Let me begin with Harold Bloom, who died, at the age of 89, in New Haven, US, on October 14th. He was the last of literary critics with whom the adjectives we use otherwise lazily felt at home: colossal, majestic, imperious, classical, prodigious… He lived in the company of immortals, ranging from Shakespeare to Kafka, enjoying every moment of it, as reader, interpreter, and gatekeeper. Literature for literature’s sake—that was him, and he reigned in his imperium as, elsewhere, poststructuralists, multiculturalists and sociologists savaged the text. He was the lone tower. He was the don who believed that it was very unrefined for anyone to expect social responsibility from imagination. His gods didn’t write for a better world, but for a better read. He upheld the sovereignty of imagination.
When I heard about his death, I returned to my favourite Bloom. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages has admirers, awestruck as always, and detractors, armed with politically correct sociology, in equal measure. For the admirers, here is the highest guru of Western literature semaphoring you through forms and variations of the sublime. For the detractors, here is another instance of the White male parade. Read it for the pure joy of sharing great books with the finest reader of them all. Bloom puts the doubters in their place before unveiling the greats: ‘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.’
The canonical mind defies what Bloom describes at book-length as ‘the anxiety of influence.’ It is reading that makes a writer a writer, but can reading make a writer inhibited? Will mighty ghosts continue to haunt a good writer? Will a writer’s words be indebted to the words he read? Bloom says ‘The anxiety of influence cripples weaker talents but stimulates canonical genius.’ At the centre of Bloom’s Canon is Shakespeare: ‘At once no one and everyone, nothing and everything, Shakespeare is the Western Canon.’ You are unlikely to be surprised by most of the twenty-six writers he chooses—with a certain amount of nostalgia as he says in the very beginning: Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Molière, Milton, Dr Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Freud, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Borges, Neruda, Pessoa, and Beckett. European, mostly male, and all dead—that’s what his critics said of the list, and they may be partially right if we index writers according to the prevalent identity politics. That said, I would have loved to see Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann in the Canon, and, if being alive was not a disqualification when the book was published in 1994, Garcia Márquez, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Kundera (still alive). Bloom shrugs off the harrumphers: ‘If literary canons are the product only of class, racial, gender, and national interests, presumably the same should be true of all other aesthetic traditions, including music and visual arts. Matisse and Stravinsky can then go down with Joyce and Proust as four more dead white European males.’ Bloom has an ideology, and it is called aesthetic, and as any other ideology, it is steeped in its own certainties.
Harold Bloom lived in the company of immortals, ranging from Shakespeare to Kafka, enjoying every moment of it, as reader, interpreter and gatekeeper. Literature for literature’s sake—that was him
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The most recent Bloom I read was his introduction to Edith Grossman’s magnificent new translation of Don Quixote. In this, Bloom gives the canonical Cervantes a place alongside Shakespeare: ‘We need, with Cervantes and Shakespeare, all the help we can get in regard to ultimates, yet we need no help at all to enjoy them. Each is as difficult and yet available as is the other. To confront them fully, where are we to turn except to their mutual power of illumination?’ Still, turning to the last Brahmin of literary criticism is one of the surest ways of knowing the masters better. Harold Bloom couldn’t afford to miss anything that the finest sentences ever written intended.
WE BEGAN this issue of the magazine as our annual, pre-Diwali wealth special. Then Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer won the Nobel Prize in Economics and changed the cover—and the argument.
The Wealth Issue had to give away the cover space to three economists, one of them a Kolkata boy who developed a scientific approach to poverty alleviation. I find no irony here. Abhijit Banerjee’s experiments with poverty provide moral content to wealth creation. His innovative studies democratise the ideas and attitudes of prosperity. It matters because anti-rich politics has a sway over not just the Democratic primaries of the US but an India which has not fully discarded its socialist mindset in spite of a historic right turn. When in doubt, we are all socialists.
And when the correct sociology demands, we add ‘filthy’ adjectives to the rich. What Banerjee’s Nobel says in the end is this: the wealth of ideas can reduce the gulf between the poor and the prosperous.