Friday, February 07, 2003

All dressed up and no place to go; Harold Bloom finds little to celebrate in the future of Western literature.

The Glory Has Departed

Review, from The State, October 9, 1994.

The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Harcourt Brace. 578 pages. $29.95

As far as Harold Bloom can tell, it's all over for Western Lit, and there's no question who killed it.

Bloom, imperious Yale Scholar and champion poor-mouth, describes himself as a literary critic "in the worst of all times for literary criticism." Universities are bent on "destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards," and in Bloom's neck of the woods, they're handing out English Department keys to the patriots of political correctness.

Now is the age of the "School of Resentment," when trendy bellyachers like Alice Walker sit cheek by jowl with Homer and Thucydides. Cultural mediocrity is in, genius is out, and Marxists, feminists, multiculturalists and New Historicists are in the catbird seat. It's too late for prayers: "The Balkanization of literary studies is irreversible."

For what it's worth, Bloom offers a selective ranking of great writers and a superior defense of why these "dead white European males" (and Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf and George Eliot) deserve their canonical thrones.

Highest in the heavens, of course, is Shakespeare. With Dante, he is the Western Canon. The others in the top echelon run from the predictable -- Chaucer, Milton, Gothe -- to the odd: Freud (yes, Freud) and some Spanish poet named Pessoa.

The book's already notorious appendix, surveying all of Western literature, is stranger yet. John Updike merits only one mention -- for The Witches of Eastwick, if you can believe that -- Vladimir Nabokov gets two, and a full five go to someone named Jay Wright.

What the great works all have in common is "strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates we cease to see it as strange." They also share Shakespeare, so forceful a presence any number of his artistic descendants have tried to cut him down to size. Freud, for example, had an obsession about Shakespeare's "real" identity. Bloom thinks he knows why: Shakespeare is the real father of psychoanalysis, and Freud's theories are just recycled Hamlet. Freud's Shakespeare problem amounts to an Oedipal complex, or as Bloom prefers it, a Hamlet complex.

Bloom urges us not only to understand this "anxiety of influence" (a previous Bloom title) but to stay focused on artistic sense, not ideology. This should be no problem for him, so vast is the range of his mythy mind. But along the way I began to wonder if Bloom's mix of churchy aestheticism and stony rationalism isn't an ideology of it's own. Bloom is rightly opposed to groups who want to shoehorn mediocrities onto the required reading list, but he isn't above putting these artists into the straitjacket of his own biases.

It's easy to come down hard on a book that offers itself as some kind of final word from on high. (The publishers even add to the pretension by putting Michaelangelo's The Last Judgment on the book jacket.) But the fact is I couldn't put it down. The Western Canon, like the Western Canon, is difficult and illuminating; a revelation and a warning from a most daunting Ancient Mariner. The book demands attention and repays it.

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