Monday, June 29, 2009

A Last Word

I’ve just finished Harold Bloom’s Western Canon, and shall say goodbye to him. Harold Bloom: a fearful intellect, but nevertheless, a Gnostic and a snob who does not try to appease his critics or attempt to write with epistemological humility. He is emphatically enthusiastic about his loves (Shakespeare! Gnosticism!), and emphatically derisive about those he dislikes (Feminists! Marxists! New Historicists!). Controversially, he asserts in his chapter on Virginia Woolf (as primarily a Reader and not a Feminist) that “A silly song of Shakespeare’s has done more for the poor and the wicked than all the Marxists and Feminists in the world.”

In his conclusion, Bloom writes “The strongest poetry is cognitively and imaginatively too difficult to be read deeply by more than a relative few of any social class, gender, race, or ethnic origin.” But surely, the way to combat the canon’s failing status (as Bloom has bewailed) is to welcome, not exclude? By all means, warn initiates of the difficulty of engaging in this material, but do not look the newcomers over and then turn away.

Bloom suggests that “less knowledge and less technical skill is required for either the production or the comprehension of imaginative literature…than for other arts” (meaning musical composition and the visual arts, primarily painting. I’m not so sure he would regard Andy Warhol or Lichtenstein as canonical visual artists.) Bloom ends by suggesting that “literate survivors” will turn to the Canon and “garner the rewards that only canonical literature affords.” Where does this leave the non-canonical works that are being produced? Is it true that the novel is dead? That Pyncheon is, as he suggests, the last of the Greats? Does it still benefit us to read non-canonical imaginative literature?

His is a staunch opinion, well-read, well-supported, but ultimately, potentially life-denying. I respect his Canon, respect his vast literary experience, but have a feeling that if I sat at his feet and asked him to pour into my mind his knowledge, he might decline. That is fair. It is not his business to like “common readers” (perhaps not as well-read as Woolf’s capital C “Common Readers”) and it is not fair for me to look for his written approval or welcome. But I will be looking for a second opinion.

1 comment:

Perscors said...

When I entered grad school last year one professor remarked upon hearing of my interest in poetry that he was glad to hear it while lamenting how few students are still interested in poetry these days. There is an intense suspicion of anyone with claims to literarary merit. I can't tell you how many times I've brought up a cherished writer to hear wildly condemning remarks such as Yeats being a fascist, Whitman as evil, or Edmund Spenser as a murderous colonialist. I welcome criticism of one's work but these blunt dimissing comments hardly seem to comprehend the essence of these writers. I find Bloom at least comforting in light of all this fierce negativity towards literature.

Bloom has said in interviews and I believe in the introduction to the Western Canon as well that he would welcome the opportunity to read all that has been written but there is simply not enough time, one must choose.

As an interesting side note I just recently learned that Bloom did not even wish to have the famous lists in the book's appendix but was pushed into writing them by the publisher as a condition to having them print the book. "How can you speak of a canon without a list of the books" Bloom then told of how he rather quickly wrote up a list of books from the top of his head thinking of what immediately came to mind.