October 18, 2019

"To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all."

"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. The inevitable analogue is the erotic one. If you are Don Giovanni and Leporello keeps the list, one brief encounter will suffice."

From Harold Bloom, "The Western Canon" (which I'm reading on the occasion of Bloom's death).

Looking up the Amazon link for that, I came across "The White Man's Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon" (publication date November 5, 2019). That's by Dana Schwartz (a female "arts and culture" writer). From the description:
From Shakespeare's greatest mystery (how could a working-class man without access to an MFA program be so prolific?) to the true meaning of Kafkaesque (you know you've made it when you have an adjective named for you), the pages herewith are at once profound and practical. Use my ingenious Venn diagram to test your knowledge of which Jonathan—Franzen, Lethem, or Safran Foer—hates Twitter and lives in Brooklyn. (Trick question: all 3!) Sneer at chick-lit and drink Mojitos like Hemingway (not like middle-aged divorcĂ©es!).

20 comments:

mccullough said...

Everyone’s got their favorites.

Sad to see that such a voracious reader as Bloom is such a bad writer. His ideas are clever but forgettable.

rhhardin said...

The Book of J should be a pleasure for you, as he spots peculiarly female writing in the bible.

Mike Sylwester said...

A better argument and guide for reading The Canon is Susan Wise Bauer's book The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had.

This book has significantly affected my reading life since I read it in 2003, when it was published.

I have read various works by Harold Bloom. I think his writing is generally abstruse, as in the above excerpt from The Western Canon. Wise Bauer writes much more clearly and compellingly.

Sebastian said...

"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."

"All"? I greatly respect Bloom, but this seems an oddly constricted view of the uses and pleasures of the canon. Nor do I think he actually believed it: it turns aesthetics into therapy, and reduces value to function. But then any work that can bring one "the proper use of one's own solitude" would do, except, of course, if you define "proper" a priori as the sort of use one can only get from the high-brow canon.

Anyway, pleasurably connecting with the superior creativity of other minds is surely another thing the canon can bring. Forget solitude and mortality.

rhhardin said...

Oh and Ruin the Sacred Truths, too.

rhhardin said...

The classics are mostly dead, in the sense of Nietzche's God is dead - they no longer work for us, the idiom is gone. They can still be the basis of really tedious required courses, though. Hence the awful novels we had to read in high school.

The way to appreciate Shakespeare is to read people who can read Shakespeare - I'd say Cavell would be the best, in Must We Mean What We Say. And so forth. Derrida was a virtuoso reader, a way into countless authors, too.

Or read Bloom, though his nonreligious stuff doesn't grab me.

Vicki Hearne in Animal Happiness chides Bloom on the book of Job, suspecting that Bloom is afraid of horses, and that accounts for his misreading what God was plainly saying.

Unknown said...

The only person I can think of that would buy something titled "The White Man's Guide" (to anything) would be some hipster idiot who only wants to display it prominently, even if ironically, on his bookshelf and never crack it open even once.

The title DEFIES you to read it if you're actually a white man.

rcocean said...

In order to be part of Western Civilization you need to know Western Civilization.

n.n said...

Without principles and diversity. Who is opportunistic and indulges color judgment?

rhhardin said...

In order to be part of Western Civilization you need to know Western Civilization.

The first western civilization is taken broadly and the second western civilization is taken narrowly.

"X is X" is not a tautology. (Wm. Empson, The Structure of Complex Words)

mikee said...

Rabelais specifically warned readers that his literary work was mere entertainment, not meant for anything other than losing a few hours of time. Read him at your peril, you might enjoy your time with him.

Fernandistein said...

The reception of aesthetic power enables us to learn how to talk to ourselves and how to endure ourselves.

Sure, whatever - go for it dude!

Anthony said...

I'd never read it before, but I just downloaded it. Thanks for that.

Myself, I hated Literature in school, both high school and undergrad. Strangely, after graduating and heading to grad school, I became addicted to it. Probably read The Scarlet Letter three times since. Just reading the words is enjoyable to me. Never thought much of poetry either but I consume that a lot (pre-20th century, natch).

Still can't get into Joyce though. Shakespeare is difficult for me, too. But I try.

William said...

I don't think Bloom will ever be a canonical literary critic. They come and go. Samuel Johnson is the only one I can think of right now. They're trying to give Freud a fall back position as a literary critic, but only the critics with unresolved Mommy issues will ever fall for that.....I think you can lead a cultivated and informed life without ever reading Milton or Chaucer, but you're cheating yourself out of a lot if you don't muddle through Shakespeare. I'm currently going through his plays. After you get used to the inverted word order and pick up some of the vocabulary, it's great stuff....Our lives are pretty much an unbroken series of inconsequential events. We struggle to find some way to give significance and beauty to those events. Reading Shakespeare helps and is so much cheaper and easier than taking a bike trip across the Sahara. It is, I would argue, a potent way of finding ruffles and glitter in the shoddy....It's also a good way to hide from political correctness.

William said...

There's a certain amount of churn in the canon. Has anyone here read Horace or Ovid? All the dons used to know passages by heart. Pompous flows the don.....In the nineteenth century, every well read person had read Milton. In my lifetime English majors had to read him in college.

Lawrence Person said...

As someone who's reading Motherless Brooklyn right now, I'm getting a kick out of these replies...

Nichevo said...

"X is X" is not a tautology.


If not, then what is?

Phidippus said...

rhhardin @2:40 PM: "The classics are mostly dead, in the sense of Nietzche's God is dead - they no longer work for us, the idiom is gone."

Are you serious? Or are you quoting some 20th-century French academic philosopher?

If nothing else, reading classic literature ("the canon") gives us the opportunity to know something of the mind of the writer. That goes for even for great writing that is not necessarily literary in intent. It is a salve for loneliness and a reminder that human nature is unchanging in time and space, and flawed.

Perhaps I am deluded, but I feel greatly enriched to have known in a small way Marcus Aurelius, Thucydides, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, H.L. Mencken, Richard Feynmann, Malcolm Lowry, U.S. Grant, Winston Churchill, and countless others. Not to mention Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, Theodore Roethke, and Robert Frost.

Perhaps Bloom loads a bit too much freight onto the notion of the importance of literature, but his point is not entirely without merit. Just because our government-run schools are dedicated to indoctrination and general enstupidification of their hapless victims doesn't mean the latter aren't missing out on some of the things that can make life worth living (at least conditionally).

Anthony (re: Joyce): Try "Dubliners" if you have not already done so.

Mitch H. said...

Harold Bloom was always the lesser Bloom. His limp-wristed aesthetic approach to literature was always weak and feeble, and in a generation, he'll be as forgotten as a hundred literary manques of his type from the Victorian era onwards. His aesthetic, psychiatric approach to art was rudderless and useless for his readers. Anyone who tries to use it to guide themselves will inevitably find themselves washed up on a lee shore.

Bilwick said...

"The classics are mostly dead, in the sense of Nietzche's God is dead - they no longer work for us, the idiom is gone."


A thousand frat boys in backwards baseball caps rise up and in a single voice second this statement with a resounding "F*ckin' A!"