In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Strange, Sublime, Uncanny, AnxiousFrank Kermode
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Vol. 16 No. 24 · 22 December 1994

Strange, Sublime, Uncanny, Anxious

Frank Kermode

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages 
by Harold Bloom.
Harcourt Brace, 578 pp., £22, November 1994, 0 15 195747 9
Show More
Show More

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.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 17 No. 3 · 9 February 1995

Frank Kermode’s defence of Harold Bloom’s ‘Western canon’ against those who regard it merely as ‘an instrument of cultural, hence political, hegemony’ is characteristically winsome (LRB, 22 December 1994). I’m less sure about his recommendation of Coriolanus as a transparently appropriate text for 15-year-olds. Over the years, this play has persistently attracted the peddlers of a variety of cultural, hence political hegemonies. Sir Frank’s rather chilling conclusion that, confronted by it, ‘the infants will discover at once that Nietzsche was quite right,’ hardly indicates a move to higher ground.

Terence Hawkes
Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.