Critical divide

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 April, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 April, 1995, 12:00am

The Western Canon by Harold Bloom Macmillan $340 THE study of literature, under the influence of modern theorists, has become an ideological act. At its most fruitful, the ideological reading of books has opened new interpretations which, though they might surprise literary artists, illuminate how we understand the relationship between a book and the world in which it was created.

At its worst, ideological reading descends into a kind of left-wing censorship, the demands of political correctness, and the fragmentation of university departments into armed camps in which each faction refuses tenure to a member, however productive and distinguished, of the opposing bloc.

One doubts that, until recently, politicians paid much attention to English Departments. But now, in a world that can't eliminate poverty, control drugs, deter wars, politicians on the left and the right have found what they hope will be the intellectual panacea which will restore or create values that will overcome our social woes, preferably without having to spend money.

In America these days, depending on your politics, that panacea is either the Western Literary Canon or its abolition. Newt Gingrich, former history professor and now conservative Speaker of the House of Representatives, argues for a return to the Western Canon; for Shakespeare and Milton to be taught to children so that they grow up with stable values and a moral vision that will keep them off welfare and heroin.

Literary critics of the new left argue that the Canon is the repository of books which have, historically, supported the power that be. For a Chicano youth, a disenfranchised African American, a woman dispossessed by centuries of male dominance, reading the Canon is a self-defeating exercise.

What they will find in the Canon is a defence of white, Eurocentric male dominance. Far better that they should read writers with whom they can readily identify along ethnic, social or ideological lines.

For both camps, reading literature has little to do with aesthetics. Indeed, some theorists argue that aesthetics, too, is merely an adjunct to the self-promotion of dominant classes and dominant males.

In writing The Western Canon, Harold Bloom enters this minefield. His contribution is fiercely interesting because his views are strong and boldly stated. Bloom's mind is nimble, strict, brilliant, capacious. He's been a distinguished faculty member at Yale for almost 40 years.

And he deeply loves reading, not for its political or social capacities, but for its expression of the deepest human desires: 'I think that the self, in its quest to be free and solitary, ultimately reads with one aim only: to confront greatness. That confrontation scarcely masks the desire to join greatness, which is the basis of the aesthetic experience once called the Sublime: the quest for the transcendence of limits. Our common fate is age, sickness, death, oblivion. Our common hope, tenuous but persistent, is for some version of survival.' For most people, becoming an immortal writer is out of the question. For anyone, reading brings greatness intimately to hand. This common hope, in Bloom's mind, can be satisfied by the Canon whose works confront us constantly with greatness; greatness of originality is the single distinguishing feature of canonical works. The literature sponsored by the anti-canonists, unconcerned with and resentful of greatness, gives us little beyond images of the self-serving political moment.

Hence, Bloom repudiates both the Old Right which would have us read to learn eternal values and the New Left which would have us read to promote social change. Addressing the Old Right, Bloom argues that great literature does not teach us to be better people or better citizens. Indeed, the great works subvert accepted values; and that subversion, taken as a statement of originality, is a major reason great works are canonised.

Of the New Left, Bloom is openly contemptuous. The modern theoretical schools - Marxism, Feminism, New Historicism, Deconstruction, Lacanism and Semioticism - he lumps together as the School of Resentment. These theorists, if they consider creating a new canon at all, will merely choose books by authors who 'offer little but the resentment they've developed as part of their sense of identity'.

Bloom writes here not for scholars but for a diminishing number of Common Readers who read seriously. His practical definition of what should be in the Canon is: 'That which is worthy of re-reading.' But this re-reading will not make you a better person. 'All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one's solitude, that solitude whose final form is one's confrontation with one's own mortality.' The book opens with 'An Elegy for the Canon' and ends with an 'Elegiac Conclusion' in which a great teacher's despair for the art he loves is made manifest. The power of the Resenters, he believes, is intractable and insuperable. The future? 'What are now called 'Departments of English' will be renamed departments of 'Cultural Studies' where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens. Major, once-elitist universities and colleges will still offer a few courses in Shakespeare, Milton, and their peers, but these will be taught by departments of three or four scholars, equivalent to teachers of ancient Greek and Latin.' Between these two elegies, Bloom offers three long chapters devoted to 26 writers he places at the centre of the canon. Shakespeare, of course, is the ne plus ultra of canonical writers. Indeed, Shakespeare and Dante alone comprise a lifetime of reading and re-reading. These 26 writers (who include four women and three Latin Americans) he considers with care and discernment and boundless energy born of deep regard. Even if the political debate weren't swirling around the issue of the Canon, the lay reader would do well to read Bloom's chapters as models of penetrating reading and the synthesis of great learning.

But that learning, and the lifetime devoted to it, are threatened by the politics of resentment, and it is that threat, not the great books, that captures our attention on every page. Bloom believes that the modern university and literary criticism as an intellectual discipline stand at the brink of disaster and wilfully mean to throw themselves into the abyss.

To proclaim the 'death of the author', to pretend that Batman and Lear can be taught as anything like equivalent texts, to deprive the solitary individual of the best means of individually confronting the best that the human mind has created is, in Bloom's jeremiad, a misery from which humankind may not recover.