The Western Canon Essay

In The Western Canon, Bloom’s romanticism finds expression in his sense that great works of literature are always strange, or, in Freud’s sense, uncanny. Sitting down to reread Paradise Lost, Bloom is overwhelmed by ‘the terrifying strangeness of what is being presented’ which seems closer to science fiction or literary fantasy than heroic epic. Bloom’s Dante contrasts with the tedious classroom version ‘so abstrusely learned and so amazingly pious that he can only be fully apprehended by American professors’.[1]

Like Milton, Dante has the extraordinary audacity to write latter-day Holy Scripture, indeed, a work ‘which prefers itself to the Bible’. For Dante, ‘the poem is the truth, universal, not temporal’. Finally Dante takes the ‘sublimely courageous’ step of enthroning Beatrice, his own inamorata, at the pinnacle of heaven. And so continues the outrageous history of literary hubris, through Wordsworth’s creation of a poetic tabla rasa, whose blankness he fills with memories of the self, through Emily Dickinson’s ‘reconceptualisation of everything’, and down to Kafka’s troubled gnosis.

All this becomes clearer if one considers the case of Shakespeare. He is at the heart of the canon and so many thousands of books have been devoted to him that even specialists find it hard to keep up with the literature relating to just one aspect of his work. But for all this writing, we seem to be no nearer a consensus on how to interpret those thirty eight plays. After all these years, critics still cannot decide whether Shakespeare was a radical republican or a reactionary royalist, a neo-platonist or a materialist, a Christian, or a sceptic. How is it that Shakespeare, who is so accessible that he is performed incessantly across the world, is so impossible to pin down? Surely this mystery at the heart of our culture is worth our full reverence.

Bloom’s answer is partly epistemological, deriving as it does from his question: what is it to know literature? But in The Western Canon he is also more specific. He starts with the observation that Shakespeare’s greatest achievement is the creation of uniquely compelling characters who not only change in the course of the plays, itself an innovation, but have the capacity to change themselves through the power of their inward and reflexive consciousness.

Such characters, who are ‘free artists of themselves’, do not appear as props to a narrative, nor as rhetorical figurations, nor as reflexes of Shakespeare, but as independent beings. We never know what Shakespeare thinks, only what the characters say. Where we may feel inclined to identify characters such as Hamlet or Prospero with Shakespeare, because they possess an authorial shaping consciousness, we often encounter the greatest ambiguity. Herein lies the generative fecundity of Shakespeare, a spiritual force which is stronger than our own ability to interpret.

Shakespeare… suggested more contexts for explaining us than we are capable of supplying for explaining his characters… (he) so opens his characters to multiple perspectives that they become analytical instruments for judging you.[2]

Whatever standpoint we choose from which to understand the greatest Shakespearean characters, we find that, through their capacity for self-investigation, they have got there before us. Critical and theatrical attempts to construct a ‘useable’ Shakespeare notwithstanding, Bloom insists that ‘Shakespeare invented us’ through his creation of a new kind of psychological reflexiveness.

Shakespearean inward selves seem to me different to Luther’s in kind and not just degree, and different indeed in kind from the entire history of consciousness up to Luther. Hamlet’s self-reliance leaps over the centuries and joins itself to Nietzsche’s and Emerson’s then goes beyond them to their outermost limits and keeps on going beyond ours.[3]

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The central theme of The Western Canon is the effect of the Shakespearean penumbra on all later writers. Bloom describes Milton’s Satan as an attempt to come to terms with the imaginative strength of Iago and Edmund. Then again, in the face of the Lacanian tradition of Freudian readings of Shakespeare, Bloom offers a Shakespearean reading of Freud in which the elaborate structures of Freud’s theory are represented as a conceptualised version of the structures of Shakespearean drama. Pace Freud, Hamlet did not have an Oedipus complex; rather, Freud had a Hamlet complex. Joyce’s Ulysses is convincingly read virtually as a parable of the whole canonical process: an agon with Shakespeare.

When English critics follow such an approach, they remain jovial amateurs. Bloom’s Jewish intensity and American professionalism have made him its theoretician. A poem cannot be read objectively because it is not an object, and neither is the reader. It may be a metaphor for an object and a metaphor for a mental state, but it cannot be either. For Bloom, a poem is neither an autonomous text existing free of authorial intentionality, nor is it the expression of a state of being which happens to have been transferred to an artistic form. A work of art is a state of being in itself. It is not its expression, but its achievement – a form of gnosis.

Poems, plays and novels are like people, whom we may not truly possess, although we may feel that they possess us. To create the figurative language of which literature is comprised is to desire to be greater; it is an expression of the writer’s will to power which has designs on the reader. The reader’s own desires and own struggles for identity are deeply implicated. We cannot possess a work of art; we can only meet it in an ‘intimate and expensive encounter’. It is intimate because it is personal and profound – and expensive, because of the cost to selfhood of exposure to selves so much greater than one’s own. And yet to read in the fullest sense is to partake of the literary gnosis:

The self in its quest to be solitary and free ultimately speaks with one aim only: to confront greatness. That confrontation scarcely masks the desire to join greatness to greatness, which is the basis for the aesthetic experience once called the sublime: the quest for the transcendence of limits. Our common fate is age, sickness, death, oblivion. Our common hope, tenuous but persistent, is for some version of survival.[4]

In his earlier theoretical work, Bloom, in rethinking our ways of understanding literature, was forced to use a language of arcane concepts and sometimes tortuous vocabulary. But in The Western Canon, he writes with a Johnsonian cadence and with the immense gravity and elegance which that implies. Bloom has never wasted time writing about things he did not value, but it is most curious that towards the end of a prolific career, he should reveal himself to be so ardent a Shakespearean. He has, after all, spent that career writing principally about post-Romantic poetry.

Perhaps this is because Shakespeare has been the focus of so much feminist, deconstructionist, historicist criticism that he therefore provides the battlefield. Perhaps it is also because Shakespeare himself provides the sturdiest defence. Perhaps the reasons are more purely autobiographical, Shakespeare now providing the most adequate mirror for an ageing man. Perhaps Shakespeare offers the best mirror in which to perceive the canon, or perhaps Shakespeare’s consciousness is the one with which Bloom, like the canonical writers, has to reckon, because it has played so great a role in defining his own. However this may be, there is a sense in The Western Canon, albeit an elegiac one, of completion, and of return.

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The Western Canon, p.80

2.The Western Canon, p.64

3.The Western Canon, p.179

4.The Western Canon, p.524

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