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The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.

According to Homer, the gods weave misfortune into the pattern of history so that the future may have a song to sing down the generations. Our literature is the whole of our experience, distilled and encoded so that other tongues may learn the song. We are those other tongues. The future for whom the poets wrote is ourselves. We should see how their lives are ours. Perceptions change, and perhaps human nature may change, but there is a continuity of feelings.

If Western philosophy is footnotes to Plato, may we not say that Western literature is footnotes to Homer? Nor does it end there. As Professor Bloom argues the sources of the Western canon lie in the Ancient East. We must, surely, acknowledge the influence of the Easterns, while not forgetting theirs is not ours. Equally, it is essential we remember how late was the emergence of the modern and the Atlantic. Those who regard St. Augustine as essentially European do an injustice to the Africa which was his home, and then to the Asiatic scriptures which formed his faith.

It is given to the few to write, as the great have always written, on behalf of all experience. Literature is the record of human endeavour. It is consequentially imperfect. Literature is also the record of unborn possibilities. Whether or not Homer was a woman, in the Book of a Thousand and One Nights it is given to a woman to tell the tale. Shakespeare does have a 'sister'. Her name is Roswitha, a religious of the Dark Ages, whose actable dramas laid the foundations of modern comedy. Her greatest influence was Terence (Publius Terentius), an African of Imperial Rome. Of Elizabeth Bishop's vision, Professor Bloom has written elsewhere how 'it confronts the truth, which is that, what is most worth seeing is impossible to see, at least with our open eyes.'

These advocacies of the Western tradition, though they expend energy which might be spent more creatively, are as necessary as Harold Bloom believes them to be. He writes within an academic frame, yet he feels the sense of opposition no less than do the metropolitan critics. Clive James recently observed how much easier it was a generation ago to make a literary reference without acknowledging the source. Everyone who read Clive James had also read Philip Larkin. The readers haven't disappeared nor grown more stupid. It is the change of climate. There is no single force, and there is no conspiracy, but the tide of opinion is against literature. It resents its quietness, the necessity of solitude. It resents its disciplined imagination. It resents its unworldliness. However you look at it, literature is, in its canonical mode, out of intellectual fashion.

The tide of feeling is contained within misreadings of culture. The materialists are as mistaken as the multiculturalists. Significantly, both schools seek to derive their mandate from popular culture. Practitioners of popular culture often know the limits of the form. That is their strength. The problem lies in the carapace of theory which finds in popular culture a rich resource of virgin soil in which almost anything may be engendered. The aim is to 'read' the culture as a unitary text, as if cliche and stereotype may transcend themselves simply by being there in the public domain.

The anti-canonical attitude is disingenuous. Human nature cannot function without a sense of tradition. The wisdom, or the failures, of the past are necessary. Professor Bloom quotes Nietzsche's 'savage, permanently disturbing apothegm: "That which we can find words for is something already dead in our hearts; there is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking."' That is a warrant for revenge on humankind, and we know it was read as such. The truth is that for which we can find words is something already known in our hearts. In the act of speaking there is a foregoing of self-will. The world is not bound by what we see for ourselves, nor is experience wholly here and now.

It would be provincial, even if that province were the North Atlantic shores, to disregard Montaigne's question: 'If a musician liked but one kind of music, what would he be capable of saying?' Montaigne knew well that our common experience, 'like the harmony of the world, depends on contrary things.' For Professor Bloom the quintessential poet of his America is Whitman, the shaman, divided against himself, ambiguous and prophetic. His language was prophesy and protest, enriched by its contrariness so that it might affirm that which is known but not yet spoken so well.

This brings us to Shakespeare whom Professor Bloom reveres as much as Dr. Johnson whom he sees as the greatest Shakespearean critic and the most creative of all critics. What Professor Bloom fails to see is that Johnson's mistakes, monumental as they were, are like Shakespeare's tendency to babble, an integral element of the genius. People of their stature are not idols to be worshipped: they live imaginatively, at the limits of language and beyond. It was right of Tolstoy and Shaw to accept the challenge and reach out to the limits in their own proud, defiant way.

Of course they wrote expansively in a more generous and less self-regarding time, an age capable of recognising and trying to correct its ills. Harold Bloom writes in another time, though it is one in which the groundswell of feeling - witness the popularity of inexpensive classic reprints - is moving in his favour. But that movement is against prevailing assumptions in the cultural orthodoxy. It would take a very few influential voices to turn the tide, an act of selfless humility before the books of ages whose permanence is dependent on, and a guarantor of, ourselves. Harmony is not one part sung by everyone.

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Author:Haptonstall, Geoffrey
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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