Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Matthew Yglesias has a post today where he mentions Harold Bloom (well, he says "Howard," but I know what he means) and notes that Dr. Bloom is the man "who gives great books a bad name."

I'm partway through Dr. Bloom's "The Western Canon," and I think I am starting to agree with Matt. A former English major, I've always felt secretly ashamed at my dearth of knowledge on the classics. I rarely read much of anything pre-WWI, with the exception of the Russians. I missed Dante, skipped Milton, gag at the idea of reading the Bible, tried the "Iliad" three times to no avail, and convinced myself that I can't do "Odyssey" before making it through "Iliad." Thank God I dig Shakespeare, else I'd probably lose any English major cred I might have had.

I ran across Dr. Bloom's book (A New York Times Notable!)--a book glorifying the central works of the Western Canon by an eminent literary scholar--and I was sure that this man's great enthusiasm for these more difficult texts would give me the motivation to finally tackle them. Like having a passionate professor that inspires you with his verve, I thought Dr. Bloom's book would spark my curiosity with fascinating insights and revealing contexts.

Instead, the only service this book has performed thus far is convincing me that Homer can't possibly be less interesting than Bloom. For a man who purports to love these works, he sure makes a snoozefest of them.

First, you have to wade through what is apparently the prime motivation of this book. Bloom is concerned that the great works are under attack by the "School of Resentment," as he calls it. These are the feminists, the multiculturalists, the Queer Studies academics. It comes off as paranoid ravings from an out-of-touch academic who doesn't seem aware that Shakespeare and Milton and all the rest of them are still being taught everywhere.

Once you learn to ignore those passages, you still have to contend with Bloom's language which is so packed with academic-ese it's almost incomprehensible. At one point, Bloom notes that he admires Milton's "agonistic triumphalism," and leaves it at that. As if that were a self-explanatory phrase. Bloom is talking with his fellow academics in this book, and not to us. He ought to be trying to win me over from the ranks of the "School of Resentment," but I see nothing yet to cause me to cross over to his camp.

When you pass the paranoia, and when you manage to decipher his intent through horrendously opaque prose, there are some remarkable insights. I learned something about Shakespeare's originality that will now always inform my readings of him. But I'm glancing with ever-growing wariness at the other Bloom title I purchased: "How to Read and Why."

I fear the answers will be "like me" and "in order to cow your intellectual inferiors into proper submission."


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