The IslamoFascistChristianFeminist, etc, etc, Plot Against Literature

I’ve been steadily working my way through Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, and there is a lot that’s quite brilliant in here. It seems that almost every page has some insightful observation or quotable remark that I’ll try to remember for later.

Which is nice, since there’s also quite a lot of this:

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 version 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 cancel the literary canon once and for all.

If anyone knows what the hell this means, I’d be interested to hear your theory.

Let me try to explain as best I can. As you read through The Western Canon, you begin to develop a working dictionary of Harold Bloom-ese. “Theorcratic Age” more or less makes sense–an age of renewed religious fervor that may very well follow up our current age of chaos (as Bloom puts it) that came with the dissolution of God and secular moral authority. “Computer Era” you are on your own for (this is the first instance). “Universal television” is already becoming less and less relevant with the rise of the Internet (plenty of people I know don’t even watch TV any more; I don’t). And “University of Resentment,” roughly speaking, if Bloom’s caricature for any kind of cultural criticism that postdates Bloom’s own heyday, also known as “The Greatest Age of Criticism Ever, Really.” They are “resentful” mostly because they are feminists who are angry with Bloom for saying acerbic things to them.

Anyway, what gets me isn’t that none of the concepts the Bloom has applied here are valid (that’s debatable); what I simply can’t understand is how they combine into some apocalyptic end-times beast to “cancel the literary canon once and for all.” But, heck, if hatred of the literary canon could unite 99% of the world behind one simple agenda, it couldn’t be all that bad, could it . . . ?

But yes, my single best argument for reading The Western Canon is that despite strange little things like this it’s a very compelling piece of criticism. Or maybe these weird little outbursts are all to Bloom’s point. As he’s fond of saying again and again, strangeness is the single more important quality for canonization.

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I feel like this is pretty normal for Bloom. He’ll mix genuine insight with a bizarre, often apocalyptic, framework. He seems to spend about as much time mourning for literature as enjoying it. (Not, of course, a trait unique to Bloom.) The Anxiety of Influence, for example, has a pretty convincing central argument, but it’s clothed in Bloom’s original, Greek-inspired terminology and a strange, cosmological understanding of literary history. Maybe this combination of compelling criticism and broad, sweeping pronouncements is what makes Bloom the most famous English professor in the country. He’s certainly readable, if nothing else.

He means that if no one reads any more, or if they just read the Koran or a Bible of one, two, or three books, the question of the canon becomes moot.

Acutally, reading Bloom, what I think he’s talking about when he discusses the “University of Resentment” is what he sees is the political agendas of basically anyone who isn’t a white male (women, African-Americans, etc.) in attacking the white, Euro-centric, mostly male canon and making the case for “their” authors to be included in the canon.

Not that I don’t love Harold Bloom. His books are, as you say, filled to the brim with startling insights that only he could discover, quotable quotes for days, and a love and devotion to literature that is palpable. One of my favorite quotes of his: “I am naive enough to read incessantly because I cannot, on my own, get to know enough people profoundly enough.”

Tom: “Anxiety” should be Exhibit A. It’s a fantastic book in so many ways, but I found much of it unreadable in just the ways Bloom can be unreadable. Some of the concepts were useful (the “swerve” is classic, in my opinion), but others . . .

I like Harold Bloom’s public persona a lot more than Philip Roth’s, but they both strike me as these old dudes who believe that when they die everything Literary and Good will die with them. Bloom seems to despair more of this, which I guess is why I like him better. Roth seems to enjoy it in a weird angry way. Either way, they sound like crazy people.

In his self-descrbed ‘amalgamation’, Mr. Bloom sees an absolutism. This ‘. . . one rough beast. . . ‘ of absolutist dogma may contend with the secular literary standards, resulting in the trashing of alienated, disillusioned, self-absorbed modernism, as it’s come to be known.

I doubt Mr. Bloom is implying romantic or classical literature will be overwhelmed by this growing blob, or ‘. . . one rough beast’, which may be coming down the chute.

One of the first books I read upon dropping out of high school, Bloom’s Western Canon is a cornerstone. That quote you highlight about a 21st-century Theocratic Age has stuck with me for years.

To organize his book, Bloom borrowed the idea of universal decline from Vico’s New Science. Here’s the wiki summary:

Vico argues in the Scienza Nuova that civilization develops in a recurring cycle (ricorso) of three ages: the divine, the heroic, and the human. Each age exhibits distinct political and social features and can be characterized by master tropes or figures of language. The giganti of the divine age rely on metaphor to compare, and thus comprehend, human and natural phenomena. In the heroic age, metonymy and synecdoche support the development of feudal or monarchic institutions embodied by idealized figures. The final age is characterized by popular democracy and reflection via irony; in this epoch, the rise of rationality leads to barbarie della reflessione or barbarism of reflection, and civilization descends once more into the poetic era.

The thing about the original Theocratic Age is that its representative works – the Bible, the Koran, the classics of Greece and Rome – aren’t belated, are all more or less free of influence, and thus beyond criticism.

Elsewhere in the book Bloom remarks on the Terminator movies, noting that the main “character” is a cyborg, not a human. He seems to think this presages a coming Theocratic (or “computer”) era in which the human is no longer the subject of art. How does one even begin to evaluate a story like the Terminator, when there is no human quality to appreciate? Likewise, we now have Japanese novels written on cell phones. For Bloom, it’s the end of art.

In another chapter, I think the one on Kafka, he remarks how Kafka’s idea god seems nothing at all like the mainstream Jewish concept of God. He wonders aloud how any writer with a unique theology like Kafka could thrive today in the midst of the American religion. Again he predicts another Theocratic Age, when our subject won’t be the individual human, but something universal. Universal such as – gasp! – multiculturalism! He makes some quip along the lines of “whatever we decide to call God” or “though I don’t think we’ll call it God.” I think he’s referring to the bland concept of diversity with a capital D.

And here it’s helpful to look at another Bloom book, the American Religion. For Bloom writing in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the American Religion is a spiritual version of today’s Tea Party. He says its twin emblems are the fetus and the flag. As much as I share his distaste for their so-called politics, I think Bloom may be a bit too paranoid. As if some reactionary anti-modern sect could ever displace literature.

Calling Bloom’s notion of the “University of Resentment” a caricature of any cultural criticism outside his own era’s criticism is way off. Is it exxagerated? No doubt, and it hasn’t led to the disasters he implied, but he was writing this just after the college PC movement of the late 80s, which was often a caricature in itself. A lot of the “criticism” from that time is already dated and can be categorized as unintentional parody.
On the other hand, if I remember correctly, of all the pop culture targets to use as an example to set off against the canon Bloom used Yo MTV Raps, which was an extremely unfortunate choice, not only as the only mainly African-American show on the whole channel but as one of its only shows that had interesting music on it.

@Michael: I think Bloom’s idea of an imminent Theocratic age has a lot to it. These things go in cycles, and it seems to me that a world without God has lots more problems than a world with God, which is probably why humans invented God in the first place.

@michael: I happened to go to a very left-leaning college in the ’90s and the resentment wasn’t all that bad. In fact, I hardly was bothered at all. Bloom is, in my opinion, vastly overplaying his hand. Yeah, sure, some Feminist, New Historicist, etc critics out there will say stupid things on the basis of some kind of idea of equality. But I’ve read a hell of a lot of criticism in my day, and lots of the good stuff is very perceptive without being dumb in the ways Bloom likes to critique these things.

His tango with Ulysses is easily worth the price of admission, especially the contortions around Leoppold Bloom and any nominal free-association.

What’s bothered me about Bloom’s critique of feminist literary criticism is his inability (or unwillingness) to understand that a woman might read a work of literature as a woman. Sometimes it’s like “A woman who dislikes Lear must be indoctrinated with resentful feminism, otherwise she would see that he should be beloved!” It is as if for Bloom, the only proper way to read literature is as a man–a view which actually validates the need for feminist literary criticism.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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