The Canon

 The most prolific upholder of the Modern “canon” is Harold Bloom, the quintessential Modernist holdout surrounded by a sea of Postmodern theorists. However, Bloom, always an interesting and prolific writer, is merely more frank than his colleagues who were never champions of the Other, except as signifiers. The argument over the Canon coincided with the entry of women and people of color, gays and lesbians in the halls of academia and it is here, in these very institutions, that people are taught to read certain books and to look at certain works of art. By privileging certain authors articulating the concerns of certain classes and certain genders and by refusing to include the voices of the Other/s, the formation of the canon is an ideological act. The process of forming resembles that of selecting the “appropriate” texts for religious books, such as the Bible–only some are chosen. The rejected writings may have been deemed “marginal” or “non-orthodox,” but the final choices are shrouded in mysteries of confidentiality that hide the politics or the political impact. The formation of religious canon/s is usually in the hands of the so-called authorities but literary and artistic canons were less a matter of authority than of the availability of some works of art for study and not others or the extent to which a literary work is impactful or influential or referred to.

The fact that canons are formed casually over time does not blunt their ideological effect. Whether or not production has intent, and I would argue that it has, the end result of the Canon is to establish an authoritative “list” or “approved’ works that are deemed “suitable” for study and contemplation. The problem, as with all exemplars is that the choices cannot be sustained, except in a very few cases, in terms of “quality” and can be defended only in terms of the superiority of gender or race. While it is possible to argue that Shakespeare is “superior” to other writers in English, it is not possible to argue that T. S. Eliot is “better” than Virginia Woolfe and that therefore, the female should be excluded. Those who are opposed to the imposition of a Canon are not opposed to separating grocery store “romance novels” from the Brönte sisters but are opposed to including some at the inclusion of others. For example, it makes no sense to exclude either Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt from Impressionism, for they too painted in that style, were present at the creation, and were “painters of modern life.” To exclude Virginia Woolfe as a Modernist writer from the Modernist “canon,” is to defy history and to rewrite the formation of modern literature.


Instead of appealing to the accuracy of historical events, the 1980s debate over the Canon devolved into a proxy fight over the disempowering of women in order to continue to valorize the male. The Canon, or the concept of the Great Books or the Major Monuments, had long been considered the very definition of Western culture itself. “Culture” was assumed to be timeless and transcendent and revelatory of “civilization.”  Until the rise of the “culture of critique” or as the art critic Robert Hughes called it “the culture of complaint,” the omission of women and people of color from the list of the “greats” and the “majors” was considered to be the “natural” result of the “deficiencies” of those who were the Other. But the Other spoke up and pointed out that the Canon was more than a reading list or a compilation of images and was a political instrument actively engaged in the oppression of disenfranchised peoples. In actuality, the fight over the inclusion and exclusion of those in or out of the Canon is based upon the argument that time is limited and that only so many works of art can be studied in the allotted time of the semester or quarter. Hopefully, that argument will become anachronistic with the increasing use of computer based courses, eliminating constraints of time and space and enabling students to wander among available books and works of art and make up their own minds.

Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973)

One of the staunchest defenders of the Canon is Harold Bloom, a lone voice of dissent against Deconstruction, a final defender of authoritarianism in the Yale School of Critics, once a hotbed of radical thought. Some of his colleagues and most powerful adversaries are dead: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Paul de Man (1919-1983) but J. Hillis Miller lives on. The School is a legend of the past with its heyday going back to the debate over the Canon. To understand how important the Yale School was in the 1980s is get an insight into the literary quarrels among the contending perspectives of  New Criticism, Marxism, Deconstruction, Feminism and Multiculturalism. Of this rather assorted list, only Deconstruction was disconnected from the Enlightenment. The other “isms” were either white-male based: New Criticism and Marxism or were reformist: Feminism and Multiculturalism. Out of this fertile ground for affirmative debate over ideologies in the Canon came massive changes in the humanities that altered the way a work of art is studied and analyzed.

Harold Bloom, described in an amusing 1986 article, “The Tyranny of the Yale Critics,”  by Colin Campbell as looking like Zero Mostel, rose above the battleground and stood his ground, defending the great works while ignoring all others. Bloom’s tireless defense of the Canon is less interesting in the long run than his description of how art is made and the relation of artists to their predecessors. For Bloom, the artist is always an avant-garde creator, a tormented Romantic genius, who struggles with a sacred and sanctified duty to be original. As Campbell mockingly wrote,

During the 1960’s and 70’s, Bloom’s hot-blooded readings of the 19th-century Romantic poets helped melt the authority of the New Critics (an intellectually cool group that distrusted Romantic enthusiasms). His dark, agonized, Freudian speculations over the process known as ”literary influence” – over the ways writers creatively misread and try to outdo their artistic predecessors – became the theme of his career.

Criticized by Feminists of constructing a masculine and Oedipal field of struggle between “fathers” and “sons” in violent creative competition, Bloom created a model of agonism and conflict that brings “great” works of art into being. Without preamble or preparation, Bloom plunges into his thesis of the “strong poet” and the “weak poet” making an argument that the relative strength and weakness can be measured in how each poet reacts the presence of precursors.  Bloom sought a way out of Modernism’s cherished notion of “influence,” a narrow and reductive concept that was an enterprise that was inadequate at best and damaging at worse, shadowing the artistic experience with a simplistic mechanism of mere borrowing. Using the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Narcissism, Bloom separated the artistic world into strong poets and weak poets.  Strong poets would triumph over their predecessors and overcome The Anxiety of Influence through something he called the “transitive originality,” meaning that originality is either passed on or newly discovered.

Originality is denied within Postmodernism, but Bloom rescues it from theoretical oblivion by asserting that the meaning of a poem can be only another poem, making poetic history the history of strong poems. The battle for the new artist is to accept the works of the predecessors, to do what has already been done, and to ultimately beat history through misinterpretation or misprision.  Strong poets read their predecessors inaccurately through a different subjective paradigm and system of values, resulting in a strong new interpretation or a strong and deliberate misreading that becomes a new imaginative space for the new poet. As Bloom wrote,

Poetic Influence–when it involves two strong, authentic poets–always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main traditions of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.

The problem of anxiety can be solved by the strong poet by a “swerve” away from the precursor. The swerve acknowledges the presence of the prior author and makes use of the available materials but on the terms of the next generation. Bloom, who delights in creating new terms, uses the word, “clinamen” to denote the “misreading” or

..poetic misreading or misprision proper; I take the word from Lucretius, where it meansa ‘swerve’ of the atoms so as to make change possible in the universe. A poet swervesaway from his precursor, by so reading his precursor’s poem as to execute a clinamenin relation to it. This appears as a corrective movement in his own poem, which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves.. 

Bloom created many terms such as”tessera,” which refers to a fragment (of a pot), which is both the antithesis of the completed object and the completion itself. “A poet,” Bloom wrote, “antithetically ‘completes’ his precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough.” The ideas of misreading and swerve, compared to the rest of the “Revisionary Ratios:” Kenosis, Daemonisation, Askesis and Apophrades, which are terms of elaboration, are key to understand Bloom’s main point: the poetic “sons” fear their poetic “fathers” in a Freudian sense. The sons fear the confrontation because they fear they will not measure up and will be castrated, i. e., that their inadequacies will be revealed through a weak poem which reeks of the influence of the father.

Because as Bloom contended, a poem can emerge only from another poem, the precursor must be acknowledged and the father cannot be “killed” by the strong poet. As he wrote, “Poetry is the anxiety of influence, is misprision, is a disciplined perverseness. Poetry is misunderstanding, misinterpretation, misalliance. Poetry (Romance) is Family Romance. Poetry is the enchantment of incest disciplined by resistance to that enchantment. Influence is influenza – an astral disease. If influence were health, who would write a poem?” What is odd about Bloom’s analysis of the Family Romance is that the Mother does not appear in the triad. His romance is a war between father and son in which the son is attempting to establish his own subject hood and thus his own self, his own Being. As Bloom noted, “When we say that the meaning of a poem can only be another poem, we may mean a range of poems: the precursor poem or poems. The poem we write as our reading. A rival poem, son or grandson of the same precursor. A poem that never got written – that is – the poem that should have been written by the poet in question. A composite poem, made up of these in some combination.” 

The importance of Harold Bloom’s work is that he brings Freudian theory into Romantic or Kantian ideas about “genius.” By asserting the importance of literature for literature, Bloom ended the myth of original creation, one of the central tenets of Western aesthetics. However, the books of Harold Bloom, products of a pre-feminist and pre-Civil Rights era, were published in a different world and seemed like rear guard resistance against both inevitable change and ethical justice. There are logical flaws in Bloom’s arguments, which imply that the agon of poetry is an all male affair (romance). Although Bloom seems blind to the work of women, it is difficult to imagine that his favorite modern poet, Wallace Stevens, could have written “Anecdote of a Jar” without his female precursor, Emily Dickinson. Likewise, if one asserts that because Virginia Woolfe was a woman, she had no precursors, then surely Bloom would have to rank her as an original genius. But in the 21st century, it is pointless to argue with or about an elderly man who reflected his own time and it is important to understand his next book as an extension of its famous precursor.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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