The Embattled Canon in the Penny Press!
The New York Times Book Review pauses to take note of the fact that it’s been twenty years since Harold Bloom wrote his big, controversial book The Western Canon, a little anniversary that had completely slipped my mind. To honor the occasion, the NYTBR enlisted two of our sharpest public thinkers, Pankaj Mishra and Daniel Mendelsohn, to reflect briefly on the book.
Those brief reflections are fairly disappointingly facile, but then, they each had only a hundred words or so, and it’s just one old book, and Bloom is a figure nearly all agree it’s safe to mock, however gently. He was already decidedly eccentric in 1994, and in the twenty years since he’s become almost pathetic, the first mourner at a funeral without a corpse. If one of Lionel Trilling’s bore-fests were having an anniversary, Mishra and Mendelsohn would probably have been given more space to work with.
They might also have been less facile. As it is, they quickly pat The Western Canon politely on the head and send it off to bed. They agree that Bloom’s book is now thoroughly outdated, a curio of an earlier era. Mishra calls it “quaint”:
But it is Bloom’s complaints about the “Balkanization of literary studies” by the “academic rabble” that make a book like his seem very quaint in 2014. Aesthetic connoisseurship in the gardens of the West today is menaced not so much by resentful feminists as by the hard-nosed accountants of an insecure commercial society – had allowed a few men to use their solitude to revive and deepen a fantasy of Western civilization.
Bloom’s book shot to prominence twenty years ago for its hopeless attempt at a rear-guard action against the tides of political correctness that had been swamping college campuses for nearly ten years. He listed a vital canon of a couple-dozen great authors and deprecated the specialized “schools of resentment” that had taken over the English departments of colleges and universities all over the West, and he was attacked immediately for promulgating the “dead white male” literary hegemony and unjustly dismissing all later accretions. Pundits and literary critics leapt at such an easy target, and the whole subject was debated everywhere, but Mishra and Mendelsohn are agreement that time has moved on. Here’s Mendelsohn:
Published at the height of the culture wars, the book ardently defended the idea of works whose aesthetic value was self-evident from what Bloom dismissed as “the school of resentment” – the feminist, deconstructionist and Marxist critics for whom a rigid curriculum of “Great Books” was anathema. To Bloom’s nemeses, the canon was merely a redoubt of white, male, imperialist values: a culture Stonehenge, as the Oxford literary critic Terry Eagleton put it, best curated by the National Trust.
“What’s interesting today” Mendelsohn goes on, “is how dated this controversy can seem.”
To put it mildly, I find this kind of complacency mystifying, but maybe timing explains it. Pankaj Mishra was about 23 in 1994, still a book reviewer in India, and Mendelsohn was 34, just getting his Ph.D. In other words, by the time either one of them was reading Bloom’s book for the first time, the
Balkanization Bloom was warning his readers about had already taken place, and it had happened pretty much exactly as he’d feared. Mishra and Mendelsohn entered their adult careers after the cataclysmic earthquakes Bloom worried about had almost completely re-shaped the landscape.
It’s a sentence I’m galled to write and one I couldn’t write in any other context, but in this circumstance only, Harold Bloom was right.
The fear animating The Western Canon, the fear that made it so easily mockable (and so easily misunderstandable that even two very perceptive readers can miss it), wasn’t that Bloom’s little list of two dozen specific authors would be displaced by newer authors – contrary to the dramatic effect he often goes for, Bloom is a relentlessly exploratory reader, still very much in constant pursuit of astonishment. The fear at the back of The Western Canon isn’t that the Bloom’s venerated authors will be shoved aside but that the whole idea of veneration itself will be shoved aside. His idea of ‘Balkanization’ wasn’t ‘there goes the neighborhood’ but rather ‘who needs the whole idea of a neighborhood?’ His stance twenty years ago was quickly jeered as an old white academic desperately seeking to protect the pre-eminence of the stale old line-up of dead white men who’d have been immediately recognizable to old white academics two hundred years before. But really Bloom was lamenting the fact that he saw as inevitable the shouting-down of all notions of quality by various splinter-schools of identity. What he feared was a curriculum model that no longer assumed the primacy of any work or type of work over any other – and he was right to fear that.
He was right to fear it for two reasons. The first reason is that it was a true pre-sentiment: this exact thing has indeed happened across the entire swath of academia. At Bloom’s own Yale, freshmen can opt for such goodies as “Literary Humor,” “Doppelgangers,” and “Terror, Horror, and the Literary Imagination.” At Harvard, there are options like “The Brontes,” “Consciousness in Fiction,” and “American Poetry in the Online Environment.” And at Princeton, the standard dead-white-guy “Introduction to English Literature” is sandwiched between such things as “Black Popular Music Culture,” Latina/o Performance,” and “Introduction to Asian American Studies – ‘Too Cute!’ and the New Asiamania.”
And the far more important reason Bloom was right to fear this model isn’t its mere appearance but its devastating Procrustean quality. Even those few scattered required undergraduate courses that still have the quaint old-fashioned stubbornness to include figures like Defoe or Wordsworth will absolutely never any longer assert that Defoe and Wordsworth are better than anybody else at what they do. In the new world of these curricula, the 18th century broadside-freelancer Elisabeth Wratton is studied alongside Thomas Paine, but a student even so much as hinting that Paine is the more talented writer will be immediately expelled as unteachable; a teacher who said the simple line “William Shakespeare is a more powerful dramatist than Aphra Behn” will be not only fired but sued. In this new world, all assessments of relative quality are now ruthless impositions of false hierarchies. This is the definition of Balkanization.
Mishra giggles that the carefully-curated gardens of the Western canon aren’t threatened by resentful feminists so much as by hard-nosed accountants of an insecure commercial society, but he’s dead wrong: the resentful feminists – and every other kind of ist – are the hard-nosed accountants. They police the new and flatter landscape they created, watching always for the assertion of ‘quaint’ old hierarchies, anything to challenge their relentless, joyless assertions of selfhood. They not only have no interest in Bloom’s Western canon, they actively scorn it – they proudly name their Facebook friends and drinking buddies as artistic figures more worthy of their study than St. Augustine or Victor Hugo, and they’re no longer laughed at when they do it.
Twenty years ago, quaint old Harold Bloom had the old-fashioned nerve to worry out loud that the Western canon that had shaped cultures and produced incalculable beauty was in danger. He worried out loud that the splinter-groups he so provokingly called “the schools of resentment” would succeed – through lawsuits and protests and noisemaking – in destroying the idea of the canon itself. And he asserted that the loss of that idea would be a very, very bad thing.
The average college-level undergraduate English major has not only never read John Milton but actively mocks the idea of doing so. If you press him, he’ll assert not only that there’s no qualitative difference between John Milton and the late Bill Knott but also that any claim there is represents faulty critical thinking. And he’ll assert that because he’s been taught to assert it, by teachers who’ll get swamped with negative student evaluations if they don’t teach it.
Yes, it’s been twenty years since Bloom’s doomsaying. But it sure as hell wasn’t quaint.