The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, by Harold Bloom

I have been procrastinating in my note transcription of The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, by Harold Bloom, which I finished the other week, because I have been bogged down with work. But today I have an opportunity, so I go for it.

Preface and Prelude

In the first chapter, Bloom describes his venture:

This book studies twenty-six writers, necessarily with a certain nostalgia, since I seek to isolate the qualities that made these authors canonical, that is, authoritative in our culture. “Aesthetic value” is sometimes regarded as a suggestion of Immanuel Kant’s rather than an actuality, but that has not been my experience during a lifetime of reading. Things have however fallen apart, the center has not held, and mere anarchy is in the process of being unleashed upon what used to be called “the learned world.” Mimic cultural wars do not much interest me; what I have to say about our current squalors is in my first and last chapters. [pg. 1]

The important thing is that Bloom values one thing: Aesthetic quality. He frequently blasts those who read great authors and judge their morals or manipulate their philosophies. That, he says, is second to their skill, which is the most important thing to consider.

You will see this trend reappear.

On the Canon: An Elegy for the Canon

A concise and clear statement of Bloom’s literary outlook:

Reading the very best writers–let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy–is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere. Had I the power to do so, I would command that these words be engraved above every gate at every university, so that each student might ponder the splendor of the insight. [pg. 15-16]

And on those who don’t believe, whom he calls The School of Resentment:

The cardinal principle of the current School of Resentment can be stated with singular bluntness: what is called aesthetic value emanates from class struggle. This principle is so broad that it cannot be wholly refuted. I myself insist that the individual self is the only method and the whole standard for apprehending aesthetic value. But “the individual self,” I unhappily grant, is defined only against society, and part of its agon with the communal inevitably partakes of the conflict between social and economic classes. [pg. 22]

And one more for now:

Whatever the Western Canon is, it is not a program for social salvation. [pg. 28]

Central to the Canon is Shakespeare, for without him, there would be no Canon.

The Aristocratic Age: Shakespeare, Center of the Canon

Shakespeare is completely different than all other writers in the Canon:

Dante was as self-conscious a poet as Milton; each sought to leave behind a prophetic structure that the future would not willingly let die. Shakespeare puzzles us in his apparent indifference to the posthumous destiny of King Lear; we have two rather different texts of the play, and pushing them together into the amalgam we generally read and see acted is not very satisfactory. The only works Shakespeare ever proofread and stood by were Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, neither of them worthy of the poet of the Sonnets, let alone Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth. How can there have been a writer for whom the final shape of King Lear was a careless or throwaway matter? Shakespeare is like the Arabian moon in Wallace Stevens that “throws his stars around the floor,” as though the profusion of Shakespeare’s gifts was so abundant that he could afford to be careless. [pg. 49]

One of the main innovations that Bloom describes Shakespeare as creating was that of characters who change: The characters in the plays overhear themselves talking and decide to act differently based on this experience. In this way, Shakespeare is the true inventor of psychoanalysis, not Freud.

The Aristocratic Age: The Strangeness of Dante: Ulysses and Beatrice

The interesting thing about Dante, is that he intended to write a Newer Testament, his Divine Comedy was not just a poem–it was Truth as Dante saw it:

Dante is the most aggressive and polemical of the major Western writers, dwarfing even Milton in this regard. Like Milton, he was a political party and a sect of one. His heretical intensity has been masked by scholarly commentary, which even at its best frequently treats him as thought his Divine Comedy was essentially versified Saint Augustine. But it is best to begin by marking his extraordinary audacity, which is unmatched in the entire tradition of supposedly Christian literature, including even Milton. [pg. 72]

Harold Bloom explains that Dante invented his own God, just like the Yahwehist and Mark, and her name is Beatrice.

Dante’s outstanding characteristics as poet and as person are pride rather than humility, originality rather than traditionalism, exuberance or gusto rather than restraint. His prophetic stance is one of initiation rather than conversion, to adopt a suggestion of Paolo Valesio, who emphasizes the hermetic or esoteric aspects of the Comedy. You are not converted by or to Beatrice; the journey to her is an initiation because she is, as Curtis first said, the center of a private gnosis and not of the church universal. After all, Beatrice is sent to Dante by Lucia, a remarkably obscure Sicilian saint, so obscure that Dante scholars are unable to say why Dante chose her. John Freccero, the best living Dante critic, tells us that “In a sense, the purpose of the entire journey is to write the poem, to attain the vantage-point of Lucy, and of all the blessed.” [pg. 77]

The Aristocratic Age: Chaucer: The Wife of Bath, The Pardoner, and Shakespearean Character

Bloom contrasts Chaucer and Dante, with particular mention of the ultimate truth inherent in Dante’s style:

Confronted by the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner along with a number of other Canterbury pilgrims, Dante (if he could be bothered) would not hesitate to assign them to their proper circles in the inferno. Their interest, if any, would have to include where and why they are stationed in eternity, for only final realities concern Dante. Fiction, for Chaucer, is not a medium for representing or expressing ultimate truth; it is wonderfully suited for portraying affection and everything else that has commerce with illusions. [...] In [Chaucer] we can see burgeoning what will become Shakespeare’s most original imaginative power: the representation of change within particular dramatic personalities. [pg. 105]

The Aristocratic Age: Cervantes: The Play of the World

Bloom joins Johan Huizinga in emphasizing that Don Quixote is not a madman, but a man who enjoys himself:

Don Quixote is neither a madman nor a fool, but someone who plays at being a knight-errant. PLay is a voluntary activity, unlike madness and foolishness. Play, according to Huizinga, has four principal characteristics: freedom, disinterestedness, excludedness or limitedness, and order. You can test all of these qualities upon the Don’s knight-errantry, but not always upon Sancho’s faithful service as squire, for Sancho is slower to yield himself to play. The Don lifts himself into ideal place and time and is faithful to his own freedom, to its disinterestedness and seclusion, and to its limits, until at last he is defeated, abandons the game, returns to Christian “sanity,” and so dies. Unamuno says of Quixote that he went out to seek his true fatherland and found it in exile. [...] Don Quixote leaves his village to seek his spirit’s home in exile, because only exiled can he be free. [pg. 124]

The big difference between Shakespeare and Cervantes is not only the novel form, but that Cervantes’ characters listen closely to each other, while Shakespeareans listen only to themselves.

The Aristocratic Age: Montaigne and Molière: The Canonical Elusiveness of the Truth

Bloom quotes Montaigne’s advice for dying:

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you, don’t bother your head about it.

We trouble our life by concern about death, and death by concern about life. One torments us, the other frightens us. It is not against death that we prepare ourselves; that is too monetary a thing. A quarter hour of suffering, without consequences, without harm, does not deserve any particular precepts. To tell the truth, we prepare ourselves against the preparations of death. [pg. 144]

The Aristocratic Age: Milton’s Satan and Shakespeare

Milton grew up just as Shakespeare was dying and felt that he would do his best to carry the torch further, Bloom explains how this did not happen:

The movement from dramatic critic to politician saddens us and makes us realize that we want Satan to share more even that he does in Iago’s genius and nihilism. But what was Milton to do? There is authentic spiritual nihilism in Chaucer’s Pardoner, but the trait was not fully developed until Shakespeare shrewdly saw how to trump the Marlovian hero-villains with a more inward mode of savage amoralism. Social and historical energies were just as available to Shakespeare’s contemporaries as they were to the dramatist of Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, but rather clearly more inward energies were available to him as well. Shakespeare knew precisely how to use and transform Chaucer and Marlowe, but no one, not even Milton or Freud, has known precisely how to use Shakespeare rather than be used by him, or how to transform anything so large and universal into something altogether one’s own. [pg. 170]

The Aristocratic Age: Dr. Samuel Johnson, the Canonical Critic

Dr. Johnson is the man who defined and created literary criticism and appreciation by Bloom’s standard. Here is something from Johnson on Shakespeare:

Johnson on Shakespeare is never subtler than in his comment on the Duke’s astonishing “Be absolute for death” speech in act 3, scene 1 of Measure for Measure: “Thou hast nor youth, nor age; / But as it were an after-dinner’s sleep, / Dreaming on both.” Johnson remarks,

This is exquisitely imagined. When we are young we busy ourselves in forming scheme for succeeding time, and miss the gratifications that are before us; when we are old we amuse the languor of age with the recollection of youthful pleasures or performances; so that our life, of which no part is filled with the business of the present time, resembles our dreams after dinner, when the events of the morning are mingled with the designs of the evening. [pg. 186]

The Aristocratic Age: Goethe’s Faust, Part Two: The Countercanonical Poem

Some of the things that Bloom talks about here is the completely self-contained fantasy world of Faust and the monumental length of the work.

The Democratic Age: Canonical Memory in Early Wordsworth and Jane Austen’s Persuasion

The accomplishment of Wordsworth was on the scale of Petrarch.

There are musicologists who assert that the three great innovators in our musical history were Monteverdi, Bach, and Stravinsky, though the assertion is disputable. Western, canonical lyric poetrty seems to me to have only two such figures: Petrarch, who invented Renaissance poetry, and Wordsworth, who can be said to have invented modern poetry, which has been a continuum for two full centuries now. To employ Vico’s terms, since I have used them to organize this book, Petrarch created the lyric poetry of the Aristocratic Age, which culminated in Goethe. Wordsworth inaugurated the blessing/cure of poetry in the Democratic/Chaotic Eras, which is that poems are “about” nothing. Their subject is the subject herself or himself, whether manifested as a presence or as an absence. [pg. 223]

Bloom’s interpretation of Jane Austen’s motives and his criticism of the Emersonian and Marxist perspective:

Obviously outward considerations of wealth, property, and social standing are crucial elements [in Austen], but so are the inward considerations of common sense, amiability, culture, wit, and affection. In a way (it pains me to say this, as I am a fierce Emersonian) Ralph Waldo Emerson anticipated the current Marxist critique of Austen when denounced her as a mere conformist who would not allow her heroines to achieve the soul’s true freedom from societal conventions. BUt that was to mistake Jane Austen, who understood that the function of convention was to liberate the will, even if convention’s tendency was to stifle individuality, without which the will was inconsequential. [pg. 240]

The Democratic Age: Walt Whitman as Center of the American Canon

Historicism is another study of the School of Resentment:

It may be that Whitman, like all great writers, was an accident of history. It may be that there are no accidents, that everything, including what we take to be a supreme work of art, is overdetermined. But history is more than the history of class struggle, or of racial oppression, or of gender tyranny. “Shakespeare makes history” seems to me a more useful formula than “history makes Shakespeare.” History is no more a god or demiurge than language is, but as a writer Shakespeare was a sort of god. Shakespeare centers the Western Canon because he changes cognition by changing the representation of cognition. Whitman centers the American canon because he changes the American self and the American religion by changing the representation of our unofficial selves and our persuasive if concealed post-Christian religion. [pg. 265]

The Democratic Age: Emily Dickinson: Blanks, Transports, The Dark

The striking thing that I recall from this chapter is how Bloom describes Dickinson’s main accomplishment as being able to overcome the desire to “name things,” like mediocre points; as well as the desire to “unname things,” as was Emerson’s advice and Whitman’s practice. Instead, she does not name at all that which she speaks of and does not let her words control her.

The Democratic Age: The Canonical Novel: Dickens’s Bleak House, George Eliot’s Middlemarch

This chapter begins with a discussion of the novel as a form in general:

It may be that the new Theocratic Age of the twenty-first century, whether Christian or Muslim or both or neither, will amalgamate with the Computer Era, already upon us in early versions of “virtual reality” and “the hypertext.” Combined with universal television and the University of Resentment (already well along in consolidation) into one rough beast, this future would channel the literary canon once and for all. The novel, the poem, and the play might all be replaced. This brief chapter is a nostalgic confrontation with the canonical novel at its strongest. The novel, child of the now-archaic genre of romance, itself became archaic after its ultimate limits were touched in Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Woolf, Mann, Larence, Faulkner, Beckett, and the South AMerican heirs of Sterne and Faulkner. At its most flourishing, in the Democratic Age, the novel’s masters were astonishingly numerous: Austen, Scott, Dickens, Eliot, Stendhal, Hugo, Balzar, Manzoni, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Goncharov, Dostoevsky, Zola, Flaubert, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Hardy, with an epilogue in Conrad. After Conrad, the shadow of the object fell across the ego, and narrative prose fiction entered the era that is closing now. [pg. 289]

The Democratic Age: Tolstoy and Heroism

Bloom describes the strange quality of Tolstoy’s writing… the sheer magnitude and importance of character.

There are no surprises or unexpected turns anywhere in the story [Hadji Murad]; indeed Tolstoy frequently lets us know in advance everything that is going to happen. This technique reaches the height of narrative subversion when we are shown the severed head of the hero before the story concludes with a detailed account of Hadji Murad’s last stand. It is as thought Tolstoy assumes we know the history already, and yet the novella abstains from reflecting upon the story’s meanings; no morals are drawn, and no polemic urged. What matters is evidently neither actions nor pathos but only the hero’s ethos, the revelation we receive of the character of Hadji Murad. [pg. 318]

The Democratic Age: Ibsen: Trolls and Peer Gynt

I have not read Peer Gynt, but Bloom describes it as journey towards and wrapped in selfishness and self-satisfaction. The common characters with these qualities are the trolls:

The troll in Peer has triumphed, since pragmatically he has followed the Troll King’s injunction: “Troll, to yourself be–enough!” rather than the human motto: “Man, to yourself be true!” In trollish consistency, the Greek revolt against the Turks being under way, Peer reverses Byronic heroism and proposes financing the Turks. When his associates flee with his gold-laden yacht and the explodes with it, he praises God, while lamenting that the Deity is scarcely economical. [pg. 335]

The Chaotic Age: Freud: A Shakespearean Reading

The title is a reference to Bloom’s belief that Shakespeare says a lot more about Freud than Freud could say about Shakespeare, because Shakespeare contains us all and there is no one that contains him.

Every critic has (or should have) her or his own favorite critical joke. Mine is to compare “Freudian literary criticism” to the Holy Roman Empire: not holy, not Roman, not an empire; not Freudian, not literary, not criticism. Freud bears only part of the blame for the reductiveness of his Anglo-American followers; he need share no responsibility for the Franco-Heideggerian psycholinguistics of Jacques Lacan and company. Whether you believe that the unconscious is an internal combustion engine (American Freudians), or a structure of phonemes (French Freudians), or an ancient metaphor (as I do), you will not interpret Shakespeare any more usefully by applying Freud’s map of the mind or his analytical system to the plays. Freudian allegorization of Shakespeare is as unsatisfactory as current Foucaultian (New Historicist), Marxist, and Feminist allgeorizations or past Christian and moral views of the plays through ideological lenses. [pg. 345]

Bloom claims that Shakespeare was psychoanalysis’ “inventor” but Freud was its “codifier.”

The Chaotic Age: Proust: The True Persuasion of Sexual Jealousy

Jealousy explained:

Caddishness reappears when unhappiness ceases, and this allows our morality to sink to its normal level. That delicious observation is preamble to Swann’s immortal lament, fit medicine for all of us, of whatever gender or sexual persuasion. Odette certainly was not Swann’s mode, genre, type, being neither high enough nor low enough for an aesthete and dandy with so brilliant a social life. Swann, alas, is caught; in Proust’s cosmos you cannot say “Goodbye, Odette, and I forgive you for everything I ever did to you” (the American mode) or “Falling out of love is one of the great human experiences; you seem to see the world with newly awakened eyes” (Anglo-Irish style). For Swann love dies, but jealousy endures longer; so he marries Odette, not despite but because she has betrayed him, with women as well as with men. Proust’s explanation for the marriage is worthy of him:

Almost everyone was surprised at the marriage, and that in itself is surprising. No doubt very few people understand the purely subjective nature of the phenomenon we call love, or how it creates, so to speak, a supplementary person, distinct from the person whom the world knows by the same name, a person most of whose constituent elements are derived from ourselves.

Long after Swann’s jealousy in regard to his wife has followed his love for her into oblivion, his memory of jealousy still torments him, [...] [pg. 374]

I love that quote from Proust. We only love ourselves, or who we imagine ourselves to be, and that is what we look for and love in others.

Bloom on the lesson of this:

I reflect, as I read this, that Proust is the true doctor for all those unhappily in love, which means, sooner or later, all those in love. Unfortunately, his medicine, like all remedies for love, works only after illness–even in its pure form of jealousy–is over. He provides retrospective comfort, the only kind we can accept. It is a belated delight to be told that jealousy is a weak poem, unable to develop even the three or four images that it harbors. In the novels that we write with our lives, the jealousy that consumers at a particular time fades into the seriocomic pathos of all deceased Eros. [pg. 376]

The Chaotic Age: Joyce’s Agon with Shakespeare

The Chaotic Age: Woolf’s Orlando: Feminism as the Love of Reading

Bloom on Woolf’s life, philosophers, and “heirs.”

Her religion (no less word would be apt) was Paterian aestheticism: the worship of art. As a belated acolyte of that waning faith, I am necessarily devoted to Woolf’s fiction and criticism, and I therefore want to take up arms against her feminist followers, because I think they have mistaken their prophet. She would have had them battle for their rights, certainly, but hardly by devaluating the aesthetic in their unholy alliance with academic pseudo-Marxists, French mock philosophers, and multicultural opponents of all intellectual standards whatsoever. By a room of one’s own, she did not mean an academic department of one’s own, but rather a context in which they could emulate her by writing fiction worthy of Sterne and Austen, and criticism commensurate with that of Hazlitt and Pater. Woolf, the lover of the prose of Sir Thomas Browne, would have suffered acutely confronting the manifestos of those who assert that they write and teach in her name. Herself the last of the high aesthetes, she has been swallowed up by remorseless Puritans, for whom the beautiful in literature is only another version of the cosmetic industry. [pg. 408-409]

The Chaotic Age: Kafka: Canonical Patience and “Indestructability”

The Chaotic Age: Borges, Neruda, and Pessoa: Hispanic-Portugese Whitman

The Chaotic Age: Beckett … Joyce … Proust … Shakespeare

Cataloging the Canon: Elegiac Conclusion

Bloom on his Canon:

I am not presenting a “lifetime reading plan,” though that phrase has no taken on an antique charm. There always will be (one hopes) incessant readers who will go on reading despite the proliferation of fresh technologies for distraction. Sometimes I try to visualize Dr. Johnson or George Eliot confronting MTV Rap or experiencing Virtual Reality and find myself heartened by what I believe would be their ironical, strong refusal of such irrational entertainments. After a lifetime spent in teaching literature at one of our major universities, I have very little confidence that literary education will survive its current malaise. [pg. 483]


I do not believe that literary studies as such have a future, but this does not mean that literary criticism will die. As a branch of literature, criticism will survive, but probably not in our teaching institutions. The study of Western literature will also continue, but on the much more modest scale of our current Classics departments. What are not called “Departments of English” will be renamed departments of “Cultural Studies” where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies, and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Wallace Stevens. Major, once-elitist universities and colleges will still offer a few courses in Shakespeare, Milton, and their peers, but these will be taught by departments of three or four scholars, equivalent to teachers of ancient Greek and Latin. This development hardly need be deplored; only a few handfuls of students now enter Yale with an authentic passion for reading. You cannot teach someone to love great poetry if they come to you without such love. How can you teach solitude? Real reading is a lonely activity and does not teach anyone to become a better citizen. Perhaps the ages of reading–Aristocratic, Democratic, Chaotic—now reach terminus, and the reborn Theocratic era will be almost wholly an oral and visual culture. [pg. 485]

He is very optimistic, as you can see.

I really like this thought about students these days:

Precisely why students of literature have become amateur political scientists, uninformed sociologists, incompetent anthropologists, mediocre philosophers, and overdetermined cultural historians, while a puzzling matter, is not beyond all conjecture. They resent literature, or are ashamed of it, or are just not all that fond of reading it. Reading a poem or a novel or a Shakespearean tragedy is form them an exercise in contextualization, but not in a merely reasonable sense of finding adequate backgrounds. The contexts, however chosen, are assigned more force and value than the poem by Milton, the novel by Dickens, or Macbeth. I am not at all certain what the metaphor of “social energies” stands or substitutes for, but, like the Freudian drives, such energies cannot write or read or indeed do anything at all. Libido is a myth, and so are “social energies.” Shakespeare, scandalously facile, was an actual person who contrived to write Hamlet and King Lear. That scandal is unacceptable to what now passes for literary theory.

Either there were aesthetic values, or there are only the overdeterminations of race, class, and gender. You must choose, for if you believe that all value ascribed to poems or plays or novels and stories is only a mystification in the service of the ruling class, then why should you read at all rather than go forth to serve the desperate needs of the exploited classes? The idea that you benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare is one of the oddest illusion ever promoted by or in our schools. [pg. 487]

And that, is The Western Canon!