Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Harold Bloom disses Tolkien -- again

So, one of the things I've looked up as part of my current project is Harold Bloom's THE WESTERN CANON [1994], his impassioned defense of The Way Things Used To Be. Having read THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE [1973] years ago back in my graduate school days, I expected this to be pretty idiosyncratic,* but to my surprise his essays about specific authors look to be pretty good, from the dipping I've done so far (e.g., his understanding the importance of Austen's PERSUASION among her works).

This being Bloom, and I being an unabashed Tolkienist, I checked the index to see if there were any references to JRRT, and found only one, in his essay on Dante of all places:

. . . for a neo-Christian poet like T. S. Eliot, the Comedy
becomes another Scripture, a Newer Testament that
supplements the canonical Christian Bible. Charles Williams
-- a guru for such neo-Christians as Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H.
Auden, Dorothy L Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others --
went so far as to affirm that the Athanasian creed . . .
did not receive full expression until Dante. The Church
had to wait for Dante . . . Williams highlights throughout
his intense study The Figure of Beatrice . . .
the great scandal of Dante's achievement . . . (p.73)

Of course it's inaccurate to say that either Eliot or Tolkien, both of whom liked Wms personally, were ever under his spell. But that correction overlooks the point: for Bloom, a passing casual reference in a thick book with recommended/approved reading lists that run a full forty pages has the effect, I suspect intentionally, of marginalizing Tolkien. In Bloom's view, as expressed elsewhere (ironically, in his introduction to collections of essays about Tolkien's work that list Bloom himself as editor), Tolkien studies are a bizarre and peripheral phenomenon. It's as if fans of Barbara Cartland and Louis L'Amour were fighting to have them taught in university English courses alongside Orwell and Hemingway. Thus he's taken up the mantle of Edmund Wilson in this regard, to sort the wheat (his approved authors) for the chaff (everything else).

So, who does make the cut as literary among authors and works generally considered science fiction and fantasy (that is, claimed by science fiction and fantasy readers as one of their own)? In a quick skim through the extensive listings of Canonical works provided in Bloom's Appendix, I spotted relatively few, including Wells ("THE SCIENCE FICTION NOVELS"), A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS,** RIDDLEY WALKER, THE THIRD POLICEMAN, The GORMENGHAST Trilogy, THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, LITTLE, BIG, and a few others. No Bradbury, no Zelazny, no Dunsany, no Tolkien. I'd say there's something wrong with a standard that includes PUCK OF POOK'S HILL but cannot find room for THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

Of course, this book came before the big breakthrough of the "Book of the Century" polls. I'm curious what the next generation's version of this sort of book, whoever it's by, includes as 'canonical'

--John R.

*see, for example, his argument in his Preface that the best parts of GENESIS and EXODUS and NUMBERS were written by King Solomon's mother.

**Bloom has been a great admirer of Lindsay's for years, having gone so far as to write his own version of ARCTURUS called THE FLIGHT TO LUCIFER [1979].


Lagomorph Rex said...

Well he hates anything thats actually good. or worse, Popular with the normal people.

Thats basically what his book the Western Canon is about. Him moaning that the west is doomed because we read Stephen King.

Jason Fisher said...

In Bloom's view, as expressed elsewhere (ironically, in his introduction to collections of essays about Tolkien's work that list Bloom himself as editor), Tolkien studies are a bizarre and peripheral phenomenon.

This hasn't stopped Bloom from collecting a paycheck for reprinting the hard work of other Tolkien scholars (not to mention the scholars of many other works). Considering his opinion of Tolkien, I find his stamping his name on these collections absolutely reprehensible. What is his part in them anyway? Just to write a few pages of introduction, usually negative, then sit back and count the proceeds of the cottage industry he has made out of recycling the works of others?

And did you know that several of the essays were repurposed in Bloom's collections without the permission of the original authors and editors? When caught, they arranged for an after-the-fact payment. Disgusting behavior. He has made some good, original contributions to literary criticism, but I'm sorry to say I no longer have any respect for the man.

John D. Rateliff said...

In his defense, I'll point out that Bloom has praised THE HOBBIT (in his introduction to the JRRT volume in his MODERN CRITICAL VIEWS series) and said he thinks it may well prove a classic of Children's Literature, mainly because Bilbo is such a great character. By contrast, he thinks LotR "is fated to become only an intricate Period Piece" -- which is almost exactly the judgment Dr. Johnson passed on TRISTRAM SHANDY, probably my favorite 18th century novel, more than two centuries before. (I don't have the exact quote, but it went something like 'nothing odd can last. TRISTRAM SHANDY did not last'.
Well, we'll see.

Also, it's nice to see that at least Le Guin's book makes the grade as 'literary' (canon-worthy) rather than genre-fiction (entertainments). That divide or faux-divide, depending on point of view, wd make a good topic in itself for another post: what makes some writers acceptable to Powers That Be? Nor is Le Guin's canonization a recent event: I remember its being the book for the Freshman English research project at Fayetteville (Univ. of Arkansas) when I was there back in 1979-1981.


Dale said...

Does Bloom provide a satisfactory explanation of what "canon" means? I would have thought it premature to list Little, Big etc. as "canonical" works -- certainly if we are talking about "the canon of Western literature," and probably even if we are talking about "the canon of modern fantasy."

For determining what works may appropriately be regarded as "canonical," we need to consider not just their appreciation by people with good literary taste, but longevity. A canonical or "classic" work would be one that has proven itself over a number of generations.

My suggestion would be that, if we're talking about "the canon of Western literature," something like a hundred years should have passed before we would confidently assert that the work is "canonical." It is not too soon to say that Conrad's Secret Agent (1907) is canonical, but it is too soon to say that Greene's Power and the Glory (circa 1940) is.

Against this notion of the Western canon, I'd allow for categories such as "modern classic." The Power and the Glory, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, etc. are modern classics. I'd say for this category something like 50 years should have passed.

"Modern fantasy" could be defined as a recent phenomenon. I'm not comfortable with starting it with Morris, since that leaves out Coleridge, but the Morris-founder idea is widely accepted. A Wizard of Earthsea would be a classic of modern fantasy. I'd probably be reluctant to ascribe the term to anything published more than 35 years or so ago.

The point is that we want to factor in proven longevity. Otherwise, we can have a situation in which people call things "classics" or "canonical" when they mostly mean "I and people like me like them a lot." In that case these folks would think it is not too soon to start referring to the Harry Potter books or the Twilight books as classics/canonical.

Dale said...

Ugh. I meant "I'd probably be reluctant to ascribe the term to anything published LESS than 35 years or so ago."

Dale said...

...Speaking of authors in the canon of modern fantasy, C. S. Lewis as a TV show guest is the subject of a three-page article in the new Times Literary Supplement (11 March 2011, pp. 13-15). Nicely illustrated with photos of Kenneth Tynan, the producer, and Lewis taking a drag off a cigarette. One indication that Lewis is a classic writer of modern fantasy is that there's so much interest, years after his death, in relatively obscure things such as TV programmes that were never broadcast (Tynan objected to the television authority wanting the discussion, on "Eros in the Arts," being broadcast late, and pulled the episode). It is too soon to say that writers like Stephanie Meyer belong in the canon or classic modern fantasy. If, fifty years from now, her works have shown their staying power, with articles appearing about her life and unfinished works ("Twilight's Last Gleanings"), then that will be evidence that she belongs to the canon of modern fantasy. Time will tell, as it has with Tolkien, Lewis, Peake, et al.

Jason Fisher said...

Hey, Dale,

I agree with you that longevity is the key. In my view, anything that is still being read fifty years down the road can be called both a classic and canon. In fact, fifty years may be needlessly conservative. When you consider the tens of thousands of new novels published every year, anything still being read even twenty-five years later has, to me, more than proven itself.

The terms "canon" and "classic" are both used in highly subjective ways, but there is really no need to distinguish between them. Nor to distinguish "modern" classics from older ones, or to separate classics of fantasy from classics of other genres. To me, Graham Greene's works are definitely classics. Will Dan Brown's or Stephenie Meyer's books prove to be? Time will tell. Back in the mid 90s, people were calling The Celestine Prophecy a classic — quite prematurely, as it turned out. I suspect this will be the fate of The Da Vinci Code, but my guess is, the Twilight books will stand the test of time.

Dale said...

Thanks, Jase. Readers have many ways to say that they like a literary work and want others to like it too. It seems to me that we may still have a vocabulary that permits to make a useful distinction between works that have proven themselves over multiple generations vs. those that haven't done so either because they haven't been around long enough or because they haven't earned classic status.

I'll try quickly to present some thoughts on this. Some works may belong in more than one category.

1.Literary classic -- this is a term that implies that a work has won approval over several or even many generations; the term implies both enduring literary merit and also reader enjoyment. Gulliver's Travels is a literary classic (and a canonical work; see below).

2.Canonical work -- here the emphasis is one literary merit even if the work is not, perhaps, widely enjoyed. The Aeneid belongs in the canon of Western literature although it is not, perhaps, a book that many people have finished, in the original or in translation.

3.Popular classic -- here's a category for books that have proven themselves to be reader favorites over time even while they have not secured much regard for their literary merits. Dracula could be an example.

4.Modern classic -- a work that has not been around long enough for one to be confident in asserting confidently that it deserves recognition in terms of #1 or #2 above, or that has shown staying power and yet is not widely cited by literary readers. I would place Knut Hamsun (Pan, Mysteries, Hunger) here.

5.Personal favorite -- something that belongs on one's own list of favorites, without one necessarily making strong claims for its literary merit or popular acceptance.

I think that these terms or obviously similar ones are often used. They permit us conveniently to make distinctions when we talk about literary works. Those who disagree with me (I've had debates!) would be anxious about good works that they think people will miss if they concentrate on "classics," etc. It's not my purpose to discourage people from experimenting or to deny that someone might "get a lot more out of" some obscure book, such as Vesaas's eerie The Ice Palace, than from some books that have more "official" status. I just think that we need a variety of tools for talking about our experiences as readers, as people who might connect themselves with an ongoing, multi-generational conversation, etc. That conversation is a testament to the enduring quality of great works and the truth that one never gets to the place where one can say: "THIS is the significance of 'Hamlet' or whatever."

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Dale (et al.)
re. Bloom's definition of CANON; I'll let you know once I've had a chance to read the book.

The fifty-year rule of thumb is pretty close to what universities do in practice. WHen I was studying 20th century British literature, the key figures were Joyce (d.1939), Woolf (d. 1941), Lawrence (d.1930), Eliot (d.1965), and Yeats (d.1939), w. a few secondary more recent figures like Auden (d.1973) or Orwell (d.1950). Most of these folks' significant careers were more or less over by mid-century. Same w. 20th century American, which centered on Hemingway (d.1961), Fitzgerald (d.1940), & Faulkner (d.1962), Eliot (see above) & Wallace Stevens (d.1955) Pound (d. 1972, but career over by WW2).

This fifty-year lag seems to go back all the way to the founding of English Studies in the 1880s & 1890s, when they set up "English Departments" at universities and set up authors of the 1830s and 1840s (Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Holmes, et al) as the established authors in Am. Lit (along with Hawthorne, Poe, Cooper, & Irving, in prose). Tolkien in 1930 was still arguing that Oxford was right to stop "literature" at 1830 (e.g., pre-Dickens/pre-Tennyson). By the early 1950s fellow Inklings Sir David Cecil had convinced him this position was wrong, but he was never able to budge C. S. Lewis on this point.


Dale said...

I have some sympathy for Lewis's position, which, of course, is farther from being accepted than ever (didn't Oxford recently drop Beowulf from the required curriculum for English studies?

Didn't Lewis contend that the relatively recent work should not occupy space in the curriculum because undergrads could pick it up on their own? That work has been produced by authors living in conditions similar to or even the same as those in which the students live. When it occupies space in the curriculum, this will necessarily be to the disadvantage of earlier work that may really require scholarship for full understanding and appreciation. I think he is mostly right; an undergraduate can manage a poem such as The Waste Land, once perceived as difficult and challenging, more readily than Beowulf or even Chaucer. If we must make a trade-off, then let's go for the earlier work, Lewis might have reasoned.

I wonder, by the way, if his stance didn't reflect the influence of Owen Barfield's thought on Lewis. If an evolution of consciousness has occurred, then surely it is mistaken to allow students to focus on relatively recent works that have, presumably, been produced by consciousnesses much like their own; rather, there would be great merit in helping them to become acquainted with the consciousness(es) of much earlier authors, when the correlative relationship of nature and thought was different -- i.e. when not only were ideas about nature different, but nature itself was different. Lewis never signed on as an anthroposophist and perhaps he wouldn't have defended an emphasis on earlier works at the expense of recent ones on these grounds, but I wonder -- !

His essay "On the Reading of Old Books" (the introduction to a translation of St. Athanasius's On the Incarnation of the Word) is a nice little defense of the reading of older books on less contentious grounds.

John D. Rateliff said...

CORRECTION: Sorry, it's LORD David, of course, not 'Sir David'. Post in haste, repent in leisure, as they say.

Yes, CSL (like JRRT), felt there was no need to teach works from the previous century or so, since you could just read these without help from teachers. And yet CSL complained bitterly about the difficulty of modern poetry. Barfield was certainly a major influence; CSL felt, building on Barfield's work, that the movement to abandon a traditional 'poetic diction' had done real damage to the English language.

I shd say that I have no sympathy for this argument at all, and find it significant that Lewis kept attacking Eliot for it, when the real driving force behind it was Ezra Pound.

But the difficulty argument breaks down in and of itself. The claim that you need help to understand, say, Wm Blake but can puzzle out the notoriously difficult Rbt Browning on yr own is a specious one. Nor are Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and James Joyce's work easier to read than Jane Austen or Doctor Johnson -- most people wd say v. much the reverse.

I'd also like to meet yr undergraduates who have no problem reading and understanding THE WASTE LAND on their own. Such as not the case with the undergrads I knew at Magnolia and Fayetteville and Marquette. I suspect you had prodigies -- or perhaps it was an advanced honors programs?


Dale said...

John, my students didn't necessarily understand Eliot's Waste Land exhaustively, but I don't think it is hard to get the hang of this poem. It evokes an anxious, dispersed mode of consciousness, a sense that sex has disappointed one and life is frustrated, etc. All this amounts to a mode of feeling that they have no serious trouble understanding because it is a typical product of modernity. There are decent resources for undergrads who want to explore The Waste Land extensively.

Lewis did criticize the hermetic quality of A Cooking Egg, etc. That's another matter.

I think it may be too soon to say whether some of the notable literature of the past hundred years will prove truly to be "canonical." I suspect the period may have been rich in curiosities that led nowhere. I will forbear to mention any other instances than "Cooking Egg." These works may prove to be of interest for the history of taste and literary experiment, but not finally more important for literature than phlogiston and ether. They may amuse people for whom such curiosities are to their taste. But perhaps much-praised (over-praised) modern masterpieces are expressions of cleverness rather than of wisdom or true poetic genius.

But I would contend that even if these works (which I have declined to specify!) are truly great and of lasting value, so too are earlier works that will be crowded out if the curriculum is centered, as it increasingly is, on the recent and even contemporary. I don't know Anglo-Saxon myself. I suspect I would be better off with coursework in A-S than with comparable time spent on reading Henry James, Iris Murdoch, et al. -- who for the most part I can manage on my own.

And if, as I suspect, Barfield is really on to something about the evolution of consciousness, then the loss of an intimate, realized experience of earlier language and literature is a great loss indeed.

Those would be some quick concluding thoughts.

Dale said...

-- Actually, I must add a little before leaving this. I don't mean to imply that nothing written in the past century is worthy of an English student's attention, etc. I'm contending that undergrads arrive in college having read less and less of the canon and that an English degree curriculum can't include "everything"; thus there's a good case to be made that, time being limited, it is better to spend time on works that really have proven themselves and that need more effort to understand and enjoy than on the more recent. I'm no doubt writing in a "reactionary" mode. But I keep thinking of a colleague's anecdote about a student who told him that by the time (s)he was speaking to him, (s)he had read Toni Morrison's Beloved three times (three different classes). When that novel -- saying nothing against it -- was emphasized, what was not read in its place? And thus, what possible access to an earlier mode of human consciousness wasn't cultivated? You see my drift.

Dale said...

I'm sorry. I see I haven't mentioned one other matter. This -- and then I am done, I promise. A reduced acquaintance with canonical works has coincided with the ascension of theory. A problem with indoctrinating students in postcolonial theory, gender theory, etc. is that any given work ends up yielding pretty much the same story. Conversely, the student may graduate with little but a footnote-based "awareness" of, say, Renaissance neoplatonism -- a decent grounding in which might help to open up a great deal of poetry that remains, for him or her, pretty remote and forbidding. I fear that students are clapped in "mind-forg'd manacles" in many cases.

I have done.