The reason 'The Western Canon' - The Books and Schools of the Ages, by Harold Bloom (1994) is so important to writers and readers alike is this: We need some point of reference in the cosmos of the written word. Without some point of reference; without some 'North Star' as it were, we are likely to lose our way in the sea of literary endeavor. (Indeed, there are some of us who contend that we have lost our way). 'The Western Canon' is an outrageously ambitious book by Yale professor Harold Bloom. In some ways it is his master work. It would be difficult to envision any greater work coming from his desk. It is weighty with all his immense learning and is surprisingly readable in the bargain.
I mentioned in a previous column that I found 'The Western Canon' at our local thrift shop for $3. I have read it before - borrowed from the library, I could not afford to buy it - but now I own it. What better time to pause and share something from this important book? I shudder to think how, or why, such a book would have turned up in a thrift shop to start with. But I am thankful to have it.
In the Canon Bloom explores our literary tradition through the works of twenty-six authors. He "laments the loss of intellectual and aesthetic standards" (this from the jacket); "he deplores multiculturalism, Marxism, feminism, neoconservatism, Afro-centrism, and the New Historicism." If this was anyone but Harold Bloom, we would simply have him declared insane and leave it at that. But he is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University. He is a MacArthur Prize Fellow, and a past Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard University. He is a member of the American Academy. He is, in short, not someone who can easily be dismissed.
So why is his thought considered to be so unusual, so counter to the thought of our time? Because unlike so many others, he believes that a course can be charted through history by way of our most outstanding authors that will help us chart a course for the future. This is not radical , so much as retro. And it is retro that has gone out of style. Today every creative person that comes along wants to shout their greatness from the treetops, no matter how valuable their work may turn out to be in the long run. What is short and snappy and makes a lot of money is what is respected, in short. Any compass point will do, so long as we are on the cutting edge of it.
Patiently and wisely, Bloom lays out the Canon for us. He compares and contrasts works by Shakespeare, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Ibsen, Joyce, and Beckett. Tolstoy, Freud, Dante, Wordsworth, Austen, Dickens, Whitman, Dickinson, Proust and others to bring a deeper understanding of our place in this galaxy. We may not agree completely with all his conclusions, but we can certainly admire how he reaches them.
"With most of these twenty-six writers," Bloom writes in his Preface and Prelude, "I have tried to confront greatness directly: to ask what makes the author and the works canonical. The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange."
"Canonical strangeness can exist without the shock of such audacity, but the tang of originality must always hover in an inaugural aspect of any work that incontestably wins the agon with tradition and joins the Canon."
Recently a librarian here noted that what we are getting any more in published books is simply various versions of the same story. All of these, without a doubt, will be lost in the sea of time. What remains, then; what is important, is those few highly original writers and their work that add value to us as readers, as human beings, and as members of the progression of history into the future. As for the rest... they need not be written or read.
Take a look at the Canon for yourself and let me know what you think.
Jim AUGUST 14, 2009