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Harold Bloom has been, arguably, the world's best reader, the most wide-ranging and the most retentive. Some people believe his book, The Western Canon, verges on the audacious since Bloom dares to list what Western literary works are canonical as well as what ones will be.
While the appendices, with their lists of books, are the section of The Western Canon that provokes the most argument, these take up relatively few of the book's 578 pages. Bloom begins with a "Preface and Prelude," then indicates the mood the book will assume in "An Elegy for the Canon." Adopting Giambattista Vico's theory of history, Bloom then goes on to discuss twenty-six writers from different ages of literature. From the Aristocratic Age: Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Molière, Milton, Johnson and Goethe; from the Democratic Age: Wordsworth, Austen, Whitman, Dickinson, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy and Ibsen; and from the Chaotic Age: Freud, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Borges, Neruda, Pessoa and Beckett. Just before the appendices is the "Elegiac Conclusion," in which Bloom says he has "very little confidence that literary education will survive its current malaise," but he hopes that there will be "literate survivors."
Early in the book, Bloom tells us that he is not interested in the debate among those want to preserve the Western canon and those who want to destroy it. Instead, Bloom is interested only in literary aesthetics and he claims that canonicity comes "only by aesthetic strength, which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction." Bloom believes in the existence of canons, he says, because the very brevity of life prevents us from reading more than a fraction of the literature created by various authors throughout the centuries.
The Western Canon is more than an interesting book; it is also very thought-provoking. Some of the questions raised include: Is canonicity always the result of one writer's triumph over a great literary ancestor? Do not canons, to some degree, depend on the choices of the wealthy as well as on chance, luck or other devices of caprice? Does Bloom put too much emphasis on cognitive difficulty, choosing books that few readers outside of universities would ever want to read, much less reread? Then there is the excessive praise of Shakespeare as the entire center of the Western Canon. Is this perceptive criticism or does it cross the line into idolatry?
There are those who believe Bloom is too quick to dismiss the moral value of literature. Shelley, they say, went too far in his Defence of Poetry in praising great literature for enlarging a reader's imagination and thus leading to moral improvement. But Bloom, say the same critics, fails to go far enough in acknowledging the moral implications inherent in all great literature.
The greatest arguments, however, are reserved for the lists at the end of the book. How could Bloom leave out this author and include that? Why is this book included and that one is not? But even the critics have to praise Bloom for the breadth of his lists; his idea of the Western canon includes authors from the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Western Asia, Africa, the West Indies and South America. Bloom even notes The Mahabharata and the Ramayana and says that "ignorance of the Koran is foolish and increasingly dangerous." Bloom has also included English-language works by writers whom one would not necessarily think of as Western, for example: R.K. Narayan, Salman Rushdie and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
Another source of controversy has been the (almost) exclusion of female authors. Bloom does mention Alice Walker even before he gets to his lists, but he refuses to say anything good about her. Regarding the works of Toni Morrison, Bloom sees fit to include only Song of Solomon in the canon. He omits all works by Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Ayn Rand, Bobbie Ann Mason and Pearl Buck. To be fair, Bloom leaves out a number of male authors as well, authors whom one would have assumed would have been included such as John Gardner, John Updike (represented only by The Witches of Eastwick) and Arthur Miller (represented only by Death of a Salesman).
Although some have accused Bloom of composing a canon made up of Dead White European Males, he does include several American authors in his lists as well as devoting half chapters to Jane Austen and George Eliot and full chapters to Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, all of whom he praises lavishly.
The Western Canon will never be beyond argument and debate, that is simply an impossibility. People will always disagree with Bloom on one point or another. In the final analysis, Bloom, this century's greatest reader, has treated an enormously important topic with tremendous expertise. And, although an eccentric par excellence, Bloom has definitely compiled astute reading suggestions and critical opinions that certainly deserve anyone's careful consideration.
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Bloom adopted Giambattista Vico's cyclical theory of history for organization of the western canon. Vico proposed that history is divided into three ages: an age of gods, an age of heroes, and an age of men followed by a chaos out of which a new historical cycle will begin. After his introductory Elegy for the Canon, Bloom skips the Theocratic Age, proceeding to the Aristocratic Age, the Democratic Age, the Chaotic Age, and his Elegiac Conclusion. Each age has 6-8 chapters, each chapter devoted to an author or group of authors. The authors are, in order: Aristocratic: Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Moliere, Milton, Samuel Johnson, and Goethe; Democratic: Wordsworth, Austen, Whitman, Dickinson, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, and Ibsen; Chaotic: Freud, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Borges, Neruda, Pessoa, and Beckett.
He begins with Shakespeare whom he calls the center of the canon. Bloom exalts Shakespeare almost to a godlike state in his aesthetic zeal. In fact, every other author in the book is related to Shakespeare in some way. For example, Chaucer's Pardoner, he says, was a prototype for Shakespeare's Iago and Edmund. Tolstoy, he says, could not handle the influence of Shakespeare in his works so much so that he had to disavow him in his essay What is art?. The reason Freud believed Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford is that he could not himself reckon with Shakespeare's greatness and Freud's reading of Shakespeare was really Shakespeare's reading of life.
Bloom can appear at times a little too radical in some of his statements. For example he claims that the Jesus of the American religion is not the true Jesus of Nazareth, of the Crucifixion, or of heaven but only the Jesus of the Resurrection. He says that the Jesus Christians worship is a literary figure created by the writer of the Gospel of Mark. He exalts the search for aesthetic greatness above all else in canonical works, even dismissing morality in them past the point of serving its aesthetic purpose. But he can be forgiven some of his university gobbledygook.
The real thesis of the book is that the feminists, Marxists, new historicists, deconstructonists, Freudians, and other ideologues that are taking over the universities are wrong that the western canon, just because it is made up of a bunch of dead white males, is outdated. He defends the western canon very effectively, especially against adding period authors just because of their ethnicity or gender. He argues for the aesthetic merit and place in the canon of each of the authors he covers in the chapters eloquently and justly. I dare anyone who reads this review to read this book and you will be converted, too.
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Shaun Calhoun (email@example.com)
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Harold Bloom's book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages is centered around the concept of a literary canon, which Bloom describes as "what has been preserved out of what has been written." The term canon is religious in origin, initially referring to wisdom literature chosen for inclusion into Scripture by the Christian Church. Bloom's book addresses the preservation issue, that is, how do we choose what to preserve and grant canonical status? The current canon debate seems to have arisen from a more modern definition of the term, referring to the books chosen by our institutions for teaching. Bloom asserts that a recent emergence of politically-motivated attacks will result in the imminent displacement of the traditional Western Canon from our schools' curriculum. Bloom accordingly names his first chapter "An Elegy for the Canon" and identifies two factions in the canon debate: the right-wing element that defends the canon with appeals to Platonic arguments of moral good, and the left wing "journalistic-academic" element Bloom names the School of Resentment that attacks the canon with appeals to Aristotelian arguments for a work's supposed social good. Bloom claims both disinterest and disassociation with this political debate and argues that both sides are misguided in their approach. Bloom then dedicates the remainder of his book to explaining why the attackers and defenders are misguided in their criteria and offering his own arguments for canonical inclusion. The essential criteria that Bloom advocates is one rooted in tradition and purely artistic considerations: for Bloom, the only true test of literary excellence is aesthetic quality, a criteria that judges a work based on its artistic merit alone and is unconcerned with political, moral, or social issues.
Bloom is possibly the preeminent literary critic in America and is well-known for his theory of the anxiety of influence, reflecting his belief that, "there can be no strong, canonical writing without the process of literary influence." Bloom contends that, "any strong literary work creatively misreads and therefore misinterprets a precursor text or texts" and that "tradition is not only a handing-down process or process of benign transmission; it is also a conflict between past genius and present aspiration...[a] conflict [that] cannot be settled by social concerns, or by the judgement of any particular generation of impatient idealists."
Bloom places Shakespeare and Dante at the center of the Western Canon and claims that any writers who follow must inevitably wrestle with their greatness. This bold contention is a courageous and provocative one that requires a satisfying justification. But Bloom, in accordance with his reputation, rises to the challenge, surveying the vast landscape of literary criticism and presenting the greatest passages of analysis on the reasons for Shakespeare's greatness. Although many critics are quoted, the German writer Goethe is granted the final word: "Shakespeare confers on [his characters] intelligence and imagination; and by means of the image in which they, by virtue of that intelligence, contemplate themselves objectively, as a work of art, he makes them free artists of themselves." Bloom subsequently concludes that the singular excellence of Shakespeare is "his power of representation of human character and personality and their mutabilities" and leaves us with the observation that "at once no one and everyone, nothing and everything, Shakespeare IS the Western Canon."
In the remaining chapters, Bloom continues his analysis of the major canonical figures, carefully applying his criteria of aesthetic value throughout. The chapters are organized according to age: the Aristocratic Age, the Democratic Age, and the Chaotic Age (understood to begin with the twentieth-century and including the present day). The major figures include Milton, Wordsworth, Austen, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Dickens, Tolstoy, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Beckett, Borges, and a few others. The Appendix offers a suggested reading list of well over 500 authors from all ages that Bloom considers worthy of reading.
Bloom's book serves as a touchstone for literary criticism and the teaching of literature, and I would certainly recommend it for both academic and public libraries. The reader follows an experienced and formidable literary critic in his analysis of the strongest literary works. In the process, the reader learns a great deal about literary textual analysis and our body of Western literature. The reader also gains a sense of the current debate surrounding the canon in our universities and the present nature of literary criticism as it is being practiced. Bloom cannot hide that he is most disturbed *not* by the right wing moralists but the academics in the School of Resentment who aim to replace aesthetic value and high standards with a program for social justice as the principal criteria of literary excellence. Bloom extends his lament by discussing other elements of contemporary society, including MTV, short attention spans, inpatient readers, failing public schools, professors of cultural politics, the loss of love for reading and good literature, and the predicted conversion of Departments of English to literature-depleted Departments of Cultural Studies. In the end, even if you don't fully share his views, you cannot help but sympathize with Bloom's genuine concerns, be moved by his cogent arguments, and respect his learned and masterful analysis of the literary art he loves so well.