Bloom on the Western Canon

Here, Yale University Literature Professor Harold Bloom has just finished describing his recent re-reading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost:

There are, I suppose, only a few works that seem even more essential to the Western Canon than Paradise Lost—Shakespeare’s major tragedies, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Torah, the Gospels, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Homer’s epics. Except perhaps for Dante’s poem, none of these is as embattled as Milton’s dark work. … Paradise Lost became canonical before the secular Canon was established, in the century after Milton’s own. The answer to “Who canonized Milton?” is in the first place John Milton himself, but in almost the first place other strong poets, from his friend Andrew Marvell through John Dryden and on to nearly every crucial poet of the eighteenth century and the Romantic period: Pope, Thomson, Cowper, Collins, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats. Certainly the critics, Dr. Johnson and Hazlitt, contributed to the canonization; but Milton, like Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare before him, and like Wordsworth after him, simply overwhelmed the tradition and subsumed it. That is the strongest test for canonicity. Only a very few could overwhelm and subsume the tradition, and perhaps none now can. …

The movement from within the tradition cannot be ideological or place itself in the service of any social aims, however morally admirable. One breaks into the canon only by aesthetic strength, / which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction. …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.

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 there ever was before. From the Yahwist and Homer to Freud, Kafka, and Beckett is a journey of nearly three millennia. Since that voyage goes past harbors as infinite as Dante, Chaucer, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, all of whom amply compensate a lifetime’s rereadings, we are in the pragmatic dilemma of excluding something else each time we read or reread extensively. One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify. …

Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves. Subsequently, he may teach us how to accept change, in ourselves as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change. Hamlet is death’s ambassador to us, perhaps one of the few ambassadors ever sent out by death who does not lie to us about our inevitable relationship with that undiscovered country. …

The Western Canon, despite the limitless idealism of those who would open it up, exists precisely in order to impose limits, to set a standard of measurement that is anything but political or moral. I am aware that there is now a kind of covert alliance between popular culture and what calls itself “culture criticism,” and in the name of that alliance cognition itself may doubtless yet acquire the stigma of the incorrect. Cognition cannot proceed without memory, and the Canon is the true art of memory, the authentic foundation for cultural thinking. Most simply, the Canon is Plato and Shakespeare; it is the image of the individual thinking, whether it be Socrates thinking through his own dying, or Hamlet contemplating that undiscovered country. Mortality joins memory in the consciousness of reality-testing that the Canon induces. …

All canons, including our currently fashionable counter-canons, are elitist, and as no secular canon is ever closed, what is now acclaimed as “opening up the canon” is a strictly redundant operation. Although canons, like all lists and catalogs, have a tendency to be inclusive rather than exclusive, we have now reached the point at which a lifetime’s reading and rereading can scarcely take one through the Western Canon. Indeed, it is now virtually impossible to master the Western Canon. Not only would it mean absorbing well over three thousand books, many, if not most, marked by authentic cognitive and imaginative difficulties, but the relations between these books grow more rather than less vexed as our perspectives lengthen. …

I am not presenting a “lifetime reading plan,” though that phrase has now taken on an antique charm. There always will be (one hopes) incessant readers who will go on reading despite the proliferation of fresh technologies for distraction. Sometimes I try to visualize Dr. Johnson or George Eliot confronting MTV Rap or experiencing Virtual Reality and find myself heartened by what I believe would be their ironical, strong refusal of such irrational entertainments. After a lifetime spent in teaching literature at one of our major universities, I have very little confidence that literary education will survive its current malaise. … Finding myself now surrounded by professors of hip-hop; by clones of Gallic-Germanic theory; by ideologues of gender and of various sexual persuasions; by multiculturalists unlimited, I realize that the Balkanization of literary studies is irreversible. …

Confronting greatness as we read is an intimate and expensive process and has never been much in critical vogue. Now, more than ever, it is out of fashion, when the quest for freedom and solitude is being condemned as politically incorrect, selfish, and not appropriate to our anguished society. Greatness in the West’s literature centers upon Shakespeare, who has become the touchstone for all who come before and after him, whether they are dramatists, lyric poets, or storytellers. He had no true precursor in the creation of character, except for Chaucerian hints, and has left no one after him untouched by his ways of representing human nature. His originality was and is so easy to assimilate that we are disarmed by it and unable to see how much it has changed us and goes on changing us. Much of Western literature after Shakespeare is, in varying degree, partly a defense against Shakespeare, who can be so overwhelming an influence as to drown out all who are compelled to be his students.

The enigma of Shakespeare is his universalism: Kurosawa’s film versions of Macbeth and King Lear are thoroughly Kurosawa and thoroughly Shakespeare. Even if you regard Shakespearean personages as roles for actors rather than as dramatic characters, you are still unable to account for the human persuasiveness of Hamlet or Cleopatra when you compare them to the roles provided by Ibsen, surely the principal post-Shakespearean dramatist that Europe has brought forth. When we move from Hamlet to Peer Gynt, from Cleopatra to Hedda Gabler, we sense that personality has waned, that the Shakespearean daemonic has ebbed into the Ibsenite trollishness. The miracle of Shakespeare’s universalism is that it is not purchased by any transcending of contingencies: the great characters and their plays accept being embedded in history and in society, while refusing every mode of reduction: historical, societal, theological, or our belated psychologizings and moralizing. …

[C]anonical choices of both past and present works have their own interest and charm, for they too are part of the ongoing conceit that is literature. Everyone has, or should have, a desert island list against that day when, fleeing one’s enemies, one is cast ashore, or when one limps away, all warfare done, to pass the rest of one’s time quietly reading. If I could have one book, it would be a complete Shakespeare; if two, that and a Bible. If three? There the complexities begin.


Bloom, Harold. 1994. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, pp.26-31, 35-37, 517, 525 || Amazon || Worldcat


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