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?

The very idea of canon presupposes that some books are better (or at any rate more canonical) than others, but the reasons they are so have nothing to do with social justice, or indeed with spiritual improvement. The goodness of books is a thing of itself, unrelated to other good causes, and apprehended only with skills of a peculiar and precious kind, which have hitherto proved communicable but may not, in Bloom’s opinion, be so much longer. He would never allow it to be assumed that the canon offers easy reads. On the contrary, the dedicated labour it requires ensures that its devotees, like the canon itself, must be an élite. ‘Aesthetic value rises out of memory, and so (as Nietzsche saw) out of pain, the pain of surrendering easier pleasures in favour of much more difficult ones.’

Leaving aside for the moment the proprietary mechanisms with which Bloom propels his canonical arguments, it is fair to say at once that in substance they are what most people who have any idea what the argument is about – virtually all who have studied the art of ‘reading well and deeply’ – will endorse. Bloom suggests that those who have not done so, and joined the School of Resentment instead, may be simply left to their fate – ‘Let Gryll be Gryll, and have his hoggish mind.’ But in fact he doesn’t leave them to it, not only jabbing away at them, as promised, in his opening and closing chapters, but sideswiping them throughout.

The victims of Bloom’s scorn are nearly all American. Their attitudes have been imported into Britain in the normal way, like Coke and Big Macs; they have a jauntily anti-authoritarian, classless air and are naturalised, rather as a McDonald’s in the Mall, which would at first look as strange as the one in Piazza di Spagna did in its early days, might soon merge into the scene. And yet there is, as always, a difference: Bloom’s American enemies operate in what have traditionally been thought high places, in the Ivy League and schools of comparable prestige; and their anti-aestheticism is powerfully associated, as here it is not, with the more general and more cramping doctrine of political correctness. That’s why his entire attitude can be called, with congratulations, politically incorrect. There is more at stake than the canon, though the canon is a vital part of the defence.

He occasionally expresses a faint hope of seeing the canon survive its detractors, for he believes, surely mistakenly, that Shakespeare (the centre of his world canon) will be ‘the rock upon which the School of Resentment must at last founder’. His reasons seem to be, first, that the eminence of Shakespeare is so obvious that not even the Resenters can remain unaware of it (‘Originality is the great scandal that resentment cannot accommodate’); secondly, that if Shakespeare is an arbitrary choice of the oppressors, presumably anybody would do: so why not, say, Ben Jonson, a defender of autocracy, and capable of despising the people? But these are not good reasons; the argument for the fraudulence of the Shakespeare cult depends in part on what is represented as the illusion that he knows enough about human nature in general to give us all the nice feeling that we are of the same stuff as our betters; you may say this is true, but the point is that you do so because you’ve been brainwashed by the crafty bourgeoisie in its own interest.

The other reason is weaker still, however. It is not true that the Resenters hesitate or flinch when they come to Shakespeare; his bogus eminence has become a favourite target, a focus of the attack on value in literature. The Bloom argument is very honourable, for he thinks that no amateur and a fortiori no professional who has attended well and deeply to Shakespeare could fail to experience a certain awe; and this would in the end change their attitude to the canon as a whole. As Cleopatra says of the messenger who reports on Octavia, ‘The man has seen some majesty and should know.’ But these people felt no awe and registered no majesty. One struggles to find in other arts analogies to this absurd situation, in which people who have not in any genuine sense read Shakespeare (and this includes some who have written books about him and edited his plays) are paid to teach others that Shakespeare is a scam. Would we pay much attention to a person lecturing on the last quartets of Beethoven who, being tone-deaf, talked only about Austrian power conflicts in the first years of the 19th century, and the subsequent use of this music to keep the lower classes in their place?

The faint fit of optimism is hardly characteristic. Bloom is, in general, pessimistic or elegiac, and as usual finds elaborate ways of explaining why he is right to be so. He adopts the Viconian historical phases, Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic, but instead of letting the cycle bring on another Theocratic age immediately, as the original ricorso dictated, he adds a Chaotic Age, the one we’re in now: only after that has passed will the New Theocratic age come round, and he doesn’t make it sound very attractive, vaguely prophesying that it will be Republican and fundamentalist, that most of the United States will be dominated by a coalition of Mormonism and Southern Baptism, a prospect he contemplated at more length in his recent book The American Religion.

The machinery doesn’t matter much in itself; it is useful to the author, serving something like the same purpose as the schemes and cycles of Northrop Frye, as scaffolding, or as a sort of memory theatre, enabling the author to call up the right words and names at the right time. Another instance of this mnemonic habit is Bloom’s celebrated thesis of the Anxiety of Influence. He nailed this doctrine to the door of the academy in 1973 and has restated it many times since, by his own account unavailingly, for he claims that when others say what they think it means he can’t recognise it; so there isn’t much hope that the following curt summary will pass. Every poem is a site of anxiety, or simply an anxiety, the site of a struggle between poet and precursor which results in what Bloom calls ‘strong misreading’. This saves the belated from the precursor, and procures his or her entry into the category of strong poet. The agon is not a straightforward struggle between the two contenders, the belated fighting the precursor as Jacob did the angel, for the whole tradition is necessarily involved; if the poet succumbs to tradition he or she is not strong, but to claim that the encounter can be evaded is equally fatal.

This scheme, though basically Oedipal, and for that reason disagreeable to some feminists, is reiterated in many forms in Bloom’s books of the Seventies. It is a powerful clue to the sort of reader he is – an anxious reader. Nothing gets far into his canon without being tested positively for pleasure or unpleasure, or sublimity, or uncanniness, and negatively, for assurance that whatever ideological baggage it seems to be carrying can be discarded as irrelevant. A characteristic judgment: ‘Dante was brazen, aggressive, prideful, and audacious beyond all poets, before or since. He imposed his vision on Eternity and he has very little in common with the flock of his piously learned exegetes. If it is all in Augustine or in Thomas Aquinas, then let us read Augustine or Aquinas.’ Dante is sublime because he is arbitrary and personal and productive of anxiety and uncanniness, like Shakespeare, and perhaps a bit like Bloom, too, for his determination to be a deep reader of that to which ideology and metaphysics and ethics are irrelevant reflects the qualities he finds in his strong poets; unless it is the other way about.

You sometimes feel that Bloom’s criticism really does result from an agon, that he fights as he says the poets do. ‘A literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether can assimilate; or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies.’ Dante is the supreme instance of the first possibility, Shakespeare and J (Bathsheba) of the second. Unless you can see them without the screens put around them by learned commentary you will miss what for all their difference they have in common: their canonical uncanniness, which it is the business of good anxious reading to engage.

The bulk of the book consists of studies of individual authors, Shakespeare first as the centre of the Western canon, then Dante, followed by Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne and Molière, Milton, Johnson, Goethe (Aristocratic Age); Wordsworth, Austen, Whitman, Dickinson, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Ibsen (Democratic Age); and Freud, Proust, Joyce, Woolf (Orlando), Kafka, Borges, Neruda and Pessoa, Beckett (Chaotic Age). As you might expect, these essays are opinionated, sometimes contrary, and often very good. On Shakespeare he is frankly idolatrous. He has a special regard for the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner (reflected in his weakness for Shakespeare’s Edmund and Iago, sinister figures, causing anxiety). Everything he says, however extravagant, is worth reading. He often invokes Hazlitt and Chesterton and Johnson, and although in his fondness for firmly articulated judgments he may resemble the last of these, there are stronger affinities with the other two, and especially with Chesterton, with whom he shares a genial love of surprises.

Of course, as he does not fail to point out, canon implies competition and judgments, and it’s no use being mealy-mouthed about saying who’s in, who’s out, and why. ‘No Western poet, in the past century and a half, not even Browning or Leopardi or Baudelaire, overshadows Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson.’ (He naturally has a special interest in the American branch of the canon.) As one would expect, he deplores Tolstoy’s views on Shakespeare, but, as perhaps one wouldn’t expect, proclaims Hadji Murad a supreme masterpiece. Freud he represents as locked in a struggle with his precursor Shakespeare, who, as was his way also with other writers, foresaw all the doctor’s most important moves.

An ‘elegiac conclusion’ tells us we need not expect literary education to ‘survive its present malaise’: departments of English will become departments of cultural studies (this is something like the point Bernard Bergonzi made in his Exploding English) and the old style of literary study will survive, if at all, on the level of the modern Classics department. Even there it won’t be possible to develop in students ‘an authentic passion for reading’, since they arrive already ruined, already incapable of detecting what Bloom, in an eerie quotation from Wallace Stevens, calls an absence in reality. He truly believes that a failure to come to terms with the canon, and especially with Shakespeare, entails nothing less than such an absence. If the Resenters bother to look at the 35 pages of Appendix listing the canon as certified by Harold Bloom they may get a faint idea of the absence they inhabit.

In one sense the hero of this book, as of all his books, is Bloom himself, modestly bold, genially polemical, dogmatically opposed to dogma, carrying so much in his head and always ready to say what he thinks about it all. And there is surely no doubt that even when the idiosyncratic judgments are discounted, this book says a great deal of what all who fear the consequences of the loss of the idea of canonicity must feel. When you get down to it, the argument is quite sensible. There would of course be dispute about what he judges to be worth including and what he doesn’t, but he knows that unlike ecclesiastical canons the secular are always open, and if you want to argue for The Waves rather than Orlando he will allow it. Of course it must be argued for. It must be strange, sublime, uncanny, anxious.

It may be that his preoccupation with agonistic contests has rather obscured Bloom’s view of how tradition works; for one thing, he thinks of works as fighting their way into canons, whereas of course they can’t do that without spokespersons: it is the inheritance of critical opinion that keeps them in, opinion which may well have criteria not too dissimilar to Bloom’s sublimity and uncanniness. Without this advocacy works fall into another category, as he says The Faerie Queene has done, and Finnegans Wake is likely to do. For books of that sort present ‘imaginative and cognitive difficulties’ that may already be too much for all but a few fans. Probably the same is true of many poets who don’t make it into Bloom’s canon but will hang on in others’ – Donne, for instance, who isn’t even mentioned here.

The whole issue is more urgent, and more central to our educational systems, than it may seem. A canon is really only a list; the library catalogue at Alexandria was called a ‘canon’. But lists usually imply choices. To be chosen is not a small matter, since it is the canonical books that interact, form a sort of whole, to be explored by generation after generation of serious readers, all with widely differing expectations; so that they must be strange, ultimately inscrutable, or they will simply grow obsolete, fade into the background of a past period and its assumptions and expectations. It may be that candidates have to be uncanny to get in, but being in certainly makes them more so.

The preservation of a canon against neglect, but also against its more active enemies, is vital to our better health. It cannot be done by forcing Julius Caesar or A Midsummer Night’s Dream on fifteen-year-olds; many will despise them, and others will be misled into thinking that Shakespeare is, after all, not a difficult writer. If they must have one of the plays Coriolanus would be better; the infants will discover at once that Nietzsche was quite right. Reading well is difficult to do and difficult to teach, but to abandon those duties is to concede everything to Bloom’s rabble. That is why his book is important.