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The Blooms, the Bard and great books

In part one of this column yesterday, we started discussing Allan Bloom and Harold Bloom and their writings. In his book ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ (1987), Allan Bloom attacks what he calls ‘empty, baseless instinct’, and promotes ‘prejudices’ that are ‘visions about the way things are’.

“The mind that has no prejudices at the outset is empty”. I am tempted to reproduce the following lines from page 42: “Openness, as currently conceived, is a way of making surrender to whatever is most powerful, or worship of vulgar success, look principled. It is historicism’s ruse to remove all resistance to history, which in our day means public opinion, a day when public opinion already rules.” As an aside, those readers who want to read in Urdu a better collection of articles on historicism and neo-historicism should collect a marvellous book, ‘Nau tareekhiyat’ (Neo-historicism) compiled by Dr Naseem Abbas Ahmer of the University of Sargodha.

In part one of ‘The Closing of the American Mind’, Allan Bloom discusses the student as The Clean Slate, and tries to prove how new books, music, and even relationships engender dull and lazy minds. He promotes convention and tradition by saying, “…it is clear to me now that nature needs the cooperation of convention…to found the political order that is the condition of his natural completeness…I fear that spiritual entropy or an evaporation of the soul’s boiling blood is taking place…” (Page 51). He continues to lament the “gradual stilling of the old political and religious echoes” in students.

In the chapter titled ‘Books’, he promotes the idea of Great Books of Western thought that have been devalued as a source of wisdom. Allan thinks that without an understanding of important older texts, modern students lack any reference point with which they can think. To him, new images and languages of analysis enthral the young and persuade them that their petty rebelliousness is authentic politics. He was also dismayed at the “parental loss of control over the children’s moral education at a time when no one else is seriously concerned with it.”

None of the two Blooms was a pioneer to champion the idea of Great Books, which have been touted as the essential foundation in the literature of Western culture for at least 200 years. There are supposedly at least a hundred books that should be read by all educated people, before they can make a claim to be truly educated. Right from Thomas Jefferson to the two Blooms, some intellectuals of high calibre have deemed it necessary to classify and list the tomes that should be required reading for university graduates and for public officials alike, so that they can have a sound grounding in the literary traditions that can make them creative and conscientious human beings.

When the concept of the Great Books of the Western Canon was criticized as conservative and conventional, Allan and Harold Bloom expressed their dismay at the decline of American education. Harold Bloom called feminist critics the ‘school of resentment’, which to him was unproductive and which sought in their reading political aspects and ended up forgetting aesthetics. When Allan Bloom died in 1992 at the relatively young age of 62, Harold Bloom was also of the same age. He decided to carry forward the Great Books project in his 1994 book ‘The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages’.

In this book, Harold Bloom defended the concept of Western Canon by discussing 26 writers whom he sees as central to the canon. The first five of his celebrated writers are Cervantes, Chaucer, Dante, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, representing English, French, Italian, and Spanish literary traditions. According to his own theory of influence, all other writers in the Western canon were influenced by these pioneers who still dominate the literary scene, albeit indirectly. Then he moves on to discuss what he calls the ‘School of Resentment’ which includes feminist literary criticism, Marxist literary criticism, Lacanians, New Historicism, Deconstructionists, and semioticians.

Though nobody can deny the importance of the so-called great books, by doing this, Harold Bloom’s idea was to encourage purely aesthetic pleasure and understanding, without indulging in any ideological or theoretical discussions. As we know, even in countries such as Pakistan there has been a strong lobby that promotes the reading, writing, and understanding of literature purely on the basis of aesthetics, and not to gain a critical and social appraisal that can help you challenge the dominant narratives in society. For such people, literature is not a tool for societal change or even social understanding, and it is not the purpose of a novel or a poem to inculcate questions about class differences or injustices.

To Harold Bloom, canonization should not be ideological and we should access all great writings from an aesthetic power and judge by the yardstick of figurative language, originality, cognitive strength, and the exuberance of fiction. His advice that all new literature should be compared and contrasted by judging it in reference with the great books of the Western canon looks appealing at the outset. In reality, it precludes all references to new critical approaches to reading and understanding. The reader is discouraged and dissuaded from accessing new theories at all, that to Bloom are too ideological, and spoil the aesthetic pleasure of reading.

Though in the 26 writers he does include Borges, Freud, Ibsen, Kafka, Neruda, and Tolstoy — the only Russian to grace the list — even their reading should be purely for pleasure and not for any other purpose as suggested by the ‘school of resentment’. Western canon later included four appendices listing more works that Harold Bloom called canonical stretching which he did on the insistence of the publishers. He advised his readers not to get carried away by any insight that they may get through what he called the school of resentment.

He used this pejorative term quite often to describe related schools of literary criticism which had gained prominence in the academia since the 1970s. Bloom tried to explain to his readers that these new schools were preoccupied with political and social activism at the expense of aesthetic values. Now relate this to Pakistan and you see a similar streak running through the academic and literary circles here in which the writings that have a social and political message are frowned upon not only by the state but also by all state-sponsored academic bodies and institutions.

Harold Bloom went a step further and associated with the ‘school of resentment’ all critical studies and theories including African-American studies, Marxist critical theory and literary criticism, feminist and neo-historicist criticism, and post-structuralism. He was also at odds with Derrida, Foucault and Lacan, and all scholars who wished to enlarge the Western canon by adding writers from minority groups. Harold did not agree with any analysis that pointed out biases, or racist, or sexist values inherent in his beloved Western cannon of great books. He called all such attempts as ‘threatening’ to great literature.

If you want to read just one book by Harold Bloom, it should be ‘How to read and why’ (1999). This 280-page book gives examples of novels, plays, poems, and short stories that according to him we should read- – like he does — ‘as a solitary praxis, rather than an educational enterprise’. We know that praxis is a term for any practice that is distinguished from theory, which is more like a convention or custom.

“The pleasure[s] of reading indeed are selfish rather than social. You cannot improve anyone else’s life by reading better or more deeply. I remain skeptical of the traditional social hope that care for others may be stimulated by the growth of individual imagination, I am wary of any arguments whatsoever that connect the pleasures of solitary reading to the public good.” (Page 22)

To conclude, you may ask yourself a question: Is reading a solitary praxis for you to gain aesthetic pleasure alone? Or would you be more interested in the ‘schools of resentment’? This columnist is inclined towards the schools of resentment that make reading a critical process to gain social appraisal and a tool for better understanding society and improving it.

Dr Naazir Mahmood, "The Blooms, the Bard and great books," The News. 2019-12-24.
Keywords: Education , Public opinion , Political order , Natural completeness , Religious echoes , Moral education , Public officials , Political aspects , Social appraisal , Academic institutions , Social hope