You are curious—Harold Bloom is one of the most important and influential literary critics, especially in the culture wars. This blog post is not about the culture wars, the debates surrounding the Western canon, but about some of my thoughts upon reading Bloom’s The Western Canon.
1/ On Shakespeare:
In the chapter “An Elegy for the Canon”, Bloom says:
“Shakespeare and his few peers, who after all, invented all of us.”
“Shakespeare, as we like to forget, largely invented us; if you add the rest of the Canon, then Shakespeare and the Canon wholly invented us.” (ibid.)
What does he mean? Who is “us”? What does “invent” mean in this context? He doesn’t say. I’m aware that he wrote Shakespeare: The Invention of Human and it may (or may not) have the answer I’m looking for, but it was published in 1998, 4 years after The Western Canon, so for 4 years at least people wouldn’t have known what he meant.
Let’s look at something else:
“Falstaff in the marvelous course of his stage fortunes has provoked a chorus of moralizing. Some of the finest critics and speculators have been particularly nasty; their epithets have included “parasite,” “coward,” “braggart,” “corrupter,” “seducer,” as well as the merely palpable “glutton,” “drunkard,” and “whorer.” My favorite judgment is George Bernard Shaw’s “a besotted and disgusting old wretch,” a reaction I generously attribute to Shaw’s secret realization that he could not match Falstaff in wit, and so could not prefer his own mind to Shakespeare’s with quite the ease and confidence he so frequently asserted. Shaw, like all of us, could not confront Shakespeare without a realization antithetical to itself, the recognition of both strangeness and familiarity at once.” (Chapter “Shakespeare, Center of the Canon”)
Now what does Bloom mean? Is he saying that Falstaff is, to him, not a parasite, coward, braggart, corrupter, glutton, drunkard, etc.? What does wit have to do with it? Is Falstaff none of these things because he has wit?
But he doesn’t explain, and moves onto something else.
“… not being a Shakespeare scholar, I have no inhibition in surmising that Malvolio in Twelfth Night is a satire upon some Jonsonian moral stances, and that Edmund in King Lear is a nihilistic vision founded upon aspects of not only Marlovian heroes but Marlowe himself.” (ibid.)
I have neither read Ben Jonson nor Christopher Marlowe. What does he mean?
These are the following sentences:
“Neither figure lacks appeal; Malvolio is a comic victim in Twelfth Night, yet we feel he has wandered into the wrong play. Elsewhere, he would prosper and retain his dignity and self-esteem. Edmund is where he belongs, out-Iagoing Iago in the abyss of Lear’s ruined cosmos. You have to be Goneril or Regan to love him, but all of us might find him dangerously engaging, free of hypocrisy, and asserting his and our responsibility for whatever it is we become.” (ibid.)
That doesn’t clarify anything, does it? In fact, it creates more questions, like what does he mean that Malvolio “has wandered into the wrong play”? I have no idea.
In the next paragraph, Bloom says:
“Edmund has drive, grand wit, enormous intellect, and an icy joy, carrying his high spirits into the ranks of death. […] Edmund carries the Marlovian Machiavel to a new sublimity and is at once an ironic tribute to Marlowe and a triumphant overcoming of the great overreacher. Like Malvolio, Edmund is an equivocal tribute but ultimately a testimony to Shakespearean generosity, albeit ironical.” (ibid.)
That may partly (only partly) explain what he means about Edmund being “founded upon aspects of not only Marlovian heroes but Marlowe himself”, but the last 2 sentences in the paragraph again create more questions: what does “a triumphant overcoming of the great overreacher” mean? What does the line about “Shakespearean generosity, albeit ironical” mean? He hasn’t explained what he means about Malvolio either. But he moves onto something else.
Now look at this:
“There are no great biographies of Shakespeare, not because we do not know enough but because there is not enough to know.” (ibid.)
Certainly Shakespeare’s life seems to be less eventful and exciting than Marlowe’s, but what does Bloom mean that “there is not enough to know”? We know very little about his life, there are mysteries and unanswered (and unanswerable) questions, there are a few seeming contradictions, and I think lots of fans would like to know more about his life or at least know the answers to those questions.
Later on, when Bloom’s talking about why Shakespeare’s the greatest of writers, he says:
“Shakespeare […] saw “nature” through clashing perspectives, those of Lear and Edmund in the most sublime of the tragedies, of Hamlet and Claudius in another, of Othello and Iago in yet another. You cannot hold a mirror up to any of these natures, or persuade yourself convincingly that your sense of reality is more comprehensive than that of Shakespearean tragedy. There are no literary works that go beyond Shakespeare’s in reminding you that nothing can be like a play except another play, while at the same time intimating that a tragic idea is not just like another tragic idea (though it may be) but is also like a person, or like change in a person, or like the final form of personal change, which is death.
The meaning of a word is always another word, for words are more like other words than they can be like persons or things, but Shakespeare hints frequently that words are more like persons than they are like things. Shakespearean representation of character has a preternatural richness about it because no other writer, before or since, gives us a stronger illusion that each character speaks with a different voice from the others.” (ibid.)
Perhaps I’m slow, but what is he saying? I have no idea.
Besides, I think Shakespeare’s a terrific writer of characters not only because each character has a different voice (you can say the same about Jane Austen’s characters), but because a) his characters are complex, multifaceted and they change over time; b) he creates a wide range of characters of different sexes, different classes, and different backgrounds; c) his characters can be interpreted in multiple ways; d) Shakespeare speaks in so many different voices and the characters and the plays are so different in vision and ideology that we cannot know his real views, etc. In order to write about Shakespeare’s genius for characters, I would have to write a long post and examine several characters in detail, but my point is that Shakespeare is a great writer of characters for many reasons, not only that each character has a distinct voice.
Bloom must have known it, but he didn’t say. He also says that Shakespeare’s main strength is in his characters, after saying:
“Shakespeare’s command of language, though overwhelming, is not unique and is capable of imitation.” (ibid.)
That’s not true either. Shakespeare’s a poet as much as a playwright, and if there were nothing special about his language, as Bloom seems to be saying, then why have so many of Shakespeare’s phrases entered the English language and are still commonly used today?
It’s not just language and characters that make Shakespeare the greatest of writers—he excels in tragedies and comedies and histories and romances (and sonnets), and the plays have very different visions. Just place the delightful and whimsical A Midsummer Night’s Dream next to the unbearably tragic Othello, or the tragic but exuberant Romeo and Juliet next to the bleak and cheerless King Lear, etc. and you can see.
Back to Bloom, he makes lots of assertions in the chapter without clarifying his meaning or backing them up with something from the text. Tony Tanner, currently my favourite Shakespeare critic, always makes himself clear and uses evidence from the text to back it up. I don’t know what Bloom means about a character being a free artist of himself, for instance. Nor do I know what he means when saying “And despite Tolstoy’s furious polemics against Shakespeare, his own art depends on a Shakespearean sense of character, both in his two great novels and in the late masterpiece, the short novel Hadji Murad”—what is “a Shakespearean sense of character”? How does Tolstoy’s art depend on it? He doesn’t say, and the next line is about Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev.
2/ On Jane Austen:
“Henry James insisted that the novelist must be a sensibility upon which absolutely nothing is lost; by that test (clearly a limited one) only Austen, George Eliot, and James himself, among all those writing in English, would join Stendhal, Flaubert, and Tolstoy in a rather restricted pantheon. Anne Elliot may well be the one character in all of prose fiction upon whom nothing is lost, though she is in no danger of turning into a novelist.” (Chapter “Canonical Memory in Early Wordsworth and Jane Austen’s Persuasion”)
Assuming I get it right that “nothing is lost” means nothing escapes her and she sees through everyone, how is Anne Elliot “the one character in all of prose fiction” with that quality? In Jane Austen’s oeuvre alone, there is another character: Fanny Price from Mansfield Park.
A few paragraphs later, Bloom mentions her:
“I like to turn Barber’s point in the other direction: more even than Hamlet or Falstaff, or than Elizabeth Bennet, or than Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, Rosalind and Anne Elliot are almost completely poised, nearly able to see all around the play and the novel. Their poise cannot transcend perspectivizing completely, but Rosalind’s wit and Anne’s sensibility, both balanced and free of either excessive aggressivity or defensiveness, enable them to share more of their creators’ poise than we ever come to do.” (ibid.)
Of course Anne is more perceptive than Elizabeth Bennet—the whole point of the novel is that Elizabeth is proud and prejudiced, and she misjudges character, though not as badly as Emma Woodhouse. But how is Fanny Price less perceptive than Anne Elliot? Fanny sees through the Crawfords, notices the game Henry plays with Maria and Julia, notices the pain of Julia and Mr Rushworth that everyone else overlooks, recognises the disappointment of Maria that leads her to marry Mr Rushworth, understands everyone in the novel including herself, etc.
In the chapter, Harold Bloom uses over and over again the phrase “the Protestant will”.
“Anne Elliot is the last of Austen’s heroines of what I think we must call the Protestant will, but in her the will is modified, perhaps perfected, by its descendant, the Romantic sympathetic imagination, of which Wordsworth, as we have seen, was the prophet.” (ibid.)
“Jane Austen’s earlier heroines, of whom Elizabeth Bennet is the exemplar, manifested the Protestant will as direct descendants of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe, with Dr. Samuel Johnson hovering nearby as moral authority.” (ibid.)
“Austen was, however, immensely interested in the pragmatic and secular consequences of the Protestant will, and they seem to me a crucial element in helping us appreciate the heroines of her novels.” (ibid.)
But what does it mean? I have no idea. He mentions “the Protestant will” earlier in the chapter, when discussing Wordsworth:
“You could argue that Margaret’s hope is a secularization of Protestant hope, which was a function of the Protestant will. That will turned upon the individual soul’s self-esteem and on the allied right of private judgment in spiritual realms, including the assertion of the inner light, by which each man and woman read and interpreted the Bible for himself or herself.” (ibid.)
Is that meant to be an explanation of the phrase? I cannot say, but assuming that it is, what does it have to do with Jane Austen? If it is not, what does the phrase mean?
Throughout the chapter, Bloom doesn’t really argue why Jane Austen is one of the greatest novelists of all time and why she deserves to be part of the Western canon either. The only thing I note is this:
“Austen has a good measure of Shakespeare’s unmatched ability to give us persons, both major and minor, who are each utterly consistent in her or his separate mode of speech, and yet completely different from one another.” (ibid.)
That is not enough to say about her genius, but note the Shakespeare comparison. Earlier he says:
“Austen’s irony is very Shakespearean. Even the reader must fall into the initial error of undervaluing Anne Elliot. The wit of Elizabeth Bennet or of Rosalind is easier to appreciate than Anne Elliot’s accurate sensibility.” (ibid.)
What does it mean that her irony is Shakespearean? The following sentences do not elaborate on it.
He compares again later:
“Austen’s Shakespearean inwardness, culminating in Anne Elliot, revises the moral intensities of Clarissa Harlowe’s secularized Protestant martyrdom, her slow dying after being raped by Lovelace.” (ibid.)
What does “Shakespearean inwardness” mean?
3/ On Tolstoy:
In the chapter about Tolstoy, Harold Bloom spends some time talking about his faith, then focuses on Hadji Murad, which he calls the greatest story in the world. He also calls it “Tolstoy’s most Shakespearean story in its gallery of rich characterizations, in the extraordinary range of its dramatic sympathies, above all in the representation of change in its central protagonist.” (Chapter “Tolstoy and Heroism”)
Here he does clarify what he means about “most Shakespearean story”, but he doesn’t when he later says:
“His strongest character, Anna Karenina, has profound strains of Shakespeare in her, for which Tolstoy, who loves her, will not forgive her.” (ibid.)
What are the “profound strains of Shakespeare” in Anna? I don’t know. He goes on:
“Since it is not hyperbolical to observe that Tolstoy actually hated Shakespeare, it is only just to add that he also feared him.” (ibid.)
Again, he doesn’t explain why he thinks Tolstoy fears Shakespeare. At least George Orwell, in his response to Tolstoy’s essay on Shakespeare, argues that the two writers have different visions and approaches to literature, and that Tolstoy sees himself in Lear.
“Hadji Murad is the grandest exception in late Tolstoy, for here the old shaman rivals Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s extraordinary faculty for endowing even the most minor characters with exuberant being, for ramming them with life, is slyly absorbed by Tolstoy. Everyone in Hadji Murad is vividly individualized […] The catalog seems endless, as in a major Shakespearean play.” (ibid.)
Hadji Murad may be compared to Shakespeare because it is purer than Tolstoy’s other works in the sense that it’s devoid of moralising, but it is not unique in that every character is vividly individualised—the same can be said about Anna Karenina, War and Peace, or other works by Tolstoy.
Clearly Bloom uses Shakespeare as the standard against which to measure all writers. I love Shakespeare, but don’t writers have different strengths and powers?
“For once, like Shakespeare, Tolstoy speaks through a voice not at all his own and enacts the great role of Hadji Murad, the natural man as epic hero.” (ibid.)
I’m confused—it’s not just Hadji Murad, Tolstoy is considered by many people to be the greatest novelist because he can inhabit the minds of many characters who are all different from each other and different from himself, and he seems to do it better than anyone else. What does Bloom mean “for once”?
This is the conclusion of the chapter:
“Hadji Murad is the best there is in his universe—whether Caucasian or Russian—at every attribute that matters: daring, horsemanship, resourcefulness, leadership, vision of reality. No other hero of epic or saga, ancient or modern, is quite equal to him, or nearly as likable. As Hadji Murad dies, he is purged of pity, anger, and desire. And so is Tolstoy. And so are we. That Tolstoy, of all writers, could imagine a death at once so appropriate and so unlike his own dread of death is an unexpected and reassuring triumph for aesthetic dignity. Whatever we take the canonical to be, Hadji Murad centers it in the Democratic Age.” (ibid.)
Even if we don’t question the bit about other heroes not being as likable as Hadji Murad, how does this argue for Tolstoy’s place in the Western canon?
As a final word, I love the Western canon, and generally agree with Harold Bloom when he’s talking about the canon or about canonisation in general. It’s when he’s talking about specific writers or specific works that I have problems with him—not necessarily because of disagreement, but often because I can neither agree nor disagree because I have no idea what he means.