Thursday, 11 March 2021

Quarrelling with Harold Bloom

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: 

Let’s see: 

“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.)

And again: 

“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. 


  1. Ha! As a quasi-Bloom defender, I will try to take up the mantle here and defend him. Re the "invention" canard, yes, I agree with you that its kinda a nebulous phrase. I've read most of his Shakespeare book and TBH he doesn't really define it there either! When you come across something like that it's best to just kind of ignore it and focus on other stuff.

    (2) That Falstaff quote you read is pretty bad. Which is annoying because his analysis of the Henry IV plays is, I think, much better in his Shakespeare book. He actually has some pretty insightful things to say about Falstaff there, rather than the gobbledygook you quoted.

    (3) In general, his Shakespeare chapter in Western Canon is generally subpar compared to his "Invention of the Human" book. He does a much better job of explaining and, well, interpreting the plays there (with the exception of Hamlet, which he completely butchers in that book).

    The thing with Bloom is that you have to view him almost as two separate writers in one. There's "bad Bloom," which is on display primarily in the Western Canon and some of his other more recent books, where he really doesn't say anything and just confuses things. Then there is "good Bloom," where he actually offers interesting and insightful things. His book "Visionary Company" for instance really opened up the world of the English Romantic poets for me --- it was an invaluable companion to reading Wordsworth/Keats/Byron/Shelley. And in general I've found his Shakespeare book to be a good companion as well, with a few exceptions.

    1. "When you come across something like that it's best to just kind of ignore it and focus on other stuff."
      It's hard to ignore though. Like the idea about the Protestant will in Jane Austen, I've only mentioned a few examples but he mentions it a few more times and I don't know what he means and it gets in the way.
      What I've heard about the Shakespeare book is pretty bad.

  2. Also, Bloom does frequently contradict himself. To the extent he wrote “Shakespeare’s command of language, though overwhelming, is not unique and is capable of imitation” in Western Canon, I've also seen him (more appropriately) refer to Shakespeare as the greatest poet in the English language.

    1. In the chapter about Milton, Bloom does refer to Shakespeare as "the greatest poet in the language, perhaps in any language".
      Much as I love Shakespeare, the part about "in any language" is quite mad because poetry is about language and almost everything is lost in translation (I'm a bit extreme when it comes to poetry).

  3. I haven't read this book, but have read his book on SHakespeare "The Invention of the Human", and every feature of his writing you set out in detail is present there too There too, you get the ex-cathedra pronouncements, most of which are highly questionable and yet cannot be questioned because he has presented no argument with which one may engage; there too, you find usage of terms and concepts which have not been defined; there too, you find the refusal actually to engage with the text itself. This is everything literary criticism shouldn't be. I know he is admired because he stands up for the value of canonic works and literary traditions against fashionable detractors, but given how he goes about it, he may have done his cause more harm than good.

    1. I read 5 chapters in the book, and the ones I like are the 2 about the canon and canonisation in general, despite not agreeing with everything (I don't think we have the canon only because we are mortal).
      Generally I think I share Bloom's tastes, but in the chapters on individual authors, I don't think he argues particularly well about why they're the greatest writers and why they are part of the canon.

  4. Did you ever have a professor who sometimes just throws about a spray of ideas? They're not developed or supported but allowed to germinate on their own. What wonderful professors. Sometimes those ideas don't sink in for many years. Many obviously go nowhere.

    It is okay to not know what a writer means. I take this as a valid rhetorical mode, obviously different than the one you are looking for. It is the presentation of a critical sensibility, a personality.

    Doesn't Hazlitt have almost exactly the same rhetorical issues? Bloom is pretty explicitly in Hazlitt's tradition.

    I am puzzled, Himadri, by the assertion that the Shakespeare book does not engage with the text. It is full of Shakespeare's text, used in a Hazlitt-like manner.

    I will bet we can figure out what some of those obscure statements mean if we push back on them a little.

    1. Yes, I think that this is right. Bloom certainly has a tendency to make " ex-cathedra pronouncements," but as a reader I enjoy his spray of ideas. Of course not all of his ideas/pronouncements go somewhere, but I agree with you that when one of his ideas "clicks," it has more staying power than if he had neatly spelled it out.

      Re his Shakespeare book, I find that its strong point is not necessarily engaging in a close textual analysis of the play. But yeah, he certainly "engages" in the text to the extent that he quite liberally (almost too liberally) excerpts large chunks of the plays. And I definitely agree with you that there are similarities between him and Hazlitt (Bloom would likely view that as a compliment).

    2. Tom,
      I don't remember much about my professors/ lecturers back in Norway.
      "It is the presentation of a critical sensibility, a personality."
      That perhaps explains the cult following, but it doesn't interest me much.
      "Doesn't Hazlitt have almost exactly the same rhetorical issues?"
      Not exactly the same, no. If you look at the Hazlitt quote I put up on my post about Romeo and Juliet, I know what he means there. Hazlitt doesn't write the way Tony Tanner writes, for example, but he doesn't make me wonder what he really mean. There are some ideas in these chapters that he keeps repeating, like Shakespeare inventing the human, Jane Austen writing about the Protestant will, Tolstoy's characterisation being Shakespearean... so they feel central to what he's saying about the authors, but because I don't know what they mean, I don't know what he's saying about the writers and the books he's discussing.

    3. JMS,
      You should read Tony Tanner on Shakespeare.

    4. Yes - from what you have previously posted, Tanner does seem like a great resource/companion.

    5. Yeah, I didn't want to buy books for some time but I'm kinda collecting the Everyman collection of Shakespeare, which comes with Tony Tanner's introduction.

  5. I suppose every major critic has, in that sense, a "cult following." Wait until you read Walter Pater.

    Bloom defines "Protestant will" reasonably clearly on p. 230. Some of the concepts Bloom deals with are difficult. It took me years, for example, to identify and understand, in whatever limited sense I do, Gnosticism in literature.

    If you want a central Hazlitt concept to piece together, try "gusto." It is not immediately obvious what he means. I have to build the concept from his various uses.

    1. I have the e-book so the page number wouldn't work. Give me the passage?
      I agree that some of the concepts are difficult, but it's not only the concepts: like that passage about Falstaff isn't about a concept, or the bit about Malvolio. What is he saying? And I want to know why he thinks Anne Elliot is one "on whom nothing is lost" but Fanny Price isn't, because they both are perceptive, Fanny may be even sharper.

    2. The paragraph begins "You could argue that Margaret's hope is a secularization of Protestant hope, which was a function of the Protestant will."

      We can work on those passages, too. One at a time, though!

    3. But I still don't know what it means! I guess I'm slow. I don't understand it in the context of Jane Austen's novels.

    4. I have perhaps misunderstood the nature of the complaint. I take it for granted that I will not understand significant parts or more advanced literary criticism. Maybe also less advanced. This is a normal and useful part of studying literature.

  6. Have you read Auden's lectures on Shakespeare? They're quite clear and full of great observations, drawing together a lot of useful ideas.

    I believe that much of Bloom's language is vague and hyperbolic because many of his ideas were vague and hyperbolic. He was excited by this stuff, that certainly shows and who doesn't love enthusiasm for the arts, but I don't think Bloom was really sure why he was so excited by it. He wanted to say something important but didn't know what it was. We've all probably felt that way about art, but most of us don't get our hand-waving fannish babbling into print.

    I also think that the actual creative process was opaque to Bloom and he resented that, laboring to cast poets and playwrights in a mold he could understand, absolutely getting it wrong and filling the air with more excited but empty phrases. I have had professors who did that very thing, which I think is a kind of subconscious attempt to tear down the creative process. A desire to contribute, to be part of the art itself, and a resentment that the best one can do is point at it. Lots of people are perfectly happy pointing out what makes art great (or not great), but without the envy of the artist. But Bloom is always asking us to look at him, at his response, and to acknowledge that he is also an artist. Compare with, say, Berger's books about art. Berger puts himself and his reactions into his essays, but always to say something about the art itself. I don't find that in Bloom's writing.

    1. I haven't read Auden's lectures, will see if the public library has it.
      And hahaha you have strong opinions about Bloom.

    2. He really rubs me the wrong way. I have tried to tone it down for this comment.

    3. Hahahahhaa. What did you read, apart from The Anxiety of Influence?
      I might look at the Shakespeare book out of curiosity.

    4. I've also read The Western Canon and Hamlet, Poem Unlimited. And some of another book I can't remember. Canon is lack wacky in general than Anxiety, but I still find Bloom talking in circles. Take the passage about "Protestant will" you and Tom discuss above. Bloom clearly dismisses his own use of the term, halfway through the paragraph. The "Protestant" part of it seems like a subtle comment on the argument about received wisdom versus personal interpretation and having nothing to do with literature. Hope is the best part of Margaret, and that hope destroys her. Her hope is a "secularization" of Protestant hope, a "function" of Protestant will, which "turned on" the right of personal interpretation of religion. Bloom keeps a distance between Margaret's hope and "Protestant will," a distance made of undefined terms (secularization, turning on, function: what does he mean by these except some vague connection?). Bloom doubts that the secularization of Protestant hope has taken place in "high literature." Does that mean the Wordsworth poem he just (quite beautifully, I admit) discussed is not "high literature"? If Bloom himself is calling The Ruined Cottage "secular" then he is making "a political decision, not an aesthetic one" by his own statement, and "the calling will describe you rather than" the work under discussion. So Bloom tells us that he is freely using a term that tells us nothing about the poem in question, and by extension, I guess, about Jane Austen. So there you go, stark raving nothing. Classic Bloom. As you say, I have strong opinions.

    5. He does not dismiss his use of the term.

      "You could argue that Margaret's hope is a secularization..." But he doubts such a thing is possible - you could argue it, but you would be wrong. Then all the rest of what you wrote disintegrates. "If Bloom himself is..." - but he is not.

    6. I often wish Bloom were more explicit about this - more footnotes, I beg you, but often Bloom is basing his ideas on those of other scholars, in this case Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1957), which is in large part about English Protestant ideas shaping the early English novel.

      Ignacio Sánchez Prado's advice is:

      "If anything, I have learned that reading Bloom often requires taking them at face value and enjoying the peculiar character of some of his interpretations. I also continue to believe that one of the best ways to read Bloom is side by side with the critics that he quarrels with, which constructs some truly fascinating debates."

      If only the conventions of the pop book made that easier.

    7. Then he's proposing a hypothetical that he dismisses. What is the point? Who is arguing that Margaret's hope is a secularization? With whom is Bloom arguing? "You could argue that Margaret's hope is a sandwich..."

    8. I understand that he gets the discussion of the Protestant will from earlier critics writing about Blake. I also get that a lot of what Bloom does is sort of extemporize and bounce ideas off of ideas he doesn't name, but that lack of context robs his books of meaning, at least for me. I have no patience for this rhetorical mode.

    9. With the help of the internet (and a clue earlier in the chapter), the answer to "Who is arguing..." is New Historicists, although I don't know exactly which.

      I am really more of a J. Hillis Miller guy - Miller never wrote a pop book or became a dang book factory - but I am okay with Bloom's mode, too.

      That Sánchez Prado piece is filled with fascinating things. It sketches out an alternative Latin American Bloom I had not known existed. To use a word Marly Youmans likes, Bloom has been generative.

    10. "There is a current fashion in Anglo-American criticism..." yes, I see it now, so to drag politics into the discussion is to talk about oneself as a reader rather than to talk about the poem, the very accusation I made of Bloom. He is defending Wordsworth against "shallow ideologues" who "reject them on political grounds." It would've been helpful, when Bloom invoked the idea of the Protestant will, if he'd connected that idea to "our academic commissars". I guess he expects us to know what argument he's building toward.

      My main beef with Bloom has always been the way he talks about the creative process, which is just plain goofy.

    11. I think out of the chapters I read in The Western Canon, my least favourite is the one about Jane Austen.
      In the Shakespeare chapter or the Tolstoy chapter, Bloom might now and then have some interesting passages, but I didn't see anything interesting in the Jane Austen one. Nothing that made me think "oh that's good", "I didn't notice that, that's true", etc. He just goes on and on, without clarifying, about the Protestant will and the Shakespearean qualities in Jane Austen and Anne Elliot's perceptiveness.

    12. This conversation has been really helpful for me, spurring me to ask why I read literary criticism. I'm not at all interested in the intestine squabbles of literary critics, nor really all that much interested in the historical/social situatedness of the author. "I am not a good reader of Bloom."

    13. I know what you mean. I'm probably talking bullshit now because I haven't read his other works, but my impression is that he generally positions himself on the side of aesthetics, against "the School of Resentment". That partly explains the cult following, but I don't think that's enough.
      Unrelated, I'm very curious about what he has written about The Tale of Genji as it's one of my favourite novels and outside the West, but can't find his book anywhere.

  7. I dipped into the Canon and the Shakespeare books with excitement and they turned out to be short dips. I came away thinking it must be me but I also detected a sort of mushiness. As I started reading the comments I was already thinking "hand waving" and "vague and hyperbolic" is a perfect description. All of this crystalizes how I felt about it but didn't know how to express. I have a math background and what I've read of his work is somewhat unsettling.

    1. Yeah. After this blog post, I read the Macbeth chapter in his Shakespeare book, and I'm not a fan either.


Oh don't be shy, lovely readers. Comment! Discuss! Argue!
(Make sure to save your text before hitting publish in case your comment gets swallowed & disappears forever).