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The Western Canon

Excerpts from two reviews of this book are also available.

Canon book cover

This book argues that aesthetic value is autonomous of both morality and politics. It also insists that aesthetic originality is the only qualification for inclusion in the Canon of Western literature. To illustrate his thesis, Bloom selects 26 representative European and American writers, ranging chronologically from Shakespeare to Beckett, and discusses how each achieves aesthetic distinction. In the book's appendices, Bloom also details The Western Canon more fully, listing writers and their canonical works in four chronological periods: the Theocratic Age (from the ancient Near East to the Middle Ages), the Aristocratic Age (from Dante to Goethe), the Democratic Age (the nineteenth century) and the Chaotic Age (the twentieth century).


aesthetic autonomy
I feel quite alone these days in defending the autonomy of the aesthetic, but its best defense is the experience of reading King Lear and then seeing the play well performed. King Lear does not derive from a crisis in philosophy, nor can its power be explained away as a mystification somehow promoted by the bourgeois institutions. It is a mark of the degeneracy of literary study that one is considered an eccentric for holding that the literary is not dependent upon the philosophical, and that the aesthetic is irreducible to ideology or to metaphysics. Aesthetic criticism returns us to the autonomy of imaginative literature and the sovereignty of the solitary soul, the reader not as a person in society but as the deep self, our ultimate inwardness.

The silliest way to defend the Western Canon is to insist that it incarnates all of the seven deadly moral virtues that make up our supposed range of normative values and democratic principles. This is palpably untrue...The West's greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own. Scholars who urge us to find the source of our morality and our politics in Plato, or in Isaiah, are out of touch with the social reality in which we live. If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation. To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all.

What interests me more is the flight from the aesthetic among so many in my profession, some of whom at least began with the ability to experience aesthetic value. In Freud, flight is the metaphor for repression, for unconscious yet purposeful forgetting. The purpose is clear enough in my profession's flight: to assuage displaced guilt. Forgetting, in an aesthetic context, is ruinous, for cognition, in criticism, always relies on memory. Longinus would have said that pleasure is what the resenters have forgotten. Nietzsche would have called it pain; but they would have been thinking of the same experience upon the heights. Those who descend from there, lemminglike, chant the litany that literature is best explained as a mystification promoted by bourgeois institutions. This reduces the aesthetic to ideology, or at best to metaphysics. A poem cannot be read as a poem, because it is primarily a social document or, rarely yet possibly, an attempt to overcome philosophy. Against this approach I urge a stubborn resistance whose single aim is to preserve poetry as fully and purely as possible. Our legions who have deserted represent a strand in our traditions that has always been in flight from the aesthetic: Platonic moralism and Aristotelian social science. The attack on poetry either exiles it for being destructive of social well-being or allows it sufferance if it will assume the work of social catharsis under the banners of the new multiculturalism. Beneath the surfaces of academic Marxism, Feminism, and New Historicism, the ancient polemic of Platonism and the equally archaic Aristotelian social medicine continue to course on.

One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies. Dante is the largest instance of the first possibility, and Shakespeare, the overwhelming example of the second.

Canon of Western Literature
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 "cultural criticism," and in the name of that alliance cognition itself may doubtless yet acquire the stigma of the incorrect. Cognition cannot be placed 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 company. Mortality joins memory in the consciousness of reality-testing that the Canon induces. By its very nature, the Western Canon will never close, but it cannot be forced open by our current cheerleaders. Strength alone can open it up, the strength of a Freud or a Kafka, persistent in their cognitive negations.

© 1994, Harold Bloom. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994.


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