Reading is a dying art. In previous generations, it could be assumed that there were a few great works you read as a student. Early on this experience may have consisted of nursery rhymes, fairy tales and other “imaginative literature.” By the middle years, one may have been introduced to Twain, Cooper and Emerson. Those lucky few whose family situation allowed them to continue on to a secondary education may remember the words of Dickens, Hawthorne, Homer or Shakespeare. Greater awareness of “literacy education” and “reading skills,” however has done little to improve the situation in which we find ourselves. At first, this may seem strange. After all, isn’t this the “Information Age;” the age in which technology continues to make our access to knowledge freer and faster? We begin to remember that like leading the proverbial horse to the water of life, we cannot make the reader drink.
It is into this literary void that Harold Bloom steps with his work, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. In his first chapter, “An Elegy for the Canon,” Bloom laments the assault upon the Western Canon of great literature: “Unfortunately, nothing ever will be the same because the art and passion of reading well and deeply, which was the foundation of our enterprise, depended upon people who were fanatical readers when they were still small children. Even devoted and solitary readers are now necessarily beleaguered, because they cannot be certain that fresh generations will rise up to prefer Shakespeare and Dante to all other writers” (16).
But why bother with a canon in the first place? The first reason is, simply, because we are short on time. “We possess the Canon because we are mortal and also rather belated. There is only so much time, and time must have a stop, while there is more to read than ever was before” (29). The second reason for the canon is the increasing number of literary works. As implied in the above statement, thinking in terms of literary canonicity is a fairly recent conception introduced out of sheer necessity. Greater access to education and the technological progress of publishing led to increases in both writers and works, therefore, “The secular canon . . . does not actually begin until the middle of the eighteenth century” (19).
In Bloom’s view, however, such lamentation is not a social concern. In his mind we cannot “read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values” because the canon is not built upon such a foundation (28). Instead, “aesthetic choice has always guided every secular aspect of canon formation” (21). This dichotomy between aesthetics and ethics depends primarily on the author’s view of the former as an entirely subjective enterprise. “I myself insist that the individual self is the only method and the whole standard for apprehending aesthetic value” (22). Since literary excellence is a matter of personal preference, no text can be seen as beautiful in and of itself. Instead, literary beauty is only manifested in comparison to other works. In other words, “aesthetic value emanates from the struggle between texts” (36). Since the majority of avid readers will read only a certain number of works, the primary concern of the author becomes “the mortality or immortality” of his labors (36).
This literary phenomenon is what Bloom calls the “anxiety of influence.” According to this view, every author recognizes that there are certain predecessors who are worthy of emulation. Soon, however, this emulation produces an anxiety on the part of the more recent author when he realizes that he is in fact in competition with his forbearers for a place in the canon. The canon is ratified then, not by critics but by “late-coming authors who feel themselves chosen by particular ancestral figures” (19). It is this “interaction between artists,” this tension between interpretation and competition, that “engender[s]” “aesthetic value” (23). The “strongest test for canonicity,” then, is when a work has “simply overwhelmed the tradition and subsumed it” (27).
Memory and originality then become essential prerequisites to canonical status. Indeed, rather than the traditional religious connotation, a literary canon “will be seen as identical with the literary Art of Memory” (17). To Bloom, then, a work is immortal not because of any innate moral superiority, but its ability to sink into our ears and stick in our minds throughout a lifetime of reading. What we are looking for is originality – something that sets a work apart from all others, including those that inspired it in the first place. Rather than viewing the canon as a list of required reading, the canon becomes “a memory system” (37). Providing himself as his example, Bloom continues, that “the principle pragmatic function of the Canon” becomes “the remembering and ordering of a lifetime’s reading” (37). The canon as our collective memory then begins to take a more important place in our way of thinking about the world. For, “Cognition cannot proceed without memory, and the Canon is the true art of memory, the authentic foundation for cultural thinking” (34).
There is a great deal of truth in Bloom’s approach to literature, especially his emphasis on memory and its literary and cultural significance. One wonders, however, why Bloom’s affection for the canon and its cultural effects does not lead him to see literature as an inherently social phenomenon. He states that, “movement from within the tradition cannot be ideological or place itself in the service of any social aims, however morally admirable” (27). Though we could perhaps commend Bloom in his desire for a neutral canon, Bloom’s own works and words seem to imply another, more enduring standard. First, if the literary critic has no responsibilities to society, why write a national bestseller explaining the importance of aesthetics to our inherited literary tradition? Secondly, while explicitly denying the moral foundation of the canon, Bloom notes certain psychological effects of great literature on the reader that sound more moral than he perhaps intended. Note Bloom’s description of the effect of great writers in general and then the specific effect Shakespeare has had on later generations of readers:
The reception of aesthetic power enables us to learn how to talk to ourselves and how to endure ourselves. The true use of Shakespeare or of Cervantes, of Homer or of Dante, of Chaucer or of Rabelais, is to augment one’s own growing inner self. Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind’s dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality. . . . Without Shakespeare, no canon, because without Shakespeare, no recognizable selves in us, whoever we are. We owe to Shakespeare not only our representation of cognition but much of our capacity for cognition. (38, 39)
Self-discovery. Introspection. Mortality. These are indeed great reasons for reading each of these authors, but such reasons are far from the merely aesthetic.
It is hard to imagine a world with more books, and yet if the Lord allows technology and education to push us through another millennium of human history, undoubtedly more books will be written, more authors will struggle for eternal fame and more readers will come face to face with our same situation: too much to read and too little time to read it. Harold Bloom presents one way of viewing the choices every reader will have to make, namely, what he will read and for what purpose. On the first question, Bloom’s answer is clear: we ought to read what we find to reflect our own desires and visions of beauty. On the second, however, Bloom himself is unsure. While viewing aesthetics as the “all in all” of literature, he himself seems to struggle with what the inherently ethical side of literary excellence. The Western Canon will aid us through our own experiences in Western literature, but in the end Bloom’s theory asks a question that it is unable to answer.