An Elegy for Bloom
A STAUNCH DEFENDER OF THE WESTERN CANON
In the introduction to his controversial masterpiece The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994), the late Harold Bloom distills a theory of literature that has long been maligned by the purblind doomsters of the humanities who seem unable to distinguish writing that is forever relevant from that which speaks only to an age or generation and who, owing to an inveterate if not pathological politicism, pursue the best that has been written not as an end itself but as a means to advance social agendas. Despite having been published nearly three decades ago, Bloom’s introduction, “An Elegy for the Canon,” calls us from the din of confusion that is contemporary literary study back to an appreciation of the canon around which such study traditionally has centered. He begins by defining the proper approach to literature, continues by excoriating those who deviate from it, and finishes by offering edifying insights into what has motivated the greatest authors and the wisest readers.
To approach literature properly, says Bloom, is to recognize, before all else, its uselessness. Literature does not improve selves or society. Implicit in his argument, of course, is that it does no harm either. Critics of previous centuries maintained that reading bad books is bad for the character; now, “the new commissars tell us that reading good books is bad for the character.” In Bloom’s mind, yesterday’s critics and today’s academic censors are both wrong. “Reading the very best writers…is not going to make us good citizens,” he contends. Nor is immersing ourselves in their words going to make us racists, sexists, misogynists, xenophobes, heterophobes, or transphobes. It’s going to make of us nothing, morally speaking.
With respect to moral utility, “All art is quite useless,” said Oscar Wilde. For Bloom, Wilde is as sage as the first literary theorist, Plato, above whose academy in Athens appeared the words: “Let no man ignorant of geometry enter here.” Had it been in his power to do so, Bloom would have had Wilde’s declaration “engraved above every gate at every university, so that each student might ponder the splendor of the insight.”
Rightly or wrongly, Bloom does not subscribe to the theory of the English poet Sir Philip Sidney, who argues in his “Defence of Poesy” (1580) that the goal of studying literature is the improvement of manners through exposure to precepts embodied in literary texts and through experiences of vicarious suffering in small doses in preparation for that inevitable moment of personal grief or distress, for instance, through reading the Book of Job. Nor does Bloom equate works of the literary imagination with theodicy, the philosophy concerned with “justifying the ways of God to men,” in John Milton’s phraseology. According to Bloom, the proper study of literature is an extension of aesthetics, the branch of philosophy that deals with the principles of beauty and artistic taste.
“The aesthetic is,” in Bloom’s view, “an individual rather than a societal concern”; therefore, he does not despair of its devaluing by the rampant philistinism of the multiculturalists of higher education who teach literature but fail, or refuse, to see the canon for what it is: a relation of an individual reader and writer to what has been preserved out of what has been written, not a mere list of books for required examination. Bloom understands that literary study, in contradistinction to cultural studies and the concomitant erosion of literary standards, is, and ever will be, an elitist endeavor in the service of aesthetics; cultural studies are, at best, variant forms of the worst elements of social science, which, instructive though it may be, has no aesthetic value.
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