After finishing Harold Bloom’s eloquent The Western Canon, I immediately shot off an email to my college advisor, who also happened to be my Literary Theory prof, and said something to the effect of “this is one of those things that makes me wish our Theory class had been two semesters, just so you could have thrown this at us right at the end, just to really throw a wrench in our systems!”
Because after a semester of being indoctrinated in modern lit theory—from Structuralism, to Marxism to Postmodernism to Feminism and everything beyond and in between—after being reminded over and over of Barthes’s pronouncement that “the author is dead” and that the value of literature lies in hidden agendas often unbeknownst to even the authors themselves, this passionate defense against the politicalization of literature comes not necessarily as a revelation, but a welcome contrarian voice. The Western Canon contains whispering echo of Walter Pater and the “art for art’s sake” movement that is so dear to undergraduate heart, for to Bloom literature is not art, but an actual religion, with Shakespeare raised to an omniscient presence that not only defined literature ever-after, but literally shaped human nature into what we recognize it as today. Raising “the Shakespearian perspective” to a literal theory, he then goes through major points of what he deems “the Western Canon,” and applies this perspective from texts starting with the Bible and The Odyssey on down to Beckett, who he considers the last indisputable Canonical author (though he throws out the names Pynchon, Merrill and Ashbery as likely future additions to his esteemed literary assemblage), and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work most of the time, yielding interesting insight into a number of unexpected literary works, and even at the points one is most likely to disagree, it’s impossible to deny that Bloom’s perspective isn’t a fascinating one.
Before taking on this book, I always had the vague notion in my head that Bloom was a rather outdated old fogey, the most famous of the hanger-ons of the Formalist approach to literature that essentially died out mid 20th century. I expected to read the articulate thoughts of a ethnocentric, perhaps even misogynistic dinosaur—but I’ll be the first to admit that from the first pages my assumptions were proved wildly incorrect. From the very beginning Bloom acknowledges that importance of non-Western literature, but humbly admits he lacks the necessary expertise to tackle the subject. And it becomes obvious in the statement that “except Shakespeare, [Emily] Dickinson manifests more cognitive originality than any other Western poet since Dante”—the ultimate compliment from Bloom’s perspective—that he can’t be written off as the last sage of the “dead white male” school either. Instead, Bloom is a man wildly, even hysterically in love with literature, and his enthusiasm quickly becomes infectious. And as much as I find value in various literary theories (which Bloom slyly labels “The Schools of Resentment”), I tip my hat to this august figure, because I think he’s on to something—a deep, overwhelming love of all things literary is truly a scarcity these days, something that is not only a great loss not only to university literature departments, but to humanity at large (now how’s that for capping of with a grandiose Bloomian pronouncement?)