A canon of one's own

Are there certain books which every civilised person should have read? In an age in which absolute judgements of literary merit are widely dismissed as elitist, Harold Bloom has shocked Ame rica with a new `Western canon'
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EVERYONE makes lists - don't-forget lists of things to buy or do, but also sorting-out lists of favourite records and films, fantasy football teams, all-time-great cricketers and so on. It's a childish habit but children of all ages do it - even childrenof 64 like the American critic Harold Bloom, whose book, The Western Canon, with its short-list of 26 great authors and its long-list of 850 worthwhile ones, was the subject of controversy when published in the US two months ago and is certain t o generate further discussion when it is published in Britain in two weeks' time.

Book lists are now an established part of our culture. Newspapers publish them in the form of weekly bestseller charts (whose only yardstick is sales) and, each Christmas, as "Books of the Year" (whose only yardstick should be quality, though, as Julie Burchill approvingly describes it, this annual convention can also be a way for authors to "send their season's greetings to friends"). Publishers, too, have been known to commission books with titles such as The Hundred Best Modern Novels, often paying very decent advances for what may be, in effect, only the briefest of critical guides.

There is nothing sinister about this. Writers have always made lists of other writers. "The reading of Homer and Virgil is counselled by Quintilian as the best way of informing youth and confirming man," wrote Ben Jonson, who from his own century named as improving authors Thomas More, Walter Raleigh, Thomas Wyatt and Philip Sidney. By the 17th century, most middle-class homes had their collection of good books: the Bible, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Bunyan. Most of us are grateful that the tradition of commendation exists. Life is short, there are a lot of books to choose from, and it's useful to be pushed towards good rather than bad.

This is all that is meant, or should be meant, by "the canon": books which have seemingly stable or classic status, whose qualities have been recognised by different readers in different cultures at different times. The word canon comes from the Greek, kanon, meaning a straight rod or standard, and later came to have a theological meaning, the sacred or chosen texts. The religious overtones still set the canon apart from its near-relations "the curriculum" and "the syllabus". But at best it is a happy secular collective, a pool of enthusiasms, a shared memory.

The problems come when the canon is misused as a pedagogic hammer and literary- critical machine-gun, as it was in Leavis's The Great Tradition (1948), which begins: "The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad - to stop for the moment at that comparatively safe point in history." Leavis later added D H Lawrence, but not Dickens, Fielding, Richardson, the Brontes, Woolf or Joyce. He believed in minority culture (as Bloom does), and relished the idea that though the canon, like Oxbridge, was in theory open to everyone, it was also hard to get into.

Leavis meant to provoke, and he did. But no one then thought there was anything odd about a list of great books. All that has changed, especially in America. The change began as early as the Fifties, when the supremacy of European culture in Humanities faculties began to be eroded as American Studies grew. There was further dislodgement in the Sixties and Seventies when universities met the demand for greater "relevance" and contemporaneity. But the real shift in attitude came in the Eighties, when Marxists, feminists, multiculturalists and deconstructionists denounced the canon as a white male imperialist fabrication, a desperate use of culture to uphold political authority. Canonicity and canon-formation became the talking point in higher education. In 1987, in Stanford, students on a march with Jesse Jackson chanted, "Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture's gotta go." Their forebears had protested against America's involvement in South-east Asia. Now there was a new target: not Nam, but Dwems - Dead White European Males.

Canon-busting has its generous, enthusiastic side. Many academics, on both sides of the Atlantic, have been arguing for years for the reappraisal of allegedly "minor" talents, especially African, Asian and Hispanic writers and women. They accuse the old guard of being Eurocentric and elitist. They are closer to the line of T S Eliot in Tradition and the Individual Talent, who saw the canon as needing constant modification, so that once-neglected artists - Caravaggio and Botticelli, Donne and Hopkins - can take their rightful place. They dislike the fact that, as Frank Kermode puts it, "books held to belong to the canon are granted not only high value but an almost rabbinical minuteness of comment and speculation". But the canon-busters have in turn been accused of wishing to instate a drab political correctness, of seeing literature only in terms of race and gender, with authors as villains or victims.

It is against this background that the row over Harold Bloom's book must be understood. An academic book of 577 pages by a sixtysomething Yale professor would not normally be an occasion for articles in Time and Newsweek. Indeed, until 10 years ago, a book of critical essays on 26 indisputably classic authors would hardly occasion anything other than the odd dutiful review. But Bloom is reported to have been paid $600,000 (£400,000) to write his book, and the publishers rightly calculated (or ensured) that the book would cause a stir. The provocation is there in the first paragraph, when Bloom speaks of "current squalors" and "mere anarchy... being unleashed upon what used to be called `the learned world'." And it is there in the list he appends of 3,000must-read books by 850 authors: not, on the face of it, a very narrow or prescriptive list - if one starts at the age of 15 and lives to 75, to read one's way through it would mean consuming a book a week - but which, on closer inspection, turns out to indulge calculated slights and wilful eccentricities.

Bloom's thesis, briefly, is that expansion of the canon by what he terms "the School of Resentment" means, in effect, the canon's destruction. Sincerity, selflessness, justice and "social energy" are the qualities which the canon-busters look for in literature. But while books are the proper basis of a liberal education, this doesn't make them decent and right-thinking. Most authors are monsters of selfishness, deeply competitive and haunted by dreams of immortality. What they give us, through their books, is the potential for pleasure, the cultivation of solitude and inner growth. Shakespeare will not make us better citizens, or worse, but "he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves". The defining quality of the works in the canon which Shakespeare presides over is their strangeness - a strangeness we can never assimilate, "the tang of originality". Everything else is beside the point. Shakespeare wrote 24 masterpieces; social energy has never written a single scene.

I CAUGHT UP with Harold Bloom in the week his book was published in New York. "Caught up with" is going it a bit. Like all authors these days, even academic ones, Harold Bloom has his minders and PR-people, who were very apologetic, they knew Harold would love to talk to me, but there was not an hour all week when he wasn't being interviewed or teaching: couldn't I wait till the end of December, when the book would be published in England, and telephone him? OK, if I couldn't, why not come along to his New York reading that evening instead?

The Shakespeare book store was crowded, the audience seated on the floor in specially taped-off areas. Most of them were young, and therefore, in Bloom's terms, likely not only to be semi-literate but to have had their pop-flaked minds poisoned by the School of Resentment. But there were no signs of hostility. Some people even seemed a little puzzled by who exactly the speaker was, confusing him with the late Allan Bloom (no relation), who wrote a similarly controversial and elegiac book, The Closing ofthe American Mind, and even with Harold Brodkey, author of The Runaway Soul, the longest- coming canonical work since Proust.

In reality, as he likes to hear pointed out, Harold Bloom looks more like Zero Mostel. He wears a baggy jumper, and with his sad brow, furry eyebrows and triple chin has the air of a stranded whale or walrus. All this is part of his shambling, campy, endearing performance as a cultural dinosaur, a man who knows that history is against him. The lights are going out and the shadows lengthen in our evening land.

"My dears," Bloom called us, as he also calls his students, and then he was off, listing his grievances against friends of 35 years who had now turned round and savaged his book in the press. He smiled at us wearily. He was, he knew, "wretchedly sad and plump", "lost in the recesses of my own sad self", and deeply unfashionable. But this idea of his that there are works which "the world will not willingly let die" was one which he would not willingly let die, no matter how hard the School of Resentment tried to kill it off.

Bloom ran on, expanding his idea that literature - as Pindar knew, as "my friend Phil Roth" also knows - must always be competitive. Writers, he said, always strive to be top dog: they strive against contemporary rivals, and against predecessors, and against their own dark antithetical selves. Literature is agon, struggle. It is born of the overweening desire for immortality. The feminist idea of women novelists as communal quilt-makers, taking in each other's seams, is sentimental and absurd. So, too, he added, is most contemporary critical theory: Aristophanes was the father of modern literary criticism, and how apt that is, now that 99.9 per cent of literary criticism is involuntary farce.

Bloom smiled wearily at us again. He hoped his own criticism was better than that, and that some modest form of immortality might be waiting even for him: he cannot invent, but by immersing himself in the great works of the past perhaps some "influence" or happy "contamination" will ensue. But the omens, for those who care about books, are pretty dire. Ours, he thinks, is an age of instant canonicity. We shall not see the like of Shakespeare again in our life-time.

And with that, after half an hour or so, Bloom wound up. He would not, he said, take questions from the floor, having had some "dark experiences" of this in the past. But he was happy to sign his books, reminiscing with or talking ideas to his buyers. Itwas half an hour before the queue died down. I waited for my pouncing journalistic moment, but Bloom, looking tired now, could not wait; he had to be rushed off for dinner with publisher and friends. Yet what could he have told me that I hadn't heard orread in his book already? I slipped out into the evening, trying to tell myself that it was dark out there because the sun had gone down, not because the rough beast of the barbarian future stalked the land.

HAROLD BLOOM was born in the Bronx in 1930, of Russian-Jewish parents who never learnt to read English. This humble background as "the son of a garment worker" is important - important enough for him to allude to it early on in The Western Canon, and making him slightly more sympathetic to Marxist analyses of literature than to other kinds: "All my passionate proclamations of the isolate selfhood's aesthetic value are necessarily qualified by the reminder that the leisure for meditation must be purchased from the community." In other words he was lucky. A love of books (nurtured from the age of eight in the New York Public Library) showed him new horizons, and his studies at Cornell and Yale brought a decisive escape "elsewhere, in a time and place of one's own". But he doesn't believe there is any moral, in his own story, of the benefits books can bring society as a whole: "... each ambitious writer is out for himself alone and will frequently betray or neglect his class in order to advance his own interests." The only Marxist he values now is Groucho, for his inspiring motto: "Whatever it is, I'm against it."

In 1955, Bloom joined the Yale English department, where he remained for 22 years, until becoming Sterling Professor of Humanities. He had, in the meantime, met his wife Jeanne, a school psychologist, and had two sons. He had also established himself as a leading scholar of the Romantic period, with studies of Shelley, Blake and Yeats. His commentary on Blake's poems, for the standard (Erdman) edition of the poetry and prose, is a model of lucid insight, perhaps because he had memorised the long visionary poems (Milton's too) while still a child. (He attributes his prodigious memory, and capacity for close reading, to his not having had a television set till he was 40.)

He was also by now developing his own highly individualistic idiom, and in 1973 put forward his new theory in The Anxiety of Influence, re-stating it in A Map of Misreading two years later. "Strong" writers, Bloom argues, wrestle triumphantly with the dead, "swerve away" from filial obligation, misinterpret, misread, and thus break free. Even in these (rare) strong writers, however, "influence" is inescapable: poems are about other poems more than they are about subjects; poems are all the other poems they might have been if they had not managed to become themselves. The originals are not original. Literature is an intimate, even incestuous family.

Bloom's ideas at this time were influenced by the Yale School of Paul De Man and Jacques Derrida. But he added in an old-school Freudian theory of Oedipal rivalry and a litany of key words: influence, misprision, precursor, daimon, ephebe, strength, belatedness, swerving away. As George Steiner likes to say, most writers have only one idea, and "the anxiety of influence" was Bloom's. It made its way into his seminars of the 1970s at Yale, when, as Charles McGrath, now of the New Yorker, recalls, Bloom would agonise over the great canonical texts and "visibly sag under the weightiness of his task: the great head would sink tableward while he murmured about the `darkness' and the `difficulty' of whatever passage he happened to be considering."

Even then, 20 years ago, Bloom could write of his doubts about (his tweezer-like quote marks) "black poetry" and the "literature of women's liberation". Even then, he was nostalgic: "Our mutual sense of canonical standards has undergone a remarkable dimming, a fading into the light of common garishness." Intellectually, he has not moved on much in 20 years, though plenty has happened in his career. He took on a second professorial post, in New York University. He has been general editor for the 395 volumes in the Chelsea House series of literary-critical short books. He was awarded the lucrative MacArthur "Genius" prize. He was the subject of a salacious GQ profile called "Bloom in Love". And in 1990 he published another controversial bestselling volume, The Book of J, which proposed that part of the Old Testament was written by a woman at King Solomon's Court (perhaps even, one reviewer suggested, and he now whimsically agrees, Bathsheba, Solomon's mother).

He is probably America's most famous living literary critic. But whatever his influence and following, they have long since waned. The impression these days is of a man closing in on himself. Surrounded by professors of hip-hop, feminist cheerleaders, ideologues of race and gender, and Gallic-Germanic theoretical clones, he thinks that "the Balkanisation of literary studies is irreversible", and he has "little confidence that literary education will survive its current malaise". It is closing-time in the gardens of the West, and Bloom is the lugubrious gatekeeper pointing forlornly, as the crowds file out, to a bed of fading flowers.

THERE ARE many ways to defend the canon. Bloom's way in The Western Canon is belle- lettre-ism. Shorn of the jargon which made him a fashionable theorist back in the 1970s, his prose is elegant, enjoyable, phrase-making and oddly old-fashioned - a cross between Samuel Johnson (whom he includes in his canon) and V S Pritchett (whom he doesn't). The great test for him is character. Chaucer, he tell us, creates "convincingly persuasive women and men", among them the Wife of Bath, whose "true pith . . . abides in her Falstaffian high spirits". "Proust's greatest strength, amid so many others, is his characterisation: no 20th-century novelists can match his roster of vivid personalities." Dickens can boast "a wealth of invention", and each time Bloom reads Bleak House he tends "to cry whenever Esther Summerson cries". Ibsen's Peer Gynt "has the largeness of the greatest characters of Renaissance imaginings". And so on.

In themselves, none of these arguments would have made much of an impact, not even on the School of Resentment (whose size and influence Bloom surely exaggerates). What has made an impact is Bloom's list, which he allegedly drew up at the prompting of his publishers, who had after all paid a vast sum for the book. This list, especially its "prophecy" of canonical qualities in contemporary writers, is frankly dotty.

Bloom attacks Freud's stupidity about literature but includes him in his golden 26. He bundles Borges, Pablo Neruda and the Portugese poet Fernando Pessoa (a pretty surprising canonical inclusion) into a single tokenist-Hispanic

chapter. He represents Philip Roth with nine novels and Updike with only one of his slighter ones, The Witches of Eastwick. He sticks in two books on China by his Yale colleague Jonathan Spence, while virtually all other historical non-fiction is ruled out. He includes Nabokov only for Lolita and Pale Fire, which puts him well behind Walter Abish and John Barth. He shows little sign of reading recent literature outside the US but appeases the PC lobby by including Jeanette Winterson.

Bloom deserves applause for daring to make "the dangerous proposition that some books are better than others". He deserves applause, too, for his defence of discrimination, not the dirty word in literature that it is in society - the only real question for the critic, he says, is: "More than, less than, equal to?"

Insisting on books as objects of art, not social tools, he likes to see himself as a man for the Nineties, an heir of Wilde and Pater 100 years on. But this wilting-lily end-of-the-century aestheticism is hard to reconcile with his fists-up adversarial stance, his belief in literature as competition. That belief is typical of a particular generation of US males: the brawling Norman Mailer, for example, or the late John Berryman, whose reaction to the death of Robert Frost was: "It's scary. Who's number one now?" And it may be that Bloom's view of books as battle-zones of dark striving goes deeper still, into his own early background and struggle.

But it isn't only the School of Resentment which will find something objectionable in Bloom's handing out of laurels. For most writers, the only competition is against themselves; and the only contest is in finding the right words.

! `The Western Canon', by Harold Bloom, is published on 31 December by Harcourt Brace (£22).