To those of us who ever so en passant studied literature in the 1950ies and 60ies, the works by Erich Auerbach, ”Mimemis, the Representation of Reality in Western Literature” and H.D.F Kitto, ”Greek Tragedy” stood out as the supreme pieces of reference of literary criticism. A bit later, in the 1970ies, the equivalent criticism in the musical field was delivered by Charles Rosen in his unsurpassed masterwork ”The Classical Style, Haydn, Mozart Beethoven”, parts of which I have read into pieces – I am into my second paperback of this book. I would compare the inspirational importance to me of these analyses of aesthetics to, say, Henry Kissinger’s ”Diplomacy” when it comes to, well, diplomacy and international politics.
Back to literature: close reading of the great writers – this was before post-modernism and political ideology took over the academic institutions – was en vogue and I tried to hang on to this trend according to my (rather limited) ability. In a catastrophic error of judgment I had decided to major in business and economics instead of focusing on the aesthetics and the humanities – a choice which I still sadly regret today. What a waste of mental energy and time, studying auditing, marketing and cost analyses instead of Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe! I was deeply unhappy and intellectually undernourished during most of my student years – even though I found economics a rather enjoyable brain exercise – for which I tried to compensate by desperately immersing myself into those exuberant student festivities. Fortunately I also developed some friendly relationships which I still maintain. And after my MBA I did take some academic grades in literature, just for consolation.
Now retired I have been trying to catch up with some reading but I must confess to a drastically shortened attention span, an intellectual mediocrity and lack of a knowledge base – what the Germans call ”Bildung” – bordering on the embarassing. Anyhow, my companion and guide to the great writers is now the Yale professor Harold Bloom, considered by some as being the most prominent of modern critics of literature. It was foremost ”The Western Canon” from the mid 1990ies that thrilled, inspired and absorbed me, followed by his ”Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human” and his witty essays in ”How to Read and Why”.
Bloom is no easy read and I have often spent time trying to figure out what he is saying, sometimes having had to give up. Fortunately for my self esteem I am not alone in finding his style enigmatic – inspired and evocative as it is; a kind of poetry in itself. However, his fundamental vision is completely clear and transparent: the reading of the greatest writers is a purely aesthetic endeavour – or maybe rather just pleasure – free from any political, ideological, social or moral connotation or judgement. And you guessed it already: such a posture puts him in direct confrontation with prevailing political correct academic trends. It is also hardly surprising that he energetically supported the least ”correct” of all (anti?)feminists, Camille Paglia by enthusiastically greeting her breakthrough work of cultural criticism about twenty years ago, ”Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson”.
You will find an excellent presentation of Harold Bloom in an essay by Adam Begley in the New York Times (Sep 25, 1994):
Let me summarize by some quotes from the essay:
”In the pages of ”The Western Canon,” Bloom strikes a heroic pose, the critic at the barricades defending the literary tradition of the West. He marshals those writers he judges ”authoritative in our culture,” Shakespeare foremost among them. He sings out the names of the elect; he accounts, with many a virtuoso turn, for their superiority. And he slaps insistently at his enemies (”these resentniks”), an insidious network of politically correct academics and journalists who resent, Bloom claims, precisely what he cherishes: the esthetic value of literature.
The despised ”rabblement of lemmings” includes Marxist critics, feminists, New Historicists — anyone who might read a poem as a social document, mix politics with literature or in any way dilute the primacy of the esthetic. Bloom scorns as well critics on the right who argue for the canon — the roll call of Great Books that define the Western tradition — in the name of patriotism or moral values. He dismisses the whole bunch with haughty authority: ”To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all.””…”Brooding on the mutability of Shakespeare’s characters, Bloom comes up with one of his most startling claims: ”The introspective consciousness, free to contemplate itself, remains the most elitist of all Western images, but without it the canon is not possible and, to put it most bluntly, neither are we.” The Bloomian notion of originality is not an egalitarian affair. Few can attain it; few can appreciate it. But great literature, he avers, has nothing to do with social justice: ”The esthetic is, in my view, an individual rather than a societal concern.”
All of this is anathema to the politically correct.”