THE WESTERN CANON
The Books and School of the Ages
One of our biggest critical gun fires a characteristically Olympian broadside into the canon debate, no quarter spared for the politically correct. In measures carefully calculated to raise the hackles of would-be canon revisers Bloom (The Book of J, 1990, etc.) assails "the current disease of moral smugness that is destroying literary study in the name of socio-economic justice." He loftily derides the notion that literature either has a social mission or can profitably be discussed in its own social and historical context. For Bloom, literary interest is always a question of artistic merit, which rests on the degree of "literary individuality and poetic autonomy" a text achieves. Bloom disclaims any ideology, but his preferred model of literary study -- a solitary one -- is as unexceptionally conservative as the qualities by which he determines merit. So too is the reading list that emerges from his account of the endless contest between "strong poets" and their even stronger precursors (the agonistic principle of "anxiety of influence" familiar from Bloom's earlier criticism), the strongest being Shakespeare, whom Bloom adores with unqualified Bardolatry. Doubtless, much of the debate The Western Canon is intended to provoke will rage around the Cultural Literacy--style "ideal canon" Bloom sets forth in an appendix (no Behn, Gaskell, or Alice Walker -- a favorite target of Bloom's ire -- though it does include poet Rita Dove, Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, and other geographically and culturally far-ranging writers). Bloom's vast learning and elegant prose don't always save him from tired tirades against the imagined evils of feminist or materialist criticism, nor from repetitiousness: One of the problems of Bloom's approach is that all great writing can end up sounding rather too similar. But even those who disagree fundamentally with Bloom will find him an engaging antagonist. An unashamed spur to contention, and all the better for it: an elegant and erudite provocation.