The Western Canon, by Harold Bloom

Summary: literature as a means to feud

The American academic Wallace Stanley Sayne once allegedly said that, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics because the stakes are so low.”

Harold Bloom, in The Western Canon, seems to take this observation as a platonic ideal for his writing. So, more than literature, the principle focus of this book is other academics and why they are wrong. All of them. Every one who has ever tried to interrogate a text from an alternative theoretic position, from Marxism to feminism to old fashioned conservatism. They are all wrong.

The only basis for engaging with literature, according to Bloom, is in its own terms. But it is not at all clear that this is the basis upon which Bloom discusses the literature that his book focusses upon. Rather there is a cod-psychological theme running through the text relating to the angst with which writers engage with their antecedents. It should not be a surprise then that Freud is dragged into Bloom’s canon but Yeats, who would perhaps not provide as much grist to Bloom’s psychic hobby horse, is not.

This, and his tiresome sniping aside, Bloom’s book is an entertaining one. At its best he shows how Western literature resonates across the centuries. For example, he shows how the character of Beatrice from Dante’s Divine Comedy is perhaps an inspiration for Dulcinea del Toboso in Don Quixote. (Bloom is notably silent, however, on the possibility of “non-Western influences” on Western literature. Part one of Don Quixote, for example, with its structure composed of stories within stories, is particularly reminiscent of the great “Eastern” work, The Thousand and One Nights.) And he shows how Chaucer echoes in Shakespeare and then Shakespeare in everything else.

Bloom loves Shakespeare, and has been seduced by his selfish little anti-hero, Hamlet, forgiving him the trail of carnage that he leaves in his incompetent revolutionary wake because of his eloquent reflections and acute psychological insights.

It is difficult to argue with the idea that Shakespeare is fundamental to the Western canon, and much of the rest of world literature. This book led me to reflect again on the assertion of an army colleague of George McDonald Frazer, reported in his memoir of the war in Burma, Quartered Safe Out Here, that Shakespeare must have been a soldier during his “lost years.” Not only does Shakespeare describe camp life so well, but his appreciations of the machinations of power, of the contempt with which the dreamy prince can treat the lives of others, and the brutality with which the best laid plans can be disrupted by bad luck, does suggest the sensibility of the poor bloody infantry.

Literature should not be, in Bloom’s view, a way to help the reader empathise with the lives of others, something that seems to me a prime function. So, he is dismissive of how some universities teach the likes of Alice Walker for “political reasons” to the exclusion of some authors whose “strangeness” – Bloom’s standard for inclusion into the “canon” – he values more highly.

But Bloom at least acknowledges that the “canon” is evolving, and new literature still grows powerfully out of the old. If he was around today he would certainly recognise that a book like Half of a Yellow Sun carries the strong influence of War and Peace. But I also am sure he would be quite appalled with the notion of someone like me saying that Adichie’s book might be better than Tolstoy’s, and that part of its wonderful strangeness comes from expanding the mental world of the reader sufficiently to make us empathise with the dreadful plight of young Africans caught up in brutal war.

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