive its current malaise" (517) but hopes that, amid high-tech, low-brow amusements, there will still be "literate survivors" (528).


   It is refreshing to find someone who treats art as art--not as politics, economics, or sociology, regardless of the political, economic, and sociological implications and background of the art. And it is a relief to find someone who does not treat the Western canon as a repository of easily withdrawn moral maxims for all contemporary occasions.


   Yet questions do arise: Is canonicity always the result of one writer's triumph over a great literary ancestor? If art depends on money and therefore canons in some way support the worldviews of the rich, as Bloom acknowledges, do not canons depend also on apparent chance--on what old manuscripts survive fire and flood and illiterate marauders and the sporadic attention of censoring officials, or on what kind of a day an editor at a publishing house is having when an unsolicited typescript lands on the desk? Does Bloom overwork his theory of the anxiety of influence, turning a helpful insight into a light that blinds him to other relationships among writers? Does he put too much emphasis on cognitive difficulty, confusing it occasionally with tedious obscurity in works that few skilled readers outside universities would ever want to re-read? Does his enormous praise of Shakespeare as the canon's center cross the line dividing perceptive criticism of a great writer from blind bardolatry?


   It is not that The Western Canon, with argument and lists, is beyond all disapproval, for, as the questions imply, obviously it will never reach that kind of critical paradise. Rather the point is that, although any individual reader will disagree with Bloom about one matter or another, he has treated an important topic with enormous expertise, however eccentric; and he has offered opinions and reading suggestions that are at least worth careful consideration.


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