Monday, August 31, 2009

Harold Bloom's Western Canon: Shakespeare as the Inventor of Modern Man

The Western Canon by Harold Bloom is by his own admission probably the last gasp of an ueber-narrative of the type no longer appreciated by the New Historicists and other "schools" of reductionism. Feminists and Ethnic/Racial-based scribblings of second-rate and third-rate twaddle-meisters which now pass for 'literature" in the Academy debase the currency of the life of the mind. Dead White European Males [DWEMs] are discounted and discredited by these epigoni dwelling in a generous academic house of bedlam. Foucault, Barthes, et al. announce the death of the author and give "social energies" the birthright of engendering great literature of a given epoch. In his trenchant remarks, Bloom adequately bemoans the "Untergang des Abendlands" without excessive Spenglerian gloom.

I myself quibble a bit with some of Bloom's choices. Leaving Paul Claudel out of the French canon is unfair. Leaving Animal Farm out of Orwell's oeuvre and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight out of the Early English canon are also quibbles I would make. But Bloom is correct in making Shakespeare the center of his canon. His remarks on Falstaff
"...Sir John Falstaff is so original and so overwhelming that with him Shakespeare changes the entire meaning of what it is to have created a man made out of words."

fit with my very inadequate experience in a lifetime of reading. Henry IV, Part 1 on a BBC DVD bowled me over last night, especially with Tim Piggot-Smith's rendition of Percy. But Falstaff, whom I had the privilege of trying to enact decades ago, is utterly the greatest scene-stealer in the history of drama, although Hamlet, Lear's Fool, and Iago all are close runner-ups, as is Lady MacBeth. I can understand why Queen Elizabeth enjoyed Falstaff so much in this play that she let it be known to the young playwright that more of the fat drunken highwayman/confabulist was wanted--with the much less interesting Merry Wives of Windsor the result. In this history of young Prince Hal, the language is supremely magical and exalted and rich---how did this glover's son with an affable personality surpass egomaniacs like Dante and Tolstoy and your average French novelist/philosophe?

Bloom comments on the uncanny ability of Shakespeare to survive translation into other languages. Moral fiction is an oxymoron of sorts and Shakespeare's detractors like G.B. Shaw and Tolstoy rank Uncle Tom's Cabin and Pilgrim's Progress above Lear and Falstaff. To which Bloom says:
Sincerity has no royal road to the truth and imaginative literature situates itself somewhere between truth and meaning, a somewhere I once compared to what ancient Gnostics called the kenoma, the cosmological emptiness in which we wander and weep, as William Blake wrote....Shakespeare gives one a more persuasive representaton of the kenoma than anyone else particularly when he sets the backgrounds of King Lear and Macbeth....we have to struggle hard to think of any representation that is not more convincing in Shakespeare than anywhere else, be it in homer, Dante, or Tolstoy. Rhetorically, Shakespeare has no equal, no more awesome panoply of metaphor exists. If your quest is for a truth that defies rhetoric, perhaps you ought to study political economy or systems analysis and abandon Shakespeare to the aesthetes and groundlings, who combined to elevate him in the first place.

And that is the rub, why the English common speech is permeated with Shakespearean tropes and quips and saws and sayings. He hit the ball out of the park and he bunted for base hits. He had his off days and his off plays. Marlowe was almost his exact contemporary and had written several masterpieces before Shakespeare had even got one minor hit. But the brilliant Christopher was a double agent and was killed, perhaps a political murder, before he was thirty years old. As Bloom notes:
" far as the School of Resentment is concerned...Foucault's Death of the Author ... merely alters rhetorical terms without creating a new method. If "social energies" wrote King Lear and Hamlet, why exactly were social energies more productive in the son of a Stratford artisan than in the burly bricklayer Ben Jonson? The exasperated New Historicist or Feminist critic has a curious affinity with the exasperations that keep creating partisans for the idea of Sir Francis Bacon or the earl of Osford as the true author of Lear. Sigmund Freud...went to his death insisting that Moses was an Egyptian and that Oxford wrote Shakespeare....It was somehow a great comfort to Freud to believe that his precursor Shakespeare was not a rather ordinary personality from Stratford, but an enigmatic and mighty nobleman. More than snobbery was involved. For Freud, as for Goethe, the works of Shakespeare were the secular center of culture, the hope for a rational glory in mankind still to come. There was even more than that for Freud. On some level, Freud understood that Shakespeare had invented psychoanalysis by inventing the psyche, insofar as Freud could recognize and describe it. This could not have been a pleasant understanding, since it subverted Freud's declaration that "I invented psychoanalysis because it had no literature." Revenge came with the supposed demonstration that Shakespeare was an impostor, which satisfied Freudian resentment though rationally it did not make the plays any less of a precursor. Shakespeare had played great havoc with Freud's originalities, now Shakespeare was unmasked and disgraced. We can be grateful that we do not have Freud's Oxford and Shakespeareanism to consort on our shelves with Moses and Monotheism and the various classics of New Historicist, Marxist, and Feminist Shakespeare. French Freud was silly enough; and now we have French Joyce, which is hard to take. But nothing can be as oxymoronic as French Shakespeare, which is what the New Historicism ought to be called."

Shakespeare is faceless as an author. With him there is no Yeatsian brooding over "perfection of the life or of the work." We know almost nothing about him.
The real Stratfordian wrote thirty-eight plays in twenty-four years and then went home to die. At forty-nine, he composed his last play, The Two Noble Kinsman, splitting the job with John Fletcher. Three years later he was dead...the creator of Lear and Hamlet died a not very momentous death after an uneventful life....we know that Shakespeare was quick to bring suits in Chancery to protect his estate investments.... [we must] fall back upon the work when no authorial maelstrom seems to be there. With Christopher Marlowe, I brood upon the man, who can be meditated upon endlessly, as the plays cannot; with Rimbaud, I brood over both, though the boy is even more enigmatic than the poetry...[but Shakespeare] has no incontestable spokesman in the plays: not Hamlet, not Prospero, certainly not the ghost of Hamlet's father whom he is supposed to have played....Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe in very different ways were great poets and sometimes remarkable dramatists, but the reader or player enters another order of art in encountering King Lear.

I suppose that I can go on quoting Bloom, who compares Dante & Shakespeare:
When you stand back from The Divine Comedy, the poem's strangeness shocks you, but Shakespearean drama seems at once utterly familiar and yet too rich to absorb all at once.

I experienced this richness and strangeness "...something rich and strange, those are pearls that were his eyes" last night watching Henry IV, but true horror and incomprehensible grief are unparalleled at the end of Lear, as the maddened King carries his dead daughter Cordelia onto the stage. Nothing in literature that I've encountered even approaches this absolute stomach-wrenching physical dread of my mortality as when I see how terrible life can be---without redemption or any ending that Hollywood or anyone could justify or rationalize---an inhuman condition.

Like the Shoah or other genocidal atrocities, it exists on a level of its own.

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