Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages was a sensation when it appeared in 1994. Harold Bloom, a curmudgeonly anti-academic ivy league scholar, fills this challenging read with fresh insights on every page. He has perhaps gone mad with his own reading, and I have trouble understanding what he means by “we” when he claims to speak for readers. I’m not sure an audience exists for his breadth of reading any more. He is one of the last great literary priests left in the empty cathedrals we call the Western library.
Moreover, Bloom is anti-ideological, and understands pretty well the self-contradiction that this entails. The book is a sermon against what he calls “the school of resentment”—readers of feminist, Marxist, and deconstructionist leanings that would remove the Western canon from its central place.
There are problems with a “Western canon.” Though we think of the canon as simply our chief books, the word “canon” means rule or measurement. The books of the Euro-American canon are the books by which our culture measures itself.
One of the problems with this canon is that it is biased toward realism.* Mimesis is the literary critic’s drug of choice, thus modern fantasy and medieval allegory is largely left behind. Bloom himself references Ursula K. Le Guin and C.S. Lewis, and includes J.R.R. Tolkien in a larger list of canonical books. Clearly, though, even Bloom, who edited two books on C.S. Lewis, prefers the high literary mix of the uncanny and the natural in realistic writing to broad streams of fairy tale or the high ranges of fantasy and science fiction.
Another problem is that there may be no such thing as a Western civilization, and thus we are in no need of a canon. Still, there is a “we” in that sentence. And we can speak broadly of a culture that exists, with all its inherent contradictions and diversities. So a canon (and a counter-canon) makes sense.
It is telling that our culture, such as it is, is no longer reading these books. Some individuals are, but we no longer have a class of public intellectuals—pastors, priests, politicians, professors, publishers, and pundits—who lead us in the great roots of Western civilization. It is increasingly possible that some of our most important political figures no longer know how to read. Moreover, I’m always shocked when a CNN or Fox commentator has read the book of the controversialist he or she is interviewing. As a culture, we no longer want to be led intellectually, but to receive neural stimulation from flat shiny screens (like this one).
That is good in many ways I suppose. The canon is filled with white men and women—and just a few women, really—who were typically well off. But we are still left with parts of our culture—our history, our laws, our academic institutions, our media culture, our language development, our architecture and art—that reflect the canon. In short, there are just some books that we should have read already.
And yet we haven’t—or at least I haven’t. I have at times pretended to read this writer or that book. How absurd! To pretend that I have read the same books as you! My awkward social sin, though, shows us the value of the library that has been left to us. I have determined to spend a good deal of the 2010s and 2020s catching up on all the reading I’ve missed. My wan education, even growing up in a very poor but literary home, has been woefully inadequate to my profession (my faith profession, my vocation as writer, and my roles as professor and policy writer).
If culture can no longer do it for us—can no longer provide us with the education we need—we have to do it for ourselves. Thus the value of a book like Bloom’s. As often as he reminds us how inadequate we truly are as readers, we can still use his book as a resource for self-teaching.
And if your project isn’t the discovery of a Western canon, the books Bloom focusses on are excellent in their own right.
What is this canon?
That’s part of the fun: despite the standards that are part of our shared cultural library, there is no one canon. So we make our own lists.
Bloom lists as the “highest fictions” these well known works: the Divine Comedy, Hamlet, King Lear, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, Faust (Part Two), Peer Gynt, War and Peace, and In Search of Lost Time. Ibsen’s Peer Gynt was a surprise to me, though none of the others are. You will note that the novelists are missing, such as Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. These he will spend a great deal of time on, as not quite the “highest fictions,” but still canonical. I know all of these writers in one way or another, even if I have never read them all.
On Wednesday I will endeavour to include the entire list that you will not need to read his Western Canon in its entirety before you begin reading great books. Any canonical reader will have to have a knowledge of Blake, Coleridge, Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, Emerson, William Empson, Freud, Hemingway, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, Christopher Marlow, Fernando Pessoa, Alexander Pope, Shelley, Wallace Stevens, Charles Williams, and Yeats. And, of course, you will need to know the classics, the Bible, the Greek philosophers, contemporary literary critics, the existentialist writers, and the most popular poets of history.
So, here we are overwhelmed by our own lack of education again!
There are surprising additions and omissions in Bloom’s taxonomy of Western standards. Tolstoy sits at the centre of the canon, almost as high as Shakespeare. Yet it is not War and Peace that is highlighted, but an obscure posthumous novel I had never heard of. I don’t think Persuasion is Jane Austen’s best or even her most important novel, but it might be the most paradigmatic. Bloom is highly Anglo-American, so Voltaire is mostly ignored, and there is a surprising weight in his treatment of the Americans (Dickinson and Whitman).
The Nordic and Celtic traditions are almost entirely gone–they are speculative in nature, after all–and Beowulf gets not a single mention in the entire book. Arthur almost never happened. It is like Augustine wrote some notes in his journal, the world slept for a millennium, and Dante suddenly decided he had something on his mind. Coleridge is discussed in his relationship to Wordsworth, but neither his Rime of the Ancient Mariner or his Biographia Literaria are mentioned. And Bloom has a peculiar fascination with the Torah writer, “J”—the reconstructed and perhaps fictional persona whom he is certain is a female writing in ancient Hebrew. Finally, Canada does not exist, in literary terms, which will surprise all the Canadian writers.
These peculiarities as a whole only serve to highlight the inversive nature of Bloom’s work. At the same time he is setting up for us the canon that literary critics of history have given us, he is reshaping that canon, recentring it, redefining its Greek and Hebrew lineage, and doing his best to steal it back from contemporary ideological critics** who would tear it open, piece by piece.
How can you have an iconoclast bent on restoring the art? Somehow it works in Harold Bloom’s exciting memoir of a culture’s library. Or is it a eulogy? He is an anti-establishmentarian who dies to protect the establishment. Despite—and because of—its idiosyncrasies, it works for those of us trying to move our (realistic) reading into deeper and deeper realms.
* I will include some fantastic canon lists next Monday.
** I am one of the ideologues, by the way.
With the exception of Fernando Pessoa (whom I think of as essentially HB’s “discovery” for the canon), I was expected as an English major at Yale to have read all the authors listed in HB’s canon at least by the time I entered my junior year — to which, because my area of concentration was Medieval, I was expected to have added, by graduation, the relevant OE, OF, OHG, and LL texts. I was also expected to have a working (at least reading) knowledge of Latin and Classical Greek. (I was also expected to be able to write in French — a talent I have lost since.) In the end, one cannot appreciate the Inklings without knowing the authors they read.(I’m still not sure if Tolkien read Pessoa (under any of his hundred names) despite the connections or coincidences of their lives. I think I’ll try to find out. I have known Harold Bloom — though not well, and I can’t say if he knows me, even though he used one of my Tolkien essays in one of his collections (without my permission or any payment).
Thanks for this Jared. I was expected to know almost nothing, though my undergrad was biblical studies, so aggressive in its own way. I think your education is slipping away. By the end of high school I got almost nothing (though my Canadian level was good).
As far as languages, those are gone. I wish I had substantial Latin & OE, but my Greek and French are strong. You were able to write the Ransom book you did because you had the reading syllabus you had.
Fast and loose on the editorial work, Bloom is?
The late Professor Sir Fernando de Mello Moser was very interesting in comparing Pessoa and Charles Williams – but I’m not sure how much he published about it, in English (I can’t even remember if there’s something in the Williams Soc Newsletter, though browsing the archives as posted at the Soc site has its various rewards in any case).
A quick look at the English Wikipedia article on Pessoa reveals ‘Antinous’ and ’35 Sonnets’ both published in Lisbon in 1918, and ‘English Poems’ (with the breakdown vol. 1 part I – Antinous, part II – Inscriptions; vol. 2 part III – Epithalamium) there in 1921, and a mention of at least one English review of the former, and a poem published in The Athenaeum in 1920. It gives the impression that this was about all any English reader could have know of him during his lifetime – or for a long time after. Is there more that Tolkien, or other Inklings, could have known?
I don’t recall a single mention. I think both Lewis & Tolkien would be disinclined any way.
I wonder what the history of this use of ‘canon’ is? (No OED access, alas!) Our copy of the 1981 ed. 4 of M.H. Abrams’ A Glossary of Literary Terms, for instance, does not have an index entry for the word!
Lewis wrote in the 1930s about not only ‘The Idea of an “English School” ‘ but also ‘Our English Syllabus’, and in the 1940s into the 1950s worked on a contribution to a and/or the History of English Literature (in the published fruit of which he discusses to some extent what he treats as ‘literature’ and why), and A.O.J. Cockshut has lately contributed to the literature (!) of Lewis at a Faculty Meeting discussion of “the syllabus of the Honour School of English Language and Literature” at Oxford, so, he not only could (as he had to) work with such things as a given, but also reflected upon them and in one way or another ‘worked’ on the contours of that one. But what of An Experiment in Criticism? An ‘anti-canonical’ work, in some sense(s)? Or more a work we might call an essay toward (empirical? existential?) ‘canon discovery’? – but what would Lewis say about this/these use(s) and conceptualization(s) of ‘canon’?
Interesting to hear about ‘J’! I ran into a second-hand copy of Robert Graves’ Homer’s Daughter (1955) last year, but did not buy it (though I may try to catch up with it, someday… I can’t recall which famous Victorian critic also thought the Homeric corpus was by a woman’s hand…).
My check of OED doesn’t give much. “Canon” becomes a metaphor for other kinds of rules (art, law, taste, etc.) in the golden age, late 16th c. Shakespeare uses it as “cannon”.
I think, though, it is a sort of new term. Lewis used “canon” as a metaphor in his work, but when asked to contribute to a to “a ‘master’ list of writings”, does not use the word “canon.” I have a blog considering all of this in Lewis, but haven’t finished it yet! Part of what I want to do is select the “canon” from An Experiment in Criticism, but I haven’t done that either.
I like to suggest that the book of Hebrews was written by Priscilla, but I’m largely being a jerk!
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Thanks! It seems new to me, but I’m often taken by surprise.
Looking forward to the Lewis (in your own good time)!
I wonder if anyone ever suggested anything was written by St. Thecla? (I don’t remember M.R. James mentioning it, in his Apocryphal New Testament…) I can’t remember when paintings of the Annunciation started featuring the Blessed Virgin reading…
No such thing as Western Civilisation? I guess you are right but there is always Christendom although, in the words of Joni Mitchell, “That was just a dream some of us had”, and the very idea of Christendom is not a fixed point but requires constant revision and restating.
On the notion of the impossibility of reading the canon, isn’t that the purpose of the university? I may not be able to read everything but together (and it maybe a very BIG together!) we might be able to read it and then talk to each other and keep on talking. Can you think of any good pubs where we might meet? There might be one big enough and intimate enough?
Do we need to build some meadhalls?
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As long as good ale is on tap as well as mead!
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And even fruit-juice for those so minded, for whatever reasons – as we always offered at our Oxford C.S. Lewis Soc ‘sherry parties’.
I’ve still never managed to read Novalis’s ‘Christenheit oder Europa’ (or run into a convenient English translation) – though I see there’s a transcription of the German at Project Gutenberg… maybe I should embolden myself to give it a try (while wishing George MacDonald had tackled it as well as the ‘Hymns to the Night’).
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Your reference to Novalis exemplifies the point I sought to make. I suspect that I am unlikely to read him and certainly not in German. I am fascinated that he was making a distinction between Christendom and Europe over 200 years ago. I would presume this was an Enlightenment distinction.
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His English Wikipedia articles notes that Novalis: Philosophical Writings, trans. and ed. Margaret Mahoney Stoljar, State University of New York Press, 1997 includes a translation of his essay Christendom or Europe. So, if you (or anyone else) happens to be within reach of a library with this book, or to have access to an Interlibrary Loan service with reasonable charges, a convenient look is possible.
We know Lewis puzzled along through his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen in German, either (like me, until recently) not realizing there was a Nineteenth-century English translation available – or having good reason (not certainly known to me) to prefer puzzling along in the original for his first acquaintance. I’m lazy enough to try almost any translation first, though we know from his advice to Bede Griffiths that Lewis thought tackling something in the original was the thing to do, if one was at all capable – so maybe he applied that to himself and Novalis. Anyway, the 1842 American ed. of an English translation, as Henry of Ofterdingen: a Romance, is transcribed at Project Gutenberg.
George MacDonald’s narrator (if I remember aright) either in Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood (1867) or its sequel, The Seaboard Parish (1869), highly commends Novalis.
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Thank you for the challenge to read Novalis. I listened to the excellent, John Grey, speaking about Brexit on BBC Radio 4 in which he described the European Union as a temporary administrative arrangement. I think it is more than that and remain drawn to its founding vision and to Robert Schumann. Perhaps, drawing upon Charles Peguy, its history has been a classic movement from a founding Mystique declining to a lifeless Technique. If the EU is to survive then it has to find a way back to the original Mystique. And now to be British and also European means to find a ways to the Mystique apart from the EU. I will endeavour to get hold of a copy of Christendom or Europe via my local library. It will be a way to support that troubled service as well.
Hi Stephen. I think the question of whether there is a “Western Civilization” probably depends very much where one stands. I like the Joni Mitchell quote (being inclined in that direction anyway), but I think the Civ/Christendom/Canon must always be considered alive, constantly in revision, etc. To those who are victimized or excluded from that core system, though, it will feel very much like a fixed point.
We are losing the university, so I don’t think we can count on it to pass on any canonj. But, with universities, pubs, blogs, … together these are our new spaces of reading. (perhaps?)
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I agree that the idea of Christendom requires constant revision. After the recent vote to leave the EU here in Britain the idea of Europe is very much on my mind. I think Faramir had it right in The Lord of the Rings when he spoke of Gondor as great, only in respect of its wisdom and beauty. The Dunlendings, the Beornings, Harad and Rhun must become part of the vision of Númenor and no longer foreigners. That will mess up all the spin off games from LOTR that require a vision of endless warfare.
Universities would be created. Perhaps Osgiliath would be refounded on that basis.
Yes, it is personal for you in an intense way. Canada does not have a concept of space like yours. I remember reading Frankenstein and being struck by how “European” it was. I think there is a European reality is that is historically rooted.
Would the University have been invented in the age after LOTR?
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I am very struck by your comment on the European sense of space. Of course, it is the one that I have grown up with and so it comes entirely naturally to me. I write this while on a family holiday in Scotland. I conducted my nephew’s wedding last Saturday just outside Edinburgh and we are staying here for a week. It is a five hour drive from Birmingham to Edinburgh but there is no doubt that Scotland is another country and I feel like a foreigner here although one who is made very welcome.
I do think that universities would have been created after The Lord of the Rings and that Faramir’s vision would have been central to them. The pivotal moment in their creation would have been the ship that carried The White Council and the Ringbearers from the Grey Havens. I see Rivendell as being like one of the great monastic foundations of the early Middle Ages. Boromir goes there in search of wisdom but without much sense of the value of what he seeks. With the loss of Rivendell there would be a great need to preserve its wisdom. I am not so sure about what Lothlórien would have been like. Do you have any thoughts?
I loved being a foreigner in England. It was my heritage, but not my land. I am going back in August, and briefly to Scotland (my ancestral home). I know the stories, and even the geography, yet it is not my place. Europe is more a stranger to me.
I had thought of elves as monks, well done. The University is partly a “unification” of ideas in a slowly diversifying and globalizing society. It is now a multiversity, but always has been in conversation with multiversity. I suspect a Middle Earth academy would have elves as monks, magicians as priests–as our own history tells. But it might retain an apprenticeship model for quite a long time (the model recovered in the trades in 16th c. England). As the Tinker passes on his trade, the magician his knowledge.
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Your surname tells me that your ancestors are Scots! I think the experience of dissonance I feel is that I have just driven a few hours, never really crossed a border and yet I know that I am in another country when I go to Scotland. And the wonderful city of Edinburgh feels like a capital city. More intimate than London or Paris, more like Oslo.
And on learning, I feel that the older I get, the more I become aware that I am a beginner. Life really does feel like an apprenticeship. Will I ever be a master?
I am Scottish, or so the legend goes. We made up our name and our history is lost in Scottish dales. I am headed to Glasgow next month, but I am not imagining bumping into anything cool. Others have done some searches and found nothing. I won’t get to Edinburgh though. Or St. Andrews. I wish I had read more of Geo. MacDonald’s non-fantasy before I went. Ack.
We are often in danger of believing our advanced degrees (Master of Divinity! Doctor of Philosophy!). My Bible prof, Rikk Watts, would say that.
I like the thought of Priscilla writing the letter to the Hebrews.
Me too! I use her icon in my files when teaching Hebrews.
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