End Notes: The Canon Unloosed

Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon is a plea for standards in literary studies, a defense of those great works in our tradition which until quite recently have more or less uncontestedly made up the core of a humanistic education, and some charming reflections on some of the main figures and their writings. In the course of doing this, he has some sharp and deserved things to say of the feminist and multicultural ideologies which have made such a scramble of college English departments. He even suggests that in the not too distant future those who accept the “canon” and the criteria a work must meet to find a place in it, will lead a separate and diminished existence, on the model of Classics departments, while what were once English departments will have become caves echoing with the kook of the month.

It will seem churlish to find fault with so noble an effort, particularly when one finds so many congenial chapters and treatments. The lists Bloom appends to the book have an Adleresque exuberance, standard enough but with sufficient surprises to cause discussion. Moreover, Bloom invokes that test of literature I first saw expressed by C.S. Lewis in Essay in Criticism and Cyril Connolly in Enemies of Promise: literature is whatever we will read again. Bloom associates the rereading too much with pain, rather than with the desire to experience again the original pleasure of the work, but it is encouraging to find this flatfooted standard expressed more than once in his book.

By and large, we reread when there is more to a book than knowing how it comes out. What happens, the plot, is crucial to imaginative fiction, I think, along with Aristotle, but we tend to rank books in terms of the more-than-plot they have: settings, characterizations, the evocation of a mood, and chiefly perhaps the distinctive voice of the author which speaks to us in a new and informative way of the mystery of human existence. E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, wrote of plot as a sop to the groundlings and professes to wish to be free of it. That he is wrong about this is easily seen in his own novels. Whatever more they convey depends upon the underlying carrier of story. Knowing how it comes out does not diminish the pleasure of rereading, of course. In the Book of Problems Aristotle asks why we like the old songs best. Among the reasons he gives are just the delight we feel in hearing the expected again.

My quarrel with Bloom goes back to how he sees the work of the writers who enter into the canon and the incredible blindspot that he has to the central fact about western literature.

Bloom has long had an “agonistic” theory of artistic creation. What he means by this can be grasped by recalling the Norman Mailer of Advertisements for Myself. Mailer thought that there was a world championship of the novel and that he and others were contenders for the title. They train warily, acquire a records of wins and losses, move gradually toward a shot at the title. Mailer used to wonder how he was doing relative to James Jones, Vance Bourjaily, Gore Vidal and other dubious heavyweights. Of course, it is nonsense to think that there is any such ranking, whether currently or eventually.

Bloom accepts some such theory. The great writers of the canon get there in large part because they are measuring themselves antagonistically against some great predecessor. Dante is out to outdo Guido Cavalcanti and Shakespeare wants to KO Ben Jonson. It is how little this explains a great work that will strike anyone who thinks about it. Is Bloom a little punchy from academic bouts?

It turns out that Bloom has an agonistic theory of criticism as well. We learn that he himself came on the scene, bobbing and weaving and throwing left jabs in the direction of T.S. Eliot. And what did he object to in Eliot? The recognition of the role of religious faith in the imaginative work of just about every author in the canon.

For all his many merits and despite the gratitude we owe him for speaking the simple truth about the ideologies involved in what Dinesh D’Souza called “illiberal education,” Bloom has a thoroughly secular mind. He represents, malgré lui, an earlier misfortune in the academic world, and that was precisely the declension into secularism. This meant the exclusion of religious faith as irrelevant and even menacing. Except as literature, of course, Bloom himself has written outrageously on the Bible, but who among the authors in the canon would recognize his attitude toward Scripture? The Word of God becomes another text about which one constructs theories which, to a robust believer, are impious.

Eliot’s Christianity was not merely a personal patina; it had relevance for his poetry and for his criticism as well. It enabled Eliot to see the wellsprings of most of the great works of western literature. Lewis accounted it a bonus of his conversion that he had come to share the faith that animated the writers whose works he studied. I am sure that Eliot saw faith as a bonus for poetic creation as well.

One of the results of secularism, in a man of Bloom’s sensibility, is the effort to turn literature itself into a religion. One gets the picture of a disheveled distracted scholar, moving from canonical work to canonical work, in a quest of the meaning of life. But the meaning he finds in his reading is not the meaning of life that those great works convey. Bloom is engaged in a quest without transcendent object, a poring over books, and makes of aesthetic experience, itself as painful as it is pleasurable, the purpose of life.

Call this the loose canon. the great works unmoored and set afloat. One is reminded of the author of another Bloom who dreamt of creating in the smithy of his soul the untreated conscience of his race. Joyce meant a substitute for faith. That seems to be what literature is for Harold Bloom.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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