‘Preface and Prelude’ to Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon
In the 'Preface and Prelude' to his famous book, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Bloom defends the Western canonical literature from its enemies – who are out to destroy all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences, in the name of social justice. These enemies are the ‘Feminists, Marxists, Lacanians, New Historicists, Deconstructionists, Semioticians’ - all of whom Bloom gathers under the controversial epithet, ‘the School of Resentment.’
The Western Canon is more of an elegy that sings praises to the realm of the purely ‘aesthetic’ and the ‘imaginative’ in literature, and a vehement attack on the ‘destroyers’ of the canon – literary theorists who disrupted the aesthetic experience of literature with the futile advocacy of ‘politics’ and ‘multicultural pluralism’.
The 'Twenty Six' Western Canonical Writers
Bloom defends his choice of 26 canonical writers, from Dante to Beckett. When choosing these 26 writers, he says that, he has represented national canons by their crucial, important literary figures, and the famous five for England are – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Dickens. The other eminent writers who form part of the Western Canon are – Samuel Johnson, who is considered the greatest of Western literary critics, apart from Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Sigmund Freud, James Joyce, Kafka, Neruda, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, George Eliot, etc.
What makes an Author Canonical? Their Strangeness and Originality
After a survey over a lifetime's vast reading, Bloom chooses for discussion these twenty-six authors from Dante to Beckett who have enriched his reading and his life. To him, strangeness is the first quality that makes an author canonical. Strangeness, to Bloom, is a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange. Walter Pater defined Romanticism as ‘adding strangeness to beauty…’ Likewise, when one reads a canonical work for the first time they encounter a stranger, an ‘uncanny startlement’ and their ability to make you feel strange at home.
Shakespeare’s Powers of Assimilation and Contamination
Bloom attacks the Cultural Materialist, New Historicist and Feminist criticism of Shakespeare that have moved away from appreciating the aesthetic merit and supremacy of his work, and instead reduced him to the social energies of the Renaissance. Bloom dubs these practitioners who work against the canon as the ‘School of Resentment’, because they always seek to destroy and to overthrow the Canon in order to advance their ‘supposed’ programmes for social change.
The J Writer – As the ‘Original Author’ of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers
Bloom's Book Of J, does more than stake out a claim for the J writer as one of the giants in Western literary history. According to Bloom, the "normative" interpretation of the Pentateuch is due to subsequent revisions, and is wholly absent in the earliest writer, the J writer.
Instead what we get from the Book of J (newly translated from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg, his translation of the text forming the middle portion of this book) is a writer of sublime irony; a writer with close affinities to Shakespeare or Kafka. J was not a religious writer. Her depiction of Yahweh should be considered blasphemous by believers in the normative tradition.
That the J writer spends about six times more space covering the creation of woman than she did the creation of man is but one indication that the J writer was a woman. According to Bloom, the Book of J was probably written in the generation after Solomon (c. 9th Century B.C.E.), as Jeroboam and Rehoboam were dividing the grand Israelite empire of David and Solomon. J was probably a woman of the Solomonic court, well versed in literature, Bathesheba or the queen mother, a Hittite woman taken by David the king after he arranged for her husband, Uriah, to die in battle.
Bloom appreciates the ‘canon-making originality’ of the J Writer, for her ‘many grand inventions’, and Bloom also alludes that, the Western worship of God by Jews, Muslims and Christians, is the worship of a literary character – J’s Yahweh, which eulogises her canonical strangeness.
The Anxiety of Influence
The Anxiety of Influence is a critical concept that was coined by Bloom to denote the influence of extraliterary experience on every poet. He argues that ‘the poet in a poet’ is inspired to write by reading another poet's poetry and will tend to produce work that is in danger of being derivative of existing poetry, from which arises the anxiety. Since, any strong literary work creatively misreads and therefore misinterprets a precursor text or texts.
William Shakespeare: His ‘Originality’
To Bloom, Shakespeare occupies the prominent central place in the Western Canon because he was literally untouched and free from the anxiety of influence, as it was Shakespeare who wrote the best prose and the best poetry in the Western tradition. Originality in imaginative literature is not about being completely original, but it is about the ‘depth of inwardness’ in a strong writer, which wards off the massive weight of precursor texts. Therefore, originals are not original, but as the Emersonian irony points out, ‘the inventor knows how to borrow’.
Whitman and Dickinson
Both Whitman and Dickinson are accorded high praise. ‘No Western poet,’ Bloom asserts, ‘in the past century and a half, not even Browning or Leopardi or Baudelaire, overshadows Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson’ - a claim so apparently important it is rephrased thus, where Bloom writes, ‘Nothing in the second half of the nineteenth century or in our now almost completed century matches Whitman's work in direct power and sublimity, except perhaps for Dickinson.’
True literature lies in the ‘desire to be elsewhere’, to be ‘different from oneself’, and from one’s heritage. The desire to write greatly is the desire to be elsewhere in an originality that must add up with the anxiety of influence. Thus Bloom, following his master, Emerson puts the individual firmly at the center, arguing that ‘the individual self is the only method and the whole standard for apprehending aesthetic value.’ Vehemently attacking the School of Resentment as charlatans, Bloom defends the aesthetic values of canonical Western literature against their ‘ideological attacks’, by saying that, ‘To read in the service of any ideology is not to read at all.’
Primary Source Text:-
Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. NY: Harcourt, 1994. Print.
With inputs from:-
French, R. W. “Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon [review].” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 12 (Fall 1994), 117-120. Print.