An Elegy for the Canon

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An Elegy for the Canon

  • November 15, 2018
  • By Admin: mrbauld
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from The Western Canon by Harold Bloom

ORIGINALLY THE CANON meant the choice of books in our teaching institutions, and despite the recent politics of multiculturalism, the Canon’s true question remains: What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history? The Biblical three-score years and ten no longer suffice to read more than a selection of the great writers in what can be called the Western tradition, let alone in all the world’s traditions. Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read. Mallarme’s grand line -“the flesh is sad, alas, and I have read all the books”- has become a hyperbole. Overpopulation, Malthusian repletion, is the authentic context for canonical anxieties. Not a moment passes these days without fresh rushes of academic lemmings off the cliffs they proclaim the political responsibilities of the critic, but eventually all this moralizing will subside. Every teaching institution will have its department of cultural studies, an ox not to be gored, and an aesthetic underground will flourish, restoring something of the romance of reading.

Reviewing bad books, W. H. Auden once remarked, is bad for the character. Like all gifted moralists, Auden idealized despite himself, and he should have survived into the present age, wherein the new commissars tell us that reading good books is bad for the character, which I think is probably true. Reading the very best writers-let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy-is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere. Had I the power to do so, I would command that these words be engraved above every gate at every university, so that each student might ponder the splendor of the insight.

President Clinton’s inaugural poem, by Maya Angelou, was praised in a New York Times editorial as a work of Whitmanian magnitude, and its sincerity is indeed overwhelming; it joins all the other instantly canonical achievements that flood our academies. The unhappy truth is that we cannot help ourselves; we can resist, up to a point, but past that point even our own universities would feel compelled to indict us as racists and sexists. I recall one of us, doubtless with irony, telling a New York Times interviewer that “We are all feminist critics.” That is the rhetoric suitable for an occupied country, one that expects no liberation from liberation. Institutions may hope to follow the advice of the prince in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, who counsels his peers, “Change everything just a little so as to keep everything exactly the same.”

Unfortunately, nothing ever will be the same because the art and passion of reading well and deeply, which was the foundation of our enterprise, depended upon people who were fanatical readers when they were still small children. Even devoted and solitary readers are now necessarily beleaguered, because they cannot be certain that fresh generations will rise up to prefer Shakespeare and Dante to all other writers. The shadows lengthen in our evening land, and we approach the second millennium expecting further shadowing.

I do not deplore these matters; the aesthetic is, in my view, an individual rather than a societal concern. In any case there are no culprits, though some of us would appreciate not being told that we lack the free, generous, and open societal vision of those who come after us. Literary criticism is an ancient art; its inventor, according to Bruno Snell, was Aristophanes, and I tend to agree with Heinrich Heine that “There is a God, and his name is Aristophanes.” Cultural criticism is another dismal social science, but literary criticism, as an art, always was and always will be an elitist phenomenon. It was a mistake to believe that literary criticism could become a basis for democratic education or for societal improvement. When our English and other literature departments shrink to the dimensions of our current Classics departments, ceding their grosser functions to the legions of Cultural Studies, we will perhaps be able to return to the study of the inescapable, to Shakespeare and his few peers, who after all, invented all of us.

The Canon, once we view it as the relation of an individual reader and writer to what has been preserved out of what has been written, and forget the canon as a list of books for required study, will be seen as identical with the literary Art of Memory, not with the religious sense of canon. Memory is always an art, even when it works involuntarily. Emerson opposed the party of Memory to the party of Hope, but that was in a very different America. Now the party of Memory is the party of Hope, though the hope is diminished. But it has always been dangerous to in stitutionalize hope, and we no longer live in a society in which we will be allowed to institutionalize memory. We need to teach more selectively, searching for the few who have the capacity to become highly individual readers and writers. The others, who are amenable to a politicized curriculum, can be abandoned to it. Pragmatically, aesthetic value can be recognized or experienced, but it cannot be conveyed to those who are incapable of grasping its sensations and perceptions. To quarrel on its behalf is always a blunder.

What interests me more is the flight from the aesthetic among so many in my profession, some of whom at least began with the ability to experience aesthetic value. In Freud, flight is the meta phor for repression, for unconscious yet purposeful forgetting. The purpose is clear enough in my profession’s flight: to assuage displaced guilt. Forgetting, in an aesthetic context, is ruinous, for cognition, in criticism, always relies on memory. Longinus would have said that pleasure is what the resenters have forgotten. Nietzsche would have called it pain; but they would have been thinking of the same experience upon the heights. Those who descend from there, lemminglike, chant the litany that literature is best explained as a mystification promoted by bourgeois insti tutions.

This reduces the aesthetic to ideology, or at best to metaphysics. A poem cannot be read as a poem, because it is primarily a social document or, rarely yet possibly, an attempt to overcome philosophy. Against this approach I urge a stubborn resistance whose single aim is to preserve poetry as fully and purely as possible. Our legions who have deserted represent a strand in our traditions that has always been in flight from the aesthetic: Platonic moralism and Aristotelian social science. The attack on poetry either exiles it for being destructive of social well-being or allows it sufferance if it will assume the work of social catharsis under the banners of the new multiculturalism. Beneath the surfaces of academic Marxism, Feminism, and New Historicism, the ancient polemic of Platonism and the equally archaic Aristotelian social medicine continue to course on. I suppose that the conflict between these strains and the always beleaguered supporters of the aesthetic can never end. We are losing now, and doubtless we will go on losing, and there is a sorrow in that, because many of the best students will abandon us for other disciplines and professions, an abandonment already well under way. They are justified in doing so, because we could not protect them against our profession’s loss of intellectual and aesthetic standards of accomplishment and value. All that we can do now is maintain some continuity with the aesthetic and not yield to the lie that what we oppose is adventure and new interpretations.

Freud famously defined anxiety as being “Angst vor etwas”, or anxious expectations. There is always something in advance of which we are anxious, if only of expectations that we will be called upon to fulfill. Eros, presumably the most pleasurable of expectations, brings its own anxieties to the reflective conscious- ness, which is Freud’s subject. A literary work also arouses expectations that it needs to fulfill or it will cease to be read. The deepest anxieties of literature are literary; indeed, in my view, they define the literary and become all but identical with it. A poem, novel, or play acquires all of humanity’s disorders, including the fear of mortality, which in the art of literature is transmuted into the quest to be canonical, to join communal or societal memory. Even Shakespeare, in the strongest of his sonnets, hovers near this obsessive desire or drive. The rhetoric of immortality is also a psychology of survival and a cosmology.

Where did the idea of conceiving a literary work that the world would not willingly let die come from? It was not attached to the Scriptures by the Hebrews, who spoke of canonical writings as those that polluted the hands that touched them, presumably because mortal hands were not fit to hold sacred writings. Jesus replaced the Torah for Christians, and what mattered most about Jesus was the Resurrection. At what date in the history of secular writing did men begin to speak of poems or stories as being immortal? The conceit is in Petrarch and is marvelously developed by Shakespeare in his sonnets. It is already a latent element in Dante’s praise of his own Divine Comedy. We cannot say that Dante secularized the idea, because he subsumed everything and so, in a sense, secularized nothing. For him, his poem was prophecy, as much ‘ as Isaiah was prophecy, so perhaps we can say that Dante invented our modern idea of the canonical. Ernst Robert Curtius, the eminent medieval scholar, emphasizes that Dante considered only two journeys into the beyond, before his own, to be authentic: Virgil’s Aeneas in Book 6 of his epic and St. Paul’s as recounted in 2 Corinthians 12:2. Out of Aeneas came Rome; out of Paul came Gentile Christianity; out of Dante was to come, if he lived to the age of eighty-one, the fulfillment of the esoteric prophecy concealed in the Comedy, but Dante died at fifty-six.

Curtius, ever alert to the fortune of canonical metaphors, has an excursus upon “Poetry as Perpetuation” that traces the origin of the eternity of poetic fame to the Iliad (6-359) and beyond to Horace’s Odes (4.8, 2.8), where we are assured that it is the Muse’s eloquence and affection that allow the hero never to die. Jakob Burckhardt, in a chapter on literary fame that Curtius quotes, observes that Dante, the Italian Renaissance poet-philologist, had ‘the most intense consciousness that he is a distributor of fame and indeed of immortality,” a consciousness that Curtius locates among the Latin poets of France as early as 1100. But at some point this consciousness was linked to the idea of a secular canonicity, so that not the hero being celebrated but the celebration itself was hailed as immortal. The secular canon, with the word meaning a catalog of approved authors, does not actually begin until the middle of the eighteenth century, during the literary period of Sensibility, Sentimentality, and the Sublime. The Odes of William Collins trace the Sublime canon in Sensibility’s heroic precursors from the ancient Greeks through Milton and are among the earliest poems in English written to propound a secular tradition of canonicity.

The Canon, a word religious in its origins, has become a choice among texts struggling with one another for survival, whether you interpret the choice as being made by dominant social groups, institutions of. education, traditions of criticism, or, as I do, by late-coming authors who feel themselves chosen by particular ancestral figures. Some recent partisans of what regards itself as academic radicalism go so far as to suggest that works join the Canon because of successful advertising and propaganda campaigns. The compeers of these skeptics sometimes go farther and question even Shakespeare, whose eminence seems to them something of an imposition. If you worship the composite god of historical process, you are fated to deny Shakespeare his palpable aesthetic supremacy, the really scandalous originality of his plays. Originality becomes a literary equivalent of such terms as individual enterprise, self-reliance, and competition, which do not gladden the hearts of Feminists, Afrocentrists, Marxists, Foucault inspired New Historicists, or Deconstructors-of all those whom I have described as members of the School of Resentment.

One illuminating theory of canon formation is presented by Alastair Fowler in his Kinds of Literature (1982.). In a chapter on “Hierarchies of Genres and Canons of Literature,” Fowler re marks that “changes in literary taste can often be referred to revaluation of genres that the canonical works represent.” In each era, some genres are regarded as more canonical than others. In the earlier decades of our time, the American prose romance was exalted as a genre, which helped to establish Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald as our dominant twentieth-century writers of prose fiction, fit successors to Hawthorne, Melville, Mark Twain, and the aspect of Henry James that triumphed in The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove. The effect of this exaltation of romance over the “realistic” novel was that visionary narratives like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 enjoyed more critical esteem than Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. Now a further revision of genres has begun with the rise of the journalistic novel, such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonflre of the Vanities; An American Tragedy has recovered much of its luster in the atmosphere of these works.

The historical novel seems to have been permanently devalued. Gore Vidal once said to me, with bitter eloquence, that his outspoken sexual orientation had denied him canonical status. What seems likelier is that Vidal’s best fictions (except for the sublimely outrageous Myra Breckenridge) are distinguished historical novels-Lincoin, Burr, and several more-and this subgenre is no longer available for canonization, which helps to account for the morose fate of Norman Mailer’s exuberantly inventive Ancient Evenings, a marvelous anatomy of humbuggery and bumbuggery that could not survive its placement in the ancient Egypt of The Book of the Dead. History writing and narrative fiction have come apart, and our sensibilities seem no longer able to accommodate them one to the other.

FOWLER goes a long way toward expounding the question of just why all genres are not available at any one time:

“we have to allow for the fact that the complete range of genres is never equally, let alone fully, available in any one period. Each age has a fairly small repertoire of genres that its readers and critics can respond to with enthusiasm, and the repertoire easily available to its writers is smaller still: the temporary canon is fixed for all but the greatest or strongest or most arcane writers. Each age makes new deletions from the repertoire. In a weak sense, all genres perhaps exist in all ages, shadowly embodied in bizarre and freakish exceptions. . . . But the repertoire of active genres has always been small and subject to proportionately significant deletions and additions . . . some critics have been tempted to think of the generic system almost on a hydrostatic model-as if its total substance remained constant but subject to redistributions.
But there is no firm basis for such speculation. We do better to treat the movements of genres simply in terms of aesthetic choice.”

I myself would want to argue, partly following Fowler, that aesthetic choice has always guided every secular aspect of canon formation, but that is a difficult argument to maintain at this time when the defense of the literary canon, like the assault against it, has become so heavily politicized. Ideological defenses of the Western Canon are as pernicious in regard to aesthetic values as the onslaughts of attackers who seek to destroy the Canon or “open it up,” as they proclaim. Nothing is so essential to the Western Canon as its principles of selectivity, which are elitist only to the extent that they are founded upon severely artistic criteria. Those who oppose the Canon insist that there is always an ideology involved in canon formation; indeed, they go farther and speak of the ideology of canon formation, suggesting that to make a canon (or to perpetuate one) is an ideological act in itself.

The hero of these anticanonizers is Antonio Gramsci, who in his Selections from the Prison Notebooks denies that any intellectual can be free of the dominant social group if he relies upon merely the “special qualification” that he shares with the craft of his fellows (such as other literary critics): “Since these various categories of traditional intellectuals experience through an ‘esprit de corps’ their uninterrupted historical qualification, they thus put themselves forward as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group.”

As a literary critic in what I now regard as the worst of all times for literary criticism, I do not find Gramsci’s stricture relevant. The esprit de corps of professionalism, so curiously dear to many high priests of the anticanonizers, is of no interest whatsoever to me, and I would repudiate any “uninterrupted historical continuity” with the Western academy. I desire and assert a continuity with a handful or so of critics before this century and another handful or so during the past three generations. As for “special qualification,” my own, contra Gramsci, is purely personal. Even if “the dominant social group” were to be identified with the Yale Corporation, or the trustees of New York University, or of American universities in general, I can search out no inner connection between any social group and the specific ways in which I have spent my life reading, remembering, judging, and interpreting what we once called “imaginative literature.” To discover critics in the service of a social ideology one need only regard those who wish to demystify or open up the Canon, or their opponents who have fallen into the trap of becoming what they beheld. But neither of these groups is truly literary.

The flight from or repression of the aesthetic is endemic in our institutions of what still purport to be higher education. Shakespeare, whose aesthetic supremacy has been confirmed by the universal judgment of four centuries, is now “historicized” into pragmatic diminishment, precisely because his uncanny aesthetic power is a scandal to any ideologue. The cardinal principle of the current School of Resentment can be stated with singular bluntness: what is called aesthetic value emanates from class struggle. This principle is so broad that it cannot be wholly refuted. I myself insist that the individual self is the only method and the whole standard for apprehending aesthetic value. But “the individual self,” I unhappily grant, is defined only against society, and part of its agon with the communal inevitably partakes of the conflict between social and economic classes. Myself the son of a garment worker, I have been granted endless time to read and meditate upon my reading. The institution that sustained me, Yale University, is ineluctably part of an American Establishment, and my sustained meditation upon literature is therefore vulnerable to the most traditional Marxist analyses of class interest. All my passionate proclamations of the isolate selfhood’s aesthetic value are necessarily qualified by the reminder that the leisure for meditation must be purchased from the community.

No critic, not even this one, is a hermetic Prospero working white magic upon an enchanted island. Criticism, like poetry, is (in the hermetic sense) a kind of theft from the common stock. And if the governing class, in the days of my youth, freed one to be a priest of the aesthetic, it doubtless had its own interest in such a priesthood. Yet to grant this is to grant very little. The freedom to apprehend aesthetic value may rise from class conflict, but the value is not identical with the freedom, even if it cannot be achieved without that apprehension. Aesthetic value is by definition engendered by an interaction between artists, an influencing that is always an interpretation. The freedom to be an artist, or a critic, necessarily rises out of social conflict. But the source or origin of the freedom to perceive, while hardly irrelevant to aesthetic value, is not identical with it. There is always guilt in achieved individuality; it is a version of the guilt of being a survivor and is not productive of aesthetic value.

Without some answer to the triple question of the agon-more than, less than, equal to?- there can be no aesthetic value. That question is framed in the figurative language of the Economic, but its answer will be free of Freud’s Economic Principle. There can be no poem in itself, and yet something irreducible does abide in the aesthetic. Value that cannot be altogether reduced constitutes itself through the process of interartistic influence. Such influence contains psychological, spiritual, and social components, but its major element is aesthetic. A Marxist or Foucault-inspired historicist can insist endlessly that the production of the aesthetic is a question of historical forces, but production is not in itself the issue here. I cheerfully agree with the motto of Dr. Johnson-“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”-yet the undeniable economics of literature, from Pindar to the present, do not determine questions of aesthetic supremacy. And the openers-up of the Canon and the traditionalists do not disagree much on where the supremacy is to be found: in Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the secular canon, or even the secular scripture; forerunners and legatees alike are defined by him alone for canonical purposes. This is the dilemma that confronts partisans of resentment: either they must deny Shakespeare’s unique eminence (a painful and difficult matter) or they must show why and how history and class struggle produced just those aspects of his plays that have generated his centrality in the Western Canon.

Here they confront insurmountable difficulty in Shakespeare’s most idiosyncratic strength: he is always ahead of you, conceptually and imagistically, whoever and whenever you are. He renders you anachronistic because he contains you; you cannot subsume him. You cannot illuminate him with a new doctrine, be it Marxism or Freudianism or Demanian linguistic skepticism. Instead, he will illuminate the doctrine, not by prefiguration but by postfiguration as it were: all of Freud that matters most is there in Shakespeare already, with a persuasive critique of Freud besides. The Freudian map of the mind is Shakespeare’s; Freud seems only to have prosified it. Or, to vary my point, a Shakespearean reading of Freud illuminates and overwhelms the text of Freud; a Freudian reading of Shakespeare reduces Shakespeare, or would if we could bear a reduction that crosses the line into absurdities of loss. Coriolanus is a far more powerful reading of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon than any Marxist reading of Coriolanus could hope to be. Shakespeare’s eminence is, I am certain, the rock upon which the School of Resentment must at last founder. How can they have it both ways? If it is arbitrary that Shakespeare centers the Canon, then they need to show why the dominant social class selected him rather than, say, Ben Jonson, for that arbitrary role. Or if history and not the ruling circles exalted Shakespeare, what was it in Shakespeare that so captivated the mighty Demiurge, economic and social history? Clearly this line of inquiry begins to border on the fantastic; how much simpler to admit that there is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind, between Shakespeare and every other writer, even Chaucer, even Tolstoy, or whoever. Originality is the great scandal that resentment cannot accom modate, and Shakespeare remains the most original writer we will ever know.