Excerpts from The Western Canon by Harold Bloom, for use in ENG 102: Effective Writing II essays, Spring 2007

From Chapter 2, Shakespeare, Center of the Canon

"Shakespeare and Dante are the center of the Canon because they excel all other Western writers in cognitive acuity, linguistic energy, and power of invention." (43)

"Just as Dante surpasses all other writers, before or since, in emphasizing an ultimate changelessness in each of us, a fixed position that we must occupy in eternity, so Shakespeare surpasses all others in evidencing a psychology of mutability. That is only part of the Shakespearean splendor; he not only betters all rivals but originates the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing . . . ." (46)

". . . Shakespeare is the Canon. He sets the standard and the limits of literature." (47)

"Shakespeare is to the world's literature what Hamlet is to the imaginary domain of literary character: a spirit that permeates everywhere, that cannot be confined. . . . Shakespeare has the largeness of nature itself, and through that largeness he senses nature's indifference. Nothing crucial in this largeness is culture-bound or gender-confined. . . . There is no substitute for Shakespeare, not even in the handful of dramatists, ancient or modern, who can be read and played with him or against him." (50)

"He perceived more than any other writer, thought more profoundly and originally than any other, and had an almost effortless mastery of language, far surpassing everyone, including Dante." (53)

From Chapter 1, An Elegy for the Canon

"Originally the Canon meant the choice of books in our teaching institutions, and despite the recent politics of multiculturalism, the Canon's true question remains: What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history? . . . Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read." (15)

"Reading the very best writers--let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy--is not going to make us bettter citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything." (15-16)

". . . the openers-up of the Canon and the traditionalists do not disagree much on where [aesthetic] supremacy is to be found: in Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the secular canon, or even the secular scripture: forerunners and legatees alike are defined by him alone for canonical purposes." (23-24)

". . . he is always ahead of you, conceptually and imagistically, whoever and whenever you are. He renders you anachronistic because he contains you; you cannot subsume him. You cannot illuminate him with a new doctrine, be it Marxism or Freudianism or Demanian linguistic skepticism. Instead, he will illuminate the doctrine, not by prefiguration but by postfiguration as it were: all of Freud that matters most is there in Shakespeare already, with a persuasive critique of Freud besides. The Freudian map of the mind is Shakespeare's; Freud seems only to have prosified it. Or, to vary my point, a Shakespearean reading of Freud illuminates and overwhelms the text of Freud; a Freudian reading of Shakespeare reduces Shakespeare, or would if we could bear a reduction that crosses the line into absurdities of loss. Coriolanus is a far more powerful reading of Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon than any Marxist reading of Coriolanus could hope to be." (24)

"The West's greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own. Scholars who urge us to find the source of our morality and our politics in Plato, or in Isaiah, are out of touch with the social reality in which we live. If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation. To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all. The reception of aesthetic power enables us to learn how to talk to ourselves and how to endure ourselves. The true use of Shakespeare or of Cervantes, of Homer or of Dante, of Chaucer or of Rabelais, is to augment one's own growing inner self. Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind's dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one's own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one's confrontation with one's own mortality." (28)

"The study of literature, however it is conducted, will not save any individual, any more than it will improve any society. Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves. Subsequently, he may teach us how to accept change, in ourselves as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change. Hamlet is death's ambassador to us, perhaps one of the few ambassadors ever sent out by death who does not lie to us about our inevitable relationship with that undiscovered country. The relationship is altogether solitary, despite all of tradition's obscene attempts to socialize it." (29-30)

"If we were literally immortal, or even if our span were doubled to seven score of years, say, we could give up all argument about canons. But we have an interval only, and then our place knows us no more, and stuffing that interval with bad writing, in the name of whatever social justice, does not seem to me to be the responsibility of the literary critic." (30)

"We [in the United States] are the final inheritors of Western tradition. Education founded upon the Iliad, the Bible, Plato, and Shakespeare remains, in some strained form, our ideal, though the relevance of these cultural monuments to life in our inner cities is inevitably rather remote. Those who resent all canons suffer from an elitist guilt founded upon the accurate enough realization that canons always do indirectly serve the social and political, and indeed the spiritual, concerns and aims of the wealthier classes of each generation of Western society. It seems clear that capital is necessary for the cultivation of aesthetic values. Pindar, the superb last champion of archaic lyric, invested his art in the celebratory exercise of exchanging odes for grand prices, thus praising the wealthy for their generous support of his generous exaltation of their divine lineage. This alliance of sublimity and financial and political power has never ceased, and presumably never can or will." (31)

"The Western Canon, despite the limitless idealism of those who would open it up, exists precisely in order to impose limits, to set a standard of measurement that is anything but political or moral." (33)

"The issue is the mortality or immortality of literary works. Where they have become canonical, they have survived an immense struggle in social relations, but those relations have very little to do with class struggle. Aesthetic value emanates from the struggle between texts: in the reader, in language, in the classroom, in arguments within a society. Very few working-class readers ever matter in determining the survival of texts, and left-wing critics cannot do the working class-s reading for it." (36)

"If we could conceive of a universal canon, multicultural and multivalent, its one essential book would not be a scripture, whether Bible, Koran, or Eastern text, but rather Shakespeare, who is acted and read everywhere, in every language and circumstance. . . . Shakespeare for hundreds of millions who are not white Europeans is a signifier for their own pathos, their own sense of identity with the characters that Shakespeare fleshed out by his language. For them his universality is not historical but fundamental; he puts their lives upon his stage. In his characters they behold and confront their own anguish and their own fantasies, not the manifested social energies of early mercantile London." (36-37)

"Banishing Shakespeare, or rather reducing him to his contexts, will not rid us of our tyrants. In any case, we cannot rid ourselves of Shakespeare, or of the Canon that he centers. Shakespeare, as we like to forget, largely invented us; if you add the rest of the Canon, then Shakespeare and the Canon wholly invented us. Emerson, in Representative Me, got this exactly right: 'Shakespeare is as much otu of the category of eminent authors, as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato's brain, and think from thence; but not into Shakespeare's. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakespeare is unique.
     Nothing that we could say about Shakespeare now is nearly as important as Emerson's realization. Without Shakespeare, no canon, because without Shakespeare, no recognizable selves in us, whoever we are." (38)