The Battle of the Books

Can one really compile a list of the Great Books? Yes, says Harold Bloom, author of the controversial 'The Western Canon'. No, argues Germaine Greer: the Professor's list is arbitrary, chauvinist, middlebrow and unfair. The two were due to fight it out at Edinburgh this week. Bloom never showed. Here Dr Greer gives her side of the debate that never was
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A student of mine, hitch-hiking in Europe, found himself hotly disputing with a French driver the relative merits of Shakespeare and Racine. At length, the Frenchman turned to him with a smile of triumph: "You make my point for me," he said. "You have read Racine but I have never read Shakespeare." Outrageous, my student thought, but why should the Frenchman struggle to make sense of Shakespeare simply in order to displace Racine, whose language he shared, from the centre of his aesthetic map? Conversely, as a result of reading French language versions, the French probably thought of Byron as a poet central to the English canon and Poe to the American. What this odd little anecdote illustrates is not simply French chauvinism but also the way in which readers and critics create canons. Until little more than a century ago the English rendering of the Latin and Greek classics into sounds never heard outside the British Isles provided the touchstones for all estimation of verse. Vernacular literature was fit only for half-educated women; not even Shakespeare could boast canonical status.

Professor Harold Bloom is the intellectual heir of the prolonged attack upon the classical canon that eventually succeeded in conferring canonical status upon vernacular literature, even novels and plays. The contents of the ladies' closet of the 18th century have been emptied into university libraries where they are studied by people no more literate than the ladies were. Where once students spent weeks struggling to render a stanza or two of Sappho in English or in Latin verse, they now jog through vast Great Books courses, guided by Brodie's Notes from the peaks of Gilgamesh to the ocean deeps of Moby Dick. Professor Bloom is just the teacher for these tourists of literature, for he requires them to have no language but English. We have all been taught to despise the people who walk blindly through the Louvre until they reach the Mona Lisa; Professor Bloom's cultural tourists are a cut below, for they confront not the actual work but a 20th-century Anglo-Saxon travesty, a contemporary cartoon. No wonder Bloom feels that "To go from Shakespeare to Dante or Cervantes or even Tolstoy is somehow to have the illusion of suffering a loss in sensuous immediacy." The disappointment of reading a translated classic stems not somehow or anyhow from an illusion but from encountering instead of a dancing giant a midget shuffling about in his shoes.

The true question of the Western Canon according to Harold Bloom is: "What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?" It is always just as late in history as it is now and individuals who desire to read will attempt to read any text that swims into their vision, much as I did a week ago as I plodded up and down the Nevsky Prospekt, intoning Russian words aloud for the sheer pleasure of turning unfamiliar seen shapes into the sounds I heard around me - a far cry from reading Pushkin, agreed, but a step in the right direction. Professor Bloom did not say "will" but "shall", in the biblical sense. The individual who desires to read shall read a daunting list of great books. There is nothing to choose between Bloom's list and any commercial book club compilation of essential classics. The people who subscribe to such clubs have no way of knowing what makes the tomes that arrive every week better than the excluded tomes but they are not about to quarrel with the expert opinion they paid good money for.

Having chosen his Western Canon with no less exercise of ingenuity and recall than the average cricket fan uses in selecting his best ever eleven, Bloom finds himself in the same situation as the cricket fan. His choices will only be understood or questioned by people who already know how to play the game. He insists that his books are the genuine Great Books because they are genuinely Great, and explicitly denies any suggestion that readers contribute to the greatness of books by their readiness to make the effort to understand them. Nobody nowadays is prepared to put into understanding Ovid the industry that placed him at the centre of the European literary tradition for a thousand years. "This late in history", Shakespeare (a devout Ovidian) is still a beginner. His greatness, like Ovid's greatness, is very much an aspect of the political centrality of the language that he wrote in.

The Western Canon is not simply basely middlebrow; underlying the syntax from the first page to the last is the tourists' assumption that only the greatest is worth spending time on. "The strongest women among the great poets, Sappho and Emily Dickinson, are even fiercer agonists than the men. Miss Dickinson of Amherst does not set out to help Mrs Elizabeth Barrett Browning complete a quilt. Rather, Dickinson leaves Mrs Browning far behind in the dust ..." In the matter of Sappho's being a fierce agonist and not the Lesbian Women's Poetry Co-operative, Professor Bloom has only prejudice to guide him. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is certainly not as good a poet as Emily Dickinson, but no ego was ever greater than hers. No one in history, not excluding Emily Dickinson, is less likely to have worked a quilt. Her aims, if not her achievements, were canonical; if Maya Angelou is treated respectfully byBloom, Elizabeth Browning deserves better at his hands than to be left "in the dust". We will not know that Dickinson's poems live if we cannot tell that Browning's poems don't. (Dickinson herself was never sure.)

Bloom's discussions of his favourite books are, as usual, stimulating if not informative. His often grim syntax occasionally emits a whiff of humbug, which takes solid form in the absurd lists that complete the book. There can be as little reason for including the untranslated 16th- century Italian poet Gaspara Stampa in a highly selective list as for excluding Sylvia Plath from an unjustifiably inclusive one. The inclusion of the odd West Indian and a New Zealander and a score of central Europeans in translation, together with some Israelis and some Arabs, in the canon of the future serves no purpose but to affirm the cultural dominance of more than 160 of Bloom's US ilk, listed as if they were all of the stature of RK Narayan and Pablo Neruda. Bloom's anxiety to identify his own cultural milieu as central and to place himself at the centre of it is understandable, but none of us has to share it.

'The Western Canon', Papermac pounds 10

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