from Think Journal, Winter 2010
In The Western Canon (Macmillan, London, 1995) Harold Bloom expresses the view that Western literature as we once knew it is approaching its last end. In an elegiac opening chapter, he maintains that the reign of aesthetic value is in terminal decline, while the reign of political and moral values has begun in earnest and is now effectively triumphant. Plato's new republic is upon us, at least at the cultural level, which is to say that art and literature have been brought fully within the sphere of influence of all those ubiquitous ideologues who know what is good for us and who are remorseless in imposing their vision of the good on us. We are, he claims, destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences, "in the name of social justice" (p. 35). The grand old idea of aesthetic, artistic, or literary worth has given way to the triumphalist new idea of moral and political worthiness. By way of exemplifying the extent to which ideological reading can go, he refers with not a little incredulity to Frank Lentricchia's claim that Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar" may be interpreted as a political poem, a poem about power, a poem that supposedly gives expression to the program of the dominant social class, because "the art of placing a jar was, for Stevens, allied to the art of flower arranging" (p. 32).
Determined to go down fighting, Bloom declares the existence of an absolute opposition between ideology and aesthetics, insisting that ideologues do not make good readers, regardless of how worthy their moral or political convictions may be. Ideologues are in fact the worst kinds of readers, at least as far the reading of literature is concerned, mainly because they are unable to give literature its full and proper due. By their own account, ideologues are as concerned as they are with ideology because it is so socially and culturally pervasive that nothing is immune to its influence, not even art and literature, from which it follows (for them) that art and literature should be judged ideologically as well as aesthetically, and certainly cannot be judged on aesthetic grounds alone. To respond merely aesthetically is to respond irresponsibly, unethically, antisocially, even inhumanly. In defiance of this position, Bloom argues that the aesthetic is always an individual rather than a societal or ideological concern. The good reader, unlike the ideologically motivated reader, does not read "in order to expiate a social guilt, but to enlarge a solitary existence" (p. 518). Bloom goes so far as to suggest that to read ideologically "is not ... to read at all" (p. 29). A poem cannot be read as a poem if it is read primarily as a social document of some sort. The greater the work, the greater should be the irrelevance of any ideological considerations. In the case of King Lear, for example—which Bloom places at "the center of centers" of canonical excellence—we should find that "the flames of invention burn away all context and grant us the possibility of what could be called primal aesthetic value, free of history and ideology and available to whoever can be educated to read and view it" (p. 65).
Bloom's ideology-sensitive critics will say that he is naively oblivious of the nature and extent of his own ideological assumptions and commitments. They will remind him that an ideology is at its most effective when it is working unconsciously or when it remains implicit in texts and practices. Most of Bloom's critics would identify his unacknowledged but implicit ideology as liberal humanism, and they would have no difficulty in hermeneutically scanning the text of The Western Canon for evidence of its presence. These critics have a point. Despite the fact that Bloom believes himself to be providing a purely aesthetic, non-ideological conception of literature, it is surprisingly easy to show that his conception is an aesthetically impure one. It may look as if Bloom is thinking in terms of a high-minded aestheticism or formalism when he speaks of the final aim of literary study as "the search for a kind of value that transcends the particular prejudices and needs of societies at fixed points in time" (p. 62). It may look as if he is defining this transcendent value as purely and formally aesthetic when he declares that works of such excellence as Lear "burn away all context" and bring us to a state of "primal aesthetic value, free of history and ideology." But there are other passages in which it soon becomes clear that he is not just endorsing purely formal aesthetic values but also endorsing the sorts of humane or humanistic values that are integral to the ideology of liberal humanism. We find that literature is important to Bloom not merely or primarily because it is an ecstatic or disinterested escape from life, but because it makes a real difference to the life of the individual mortal self—a difference to the life of the sort of reader who is interested in "enlarging a solitary existence" (p. 518). What he values in Shakespeare especially is not just the playwright's formal or linguistic achievements but also the human truths that these achievements serve to tell. The formal effort is ultimately in the service of the telling of human truths, and is recognized as the great achievement it is precisely because it enables such truths to be so effectively—so dramatically, so poetically—told. Bloom, when he lets slip his aestheticist mask, explicitly states that the peculiar magnificence of Shakespeare lies not simply in his command of language, impressive as it is, but "in his power of representation of human character and personality and their mutabilities" (p. 63). The effect of such representation is to show us 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. . . 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 (p. 30).
Theorists of ideology will be quick to scan such a passage with a view to exposing its barely-concealed ideological assumptions. They will be quick to demonstrate the extent to which Bloom himself is indeed an "interested" rather than a disinterested reader after all—that he has values that are not just formally aesthetic ones. These theorists will cheerfully point out that the very value that Bloom attaches to the concept of the self has its origins in the ideology of liberal humanism. Even while Bloom declares that to read in the service of any ideology is not to read at all, his critics will turn the tables on him and argue that he too reads in the service of an unacknowledged ideology—that very ideology that values the human self and seeks to preserve it from subsumption in larger social forces. The liberalism of liberal humanism consists in its assuming the existence of a relatively free and autonomous self, a self that has rights vis-à-vis the larger community. It is assumed that the self, even as it is formed in and by society, will function at its best if it is determined to remain relatively autonomous and resist absorption into larger collectives. The humanism of liberal humanism consists in the assumption that there is a universal human nature that pre-exists or transcends social, cultural, and historical constraints, and that is the subject-matter of all great literature, whether it hails from classical Greece, from eighth-century China, from medieval England, or from modern America. Uniquely individual selves are able to communicate, albeit sometimes with difficulty, because they share certain recognizably human needs, dispositions, and vulnerabilities, regardless of the extent to which these have been refracted through culture, history, and individual inheritance. The irreducible difference and individuality of the self, emphasized in the liberal part of Bloom's implicit ideology, is positively and necessarily compromised in the second part. Selves are unique and differ necessarily from each other, but they are human selves all the same; literature itself begins as an expression of unique subjectivity and self-difference but succeeds in communicating as much as it does precisely because it is grounded in a dramatically recognizable repertoire of universal human experiences and yearnings.
Let us assume that the ideology-detectors are correct. Let us assume that liberal humanism is indeed an ideology, and that Bloom's (impure) aesthetic is deeply informed by it. Let us assume that Bloom is to some extent naive about the pervasiveness of his preferred ideology, especially about the extent to which it has shaped his own views. Would Bloom have to completely surrender his conception of literature if he were to acknowledge the thoroughgoing influence of a liberal humanist ideology on this defense of the canon? No, I want to argue. It is perfectly possible for a defender of the canon to accept that the aesthetic that lies behind the Western canon is ideological after all—in other words, that the ideology in question is indeed liberal humanism, and that there is an "elective affinity" between the Western canon (and some other canons, arguably) and liberal humanism. It is arguable that the world's emerging literary canons, as we now understand and value them in our Western institutions, have been largely shaped by liberal humanist assumptions—to such an extent, indeed, that we can no longer even define what a poem or a novel is without resorting at some point to liberal humanist criteria and values. The aesthetic and the literary are indeed ideological in the sense that—and to the degree that—there is a mutually supportive rapport between literary practice and a network of assumptions about the nature of the self and humanity. A critical supporter of Bloom can go so far as to argue that liberal humanism is the only ideology that gives literature its due, just because it is the only ideology that values the self and primal human experience as the sources and subject-matter of literature—that highlights the all-too-recognizable human strengths and weaknesses, the virtues and vices, lurking behind, for example, the masks and posturings of kings or queens in a Shakespearean play, or behind the unspeakable disappointments of officers or officials in a Chekhov story, or behind the hard lives of the dispossessed in a Dickens novel.
In a world troubled by divisively anti-humanist ideologies such as racism, sexism, and religious sectarianism literature reminds liberal humanists of their commitment to the concept of a shared nature and a shared human fate, albeit in fairly broad senses of those already broad terms. Liberal humanism in turn makes literature politically as well as culturally relevant to the extent that it succeeds in presenting readers with powerful and poignant reminders of their shared humanity, thus counteracting the appeal of more sectional or sectarian philosophies, including the kinds that make their way into lesser forms of popular art and literature. Instead of abandoning the high moral ground to the campaigners for social justice, the liberal humanists should stake a claim there, the better to oppose any ideology that would absorb the human self into larger wholes or that would seek to introduce vicious new divisions into human thinking. Liberal humanism does not, of course, have the answer to everything, but it does have a uniquely honorable and defensible position on some things, especially matters cultural, artistic and literary.
A postscript on literature and selfhood
There is one important respect in which Bloom's defensiveness about the Western canon does not quite square with his implicit liberal-humanist conception of selfhood. I have already acknowledged that there is a necessary tension within liberal humanism itself between the individualistic, self-regarding focus of the liberal part of the ideology and the universalist, other-regarding tenor of its humanistic part. Ironically, the part to which Bloom gives insufficient attention is the liberal, self-regarding part. When he focuses on particular works, such as King Lear, he waxes liberal; but when he considers the canon as a whole he waxes humanist. When he is in this latter mode he is at his most didactic, presenting the canon as an all or nothing affair that will benefit everyone who comes into contact with it. The more we enter into the canon the more enlarged will our selves become. But this unqualified defensiveness about the canon ignores the difference and individuality of the very selves about which Bloom is so defensive in other contexts. By giving due attention to this tension he would come to realize that the canon as a whole cannot be equally meaningful, equally pertinent, equally enriching for every uniquely individual self who engages with it. Precisely because different readers bring different unique clusters of biological, psychological, and social elements to bear on the variety of texts that constitute the local canon, they cannot be expected to respond uniformly to the canon as a whole. Individually unique selves are very certainly not clones of some underlying Platonic human form, which is what they would have to be in order to have a uniformly or universally appreciative response to the contents of the canon. It is clear that individual, self-enlarging readers will find themselves responding variously, both interpretively and appreciatively, to the texts of the canon, and are likely therefore to differ on what should be placed at its "center of centers." There is, of course, enough shared humanity to make communication possible across linguistic, cultural, and generational boundaries, but not so much as to compromise the sometimes irreducible differences that exist between selves, including selves who emerge out of the same culture or community. This is why we have people who strongly prefer Emily Dickinson to Walt Whitman, and vice versa; or people who prefer Thomas Hardy to Henry James, and vice versa; or people who prefer fiction to poetry, and vice versa. All are drawing from the canon according to their individual needs and quests, but it would be a denial of selfhood for any reader to think that he or she must respond with equal appreciation to everything in the canon, or to agree on what should lie at its center, or even to confine themselves within the boundaries of one canon.
About the Author
Thomas Duddy teaches Philosophy in the School of Humanities at the National University of Ireland, Galway. His publications include A History of Irish Thought (Routledge, 2002) and, as editor, A Dictionary of Irish Philosophers (Continuum, 2004). He has published poems in Irish and British periodicals, including Poetry Ireland Review, Smiths Knoll, The Dark Horse, and The Rialto. In 2006, his poetry chapbook, The Small Hours, was published by Happenstance Press.
Editor: Christine Yurick