I have recently finished reading Harold Bloom’s elegy for the creation and study of literature, The Western Canon. Since it was written in the midst of the 1990’s academic kulturkampf, it, like Camille Paglia’s even more virtuosic Sexual Personae, was classified as a reactionary document for heroically championing the aesthetic over the political. Though on page after page (around 500 or so, though it seems almost too short) you can find denunciations of pretentious French theory and what Bloom calls the “school of resentment”, Bloom is no conservative, neo- or paleo-, and it would be a mistake to confuse him with Roger Kimball (who I find interesting and useful only to the extent that he is the enemy of my enemies). He is a follower of Nietzsche and Freud (though not in the rather confused and ploddingly programmatic way of the Lacanians and other postmoderns) and the Romantic poets, and disdains the truly reactionary T.S. Eliot. He discusses masturbatory themes in Goethe and Whitman, and finds in Dante a brazen and nearly heretical egotism. The Canon is for him “the relation of an individual reader and writer to what has been preserved out of what has been written”, and he celebrates the individual imagination as well as the eternal mystery of aesthetic power. In short, it is an inspiring book.
Well, its been over a decade since the height of the PC wars, and though tempers have cooled, little has changed in the humanities, as evidenced by Bruce Fleming’s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Leaving Literature Behind” (as well as my own recent experience in a Critical Theory class, but more on that later). But wait, we have to backtrack a bit. For a long time now there has been a so-called “crisis in the humanities”. On the one hand this entails the bickering between the left and right over curricula. You know, the oppressive patriarchal canon, Madonna studies, and so on. This more or less reflects the larger polarization out in the real world. Secondly, and more importantly, the crisis has entailed a waning interest in art and literature (especially) and a “flight” into more practical and lucrative fields. According to a great doorstop of a book I was forced to purchase in my own flight through the humanities, Richter’s The Critical Tradition, the problem is Capitalism. The crisis is “a purely utilitarian reaction. Student’s future employers will want them to calculate market shares and perform multiple regressions, so the less time they spend developing an expertise in the liberal arts, the better.” Yeah, okay maybe, but this supposedly philistine world of business has been around for a long time (as a Marxist ought to be well aware), and the humanities crisis and the PC wars date back only a couple of decades. But here’s a real howler: “Professors of literature experience themselves as powerless . . . precisely because they have become functionless.” Oh, the woeful and untenured plight of that marginalized subaltern group, the literature professors! Reality check, guys. It is the students of literature who experience themselves as powerless before their professors. They want poetry and they get Foucault. And a major problem is that the professors have aped that very world of “utilitarian reaction”, with its specialization and calculation. I mean come on, Richter, look at your own table of contents: Baudrillard, Jameson, Habermas, Bourdieu- are you going to try and tell me these guys are aesthetes? They’re technocrats. I find that phrase “developing an expertise in the liberal arts” problematic. Sounds like business school, right? A literature professor should be a sage, not an expert.
John Ellis, in Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities blames the politicization of the arts, its reduction into a triumverate of “race/gender/class” complaints. But that is only part of the problem. Fleming bemoans “the invention and codification of a professionalized study of literature.” He writes that professors “have made ourselves into a priestly caste”. This certainly confirms Bloom’s contention that we have entered a new age of secular theocracy. Bloom divides his Canon into four ages, borrowed from Vico: the Theocratic, consisting of ancient sacred texts; the Aristocratic, beginning with Dante and ending with Goethe and the early German romantics; the Democratic, which covers the late 18th through the 19th century; and the Chaotic, spanning of the 20th century. He considered the time of his writing to be the beginning of a new theocratic age, when the aesthetic would wane and a new didacticism and dogma would be in ascension. Well, I’m no historicist, but I find his diagnosis compelling. My recent Critical Theory class was rather dispiriting. I can probably count on one hand the number of times we had a real literary discussion, but we had to talk about the current state of feminism every other day.
In case you don’t know what the politics of academia in the humanities, Ellis is worth quoting here:
Sweeping normative judgments about the oppression of women and the absolute evil of patriarchy coexist with the view that all ideologies are socially constructed. Cultural relativism is embraced to advance the case for non-Western cultures but abandoned when it might require respect for Western society. . . . Gender stereotypes are reprehensible- but women are more nurturing. Cultural stereotypes are objectionable- but Westerners are sexist and racist. Hate speech must be stopped- but white males must be denounced. Segregation is evil- but blacks need separate dormitories and clubs.
The problems of professionalization and politicization dovetail. Making literature entirely about politics is a way of making it useful, which is the real “utilitarian reaction”. I believe in the Oscar Wilde dictum that “All art is quite useless”. (Speaking of which, don’t you think his claim that “those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming” applies to most aptly to deconstruction?) That is to say, useless for non-artistic agendas.
As a student, I can say that Fleming is on the right track by saying professors are not engaging their students enough, but he thinks that they need to connect the books read in class with the lives of students.
We’re not teaching literature, we’re teaching the professional study of literature: What we do is its own subject. Nowadays the academic study of literature has almost nothing to do with the living, breathing world outside. The further along you go in the degree ladder, and the more rarified a college you attend, the less literary studies relates to the world of the reader.
That’s true enough, but Homer and Dante also have little to do with the world that I live in everyday. The reader needs to learn how to confront an alien imagination, to appreciate what Bloom refers to as the “strangeness” of a powerful aesthetic creation. Often you need to just forget the “living, breathing world outside” and learn how to be at home in the world the author has prepared for you. Doing that can be a epochal event, such as I can report from my experience reading Melville’s Moby Dick. (Or Dante’s Inferno, whose philosophy rests on the idea that eternal torment in hell for sinners is justice, which as an atheist I reject completely. Yet I love Inferno, which shows how useless ethical preference can be in the face of great art.) Students often become English majors because they have had such an experience in reading, perhaps in childhood, or because they want one. But current English departments apparently cannot help you there.
Reading is not some research and development project. It is an end in itself, and should be taught as such.
As for Bloom, he has a number of wonderful observations that put the individual at the center of the study of literature, and as such ought to appeal to libertarians. Here’s a couple of samples:
William Shakespeare wrote thirty-eight plays, twenty-four of them masterpieces, but social energy has never written a single scene. The death of the author is a trope, and a rather pernicious one; the life of the author is a quantifiable entity.
. . . the only method is the self . . . criticism is therefore a branch of wisdom literature. It is not a political or social science or a cult of gender and racial cheerleading, its present fate in Western universities.
And even more interestingly, Bloom views the triumphs of imaginative literature as being produced by competition:
I find it forever odd that Marxists are perceptive in finding competition everywhere else, yet fail to see that it is intrinsic to the high arts.
. . . primarily each ambitious writer is out for himself alone and will frequently betray his class in order to advance his own interests, which center entirely upon individuation.
I hasten to point out that this pursuit of “his own interests” by need not translate to selfishness in the artist’s personal life, as evidenced by his chapter on Beckett, who he calls “as good and decent a human being as any strong writer ever” (also, the work can be quite misleading- Paglia’s chapter on Wordsworth reveals that though his poetry is all about empathy and compassion, he was in person a fierce egotist, which Bloom would no doubt find appropriate); and that is pursuit is to the eternal benefit of the whole culture if successful.
But he has little practical advice for teaching, and he is himself a somewhat difficult guide to the Canon. He shares with his precursors Emerson and Nietzsche a sort of spiritual elitism. He writes, “Pragmatically, aesthetic value can be recognized or experienced, but it cannot be conveyed to those who are incapable of grasping its sensations and perceptions.” Maybe so, but I think a good start would be to follow an injunction that should be inscribed over every classroom: “Love Art”.
In the meantime, academe is, like the weather, something everyone talks about, but nobody does anything about it.
P.S.- I have found an parallel to Bloom’s attack on the politically correct “school of resentment” (resentment of the western canon, that is) in Nietzsche’s attack on Christian asceticism (and it’s secular progeny) in The Genealogy of Morals (as well as another confirmation that the rise of PC ideology in the humanities is the birth of a new theocracy:
In the very heart of Graeco-Roman splendor . . . the simple-minded presumption of the Christian agitators known as the Fathers of the Church dared to decree: “We have our own classical literature. We don’t need that of the Greeks” And they pointed proudly to certain collections of legends, apostolic epistles, and apologic penny tracts- the same kind of literature with which the English Salvation Army wages its war against Shakespeare and other pagans.
They pointed proudly to inferior literature, in other words, which would prop up what Nietzsche refers to elsewhere as “the slave revolt in morals”. He goes on to profess admiration for the Old Testament and disdain for the new in terms that precisely echo my feelings when I read my assignments out of Richter’s anthology of resentment (which does include Nietzsche in its “classic texts” section- that is a profound irony: the resenters are ardent Nietzscheans). “I find nothing but petty sectarianism, a rococo of the spirit, abounding in curious scrollwork and intricate geometries and breathing the air of the conventicle; to say nothing of that occasional whiff of bucolic mawkishness”. This, too, is quite hilarious, and a proper response to such resentment. “Think of the tremendous fuss these pious little people make over their little trespasses! Who cares? Certainly God least of all.”
It is Bloom’s contention that the Western Canon is the source of aesthetic, and not moral or political, virtues, which is why the crusaders have no use for it, just as the Church Fathers had no use for classical literature. “If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation.” Think of Nietzsche’s admiration of the Old Testament, and how that text indeed had been read in order to form our values for so long.