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.
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.