Rant against the Cant: Prof. Harold Bloom’s Elegy for the Western Literary Canon


1. Introduction—Sympathetic viewpoint towards modern literary theory

Yesterday, I did a summary of the opening lectures to the Teaching Company Great Course called Great Authors of the Great Western Literary Tradition. In these lectures on the value and the interpretation of literature Prof. Arnold Weinstein of Brown University was sympathetic to some of the schools of interpretation such as psychoanalysis following Freud, Marxism, postmodernism, feminism, and New Historicism, among others. He shows giving examples of how each of these schools produces new insights that were not available before from more traditional forms of literary interpretation. To give an example, the character of Marsha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic” in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, is seen through the eyes of psychoanalytic theories of interpretation following Freud as the the repressed or unrecognized libidinal drives of Jane Eyre herself.

2. Counterpoint—Unsympathetic viewpoint towards modern literary theory

I wanted to do a post on the opposing viewpoint, that is, someone who is very much unsympathetic with the modern schools of literary interpretation. In 1994, Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University, wrote The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, in which he argued for the more conservative viewpoint that literature should follow the “art for art’s sake” ideal and not have it be subservient to some program of social engineering, however noble the ends may be.

Thus the first chapter of his book is called “An Elegy for the Canon,” in which he rants against the cant or jargon engaged in by the modern schools of interpretation (hence the title of this blog post). This purpose of this post is to outline his arguments, and then to make sense of them using the four quadrants from Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory.

3. Points of Agreement, Points of Departure

According to Harold Bloom, why have a canon in the first place? Let’s list the reasons that Prof. Weinstein used in his lecture. He said that literature can be used to

  • show that you are one of the elite,
  • help one how to think
  • improve one’s moral or ethical values
  • understand the culture in which it was written
  • transport you inside a time and place in a way no biography or history can

Prof. Weinstein was dubious about the first three, and posited the last two as better alternatives for the value of literature. How would Prof. Bloom come down on these points?

Regarding the first, Prof. Bloom would agree that it shows that you are one of the elite, but rather than seeing this is as a negative, as Prof. Weinstein implied, he unabashedly proclaims this is as a positive. Yes, literature is an aesthetic experience, both in the writing and in the reading of it. Reading a great piece of literature is more daunting and requires more from a reader than reading the average bestseller, and for this reason it is going to be elitist almost by definition. But along with Joseph Campbell, Prof. Bloom felt that this aesthetic elitism was a positive thing. People with the ambition to read the “literature of the ages” are naturally going to be drawn towards the classics of the Western Canon, because they were written by what has been judged to be the best writers from an aesthetic point of view.

However, the fact that great literature is written by the aesthetic elite gets conflated in the modern university system as being written by a product of the socioeconomic elite, and is, under Marxist interpretations of literature, just another tool of that socioeconomic repression of one class by another. This is where Prof. Bloom draws the line, and refuses to go along with this politicization of literature.

As far as helping one how to think, Prof. Bloom states that literature can act as the Art of Memory of one’s own cultural sources, so Prof. Bloom would partially agree with that.

On the third point, he is dubious along with Prof. Weinstein with the “moral improvement” theory of great literature and says that at the outset.

The fourth point is where Prof. Bloom and Prof. Weinstein part company the most, I believe. Reading literature may help you understand the culture in which it was created, but having that as a major value of literature is something I think Prof. Bloom would disagree with. In fact, many of the new theories of literature in trying to downplay the role of the individual author are making it sound as if the “culture” or society itself produced them. This view is something he is vehemently against, the idea that Paradise Lost, for example, can be reduced to an interplay of economic forces. To use the paired poems by William Blake on the chimney sweep that were quoted in the last post as an example, the economic relations of the various classes may be illustrated by the poems, but the originality and literary genius is took to create those poems are not illuminated at all by a knowledge of those relations.

I think the fifth point, that literature can take you inside a time and place and create an inner world that compels the reader, is probably the point where Prof. Weinstein and Prof. Bloom could most readily agree. In fact, it is that literary power of originality, to create an internal world so compelling that it changes the inner world of the reader, that is the source of where an author’s work stands in the Western Canon.

I can remember the exact bus stop I was sitting at as I finished reading the last canto of Dante’s Paradiso; that moment of wonderment will be forever etched in my memory.

4. Summing it Up with Integral Theory

To sum up, the reason why Prof. Bloom disagrees with the modern theories of literary interpretation can be shown in this diagram from Integral Theory:

Each quadrant holds a way of viewing the world. The top two quadrants are the viewpoints of an individual, the bottom two quadrants are the viewpoints of a group. The left two quadrants are the subjective viewpoints, and the right two quadrants are the objective viewpoints. So putting it all together:

  • The upper-left quadrant contains the “I” viewpoint and is the domain of aesthetics.
  • The upper-right quadrant contains the objective viewpoint of looking at “it” and is the domain of science.
  • The lower-left quadrant contains the values of the group and is the domain of culture or ethics.
  • The lower-right quadrant contains the structures of a group and is the domain of society or politics.

To sum up Prof. Bloom’s objections to the various modern interpretations of literature, he believes that interpretations should be centered in the realm of the aesthetic, the upper-left quadrant in the diagram above. However, modern literary theory interprets literature through the lens of the culture and the society, almost to the exclusion of the individual aesthetic. And in Integral Theory, assuming that you have “cornered the market” on truth because you insist it be seen from your particular perspective, is a fundamental error.

So in my own mind, whereas I grant that there may be insights derived about the culture and politics of the age in which a piece of literature is written, as Prof. Weinstein posits, I much prefer to center the experience of literature within the realm of the individual writer and reader, as Prof. Bloom does, and state that it this dialectic that is the crucial one in deciding whether a book will enter the Western Canon or not.

Prof. Bloom’s work on the Western Canon in fact rekindled my own love of literature which started back in the 1980s after I had finished my undergraduate degree as an engineer. His work remains for me a touchstone in deepening my appreciation for literature, modern literary theory notwithstanding.

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