Strange, Sublime, Uncanny, Anxious

Frank Kermode

  • The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom
    Harcourt Brace, 578 pp, £22.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 15 195747 9

As one thinks of Harold Bloom, Auden’s description of Wyndham Lewis as a lonely old volcano comes to mind. Though not, like Lewis, ‘of the Right’, or indeed claiming any political alignment, Bloom erupts with comparable regularity and force. He prefers to be a one-man cultural opposition, waving only the banner of aesthetics; he says there are no Bloomians, but everybody knows him and all wonder, usually with exasperated affection, what he will do next. He is exceptionally and systematically well-read, and exceptionally keen to promulgate his readings and his systems. Although, like Lewis, he loves to insult his opponents, he does so with amenity and apparent immunity. He has, in a quietly joyous fashion, the chutzpah to put his stamp on the whole of literature from Genesis to Ashbery, rivalling the scope of hero-critics like Saintsbury or Curtius or Auerbach though more giddily adventurous than they were. A few years ago he was maintaining that the parts of the Old Testament attributed to J, the Yahwist (that is, the author who refers to God as Yahveh), were written by a woman at the decadent court of Rehoboam. It seems a reviewer, entering into the spirit of this amusing but baseless conjecture, suggested that we might as well identify the author as Bathsheba, famous first as a bather, later as the mother of Solomon, and finally as J, mistress of the sublime and the uncanny as well as of King David. In this new book Bloom cheerfully accepts the reviewer’s proposal. That the author of what eventually became the Torah should have been the relict of the unlucky Uriah, and not an Israelite, but a Hittite, was plainly irresistible. Henceforth, he says, he will refer to J as Bathsheba. But I notice that he does not include Bathsheba’s name in the long list of canonical works in his appendix, nor among his authors in the index. Bloom is very serious but can also be a bit of a tease.

The purpose of this book, though it does some teasing, is serious indeed. Bloom thinks of the present situation of criticism in the American universities as squalid and desperate. He believes there are books which are canonical for reasons he is prepared to state at length, and that the preservation of such a canon ought to be the first duty of critics and teachers. In maintaining this view he represents himself as fighting almost alone against a mob of enemies he calls by various names, including the ‘School of Resentment’, and, more fiercely, the ‘academic rabble’ that is at present corrupting the institutions of higher learning. He has in mind all who profess to regard the canon as an instrument of cultural, hence political, hegemony – as a subtle fraud devised by dead white males to reinforce ethnic and sexist oppression, and hinder social change. But he also attacks, usually in tones of benignly lugubrious authority, other critical movements such as the New Historicism, rather less overtly political in tendency, which by levelling the canonical with other contemporaneous discourse ignorantly deny the peculiar aesthetic virtues of the former.

He is strong on this point, believing that ‘to read in the service of any ideology is not ... to read at all,’ and condemning critical judgments that aspire to political correctness of any kind. ‘I feel quite alone these days,’ he says, ‘in defending the autonomy of the aesthetic.’ He speaks of ‘the flight from the aesthetic’, as if it were a kind of betrayal (which of course it is). He is particularly hard on bullying feminists, who bear much of the responsibility for turning his into ‘an occupied country, one that expects no liberation from liberation’. In such misery what hope can there be for the canon?

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