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Prof Douglas Robinson speaks on Harold Bloom and the American “theory wars”

24 Nov 2011

Prof Douglas Robinson, Tong Tin Sun Chair Professor of English and Head of the English Department at Lingnan University.
Prof Douglas Robinson, Tong Tin Sun Chair Professor of English and Head of the English Department at Lingnan University.

In his inaugural lecture today, Prof Douglas Robinson, Tong Tin Sun Chair Professor of English and Head of the English Department at Lingnan University, looked closely at the controversial 1994 book The Western Canon by the retired Yale English professor, Harold Bloom, who is interested in defining and defending the canon of all great Western literature*.

Of special interest in Prof. Robinson’s talk were the battles that have been fought over the literary canon in the US and elsewhere in the past few decades.

On the one hand, there are those on the Right who believe that the literary canon is a collection of Great Works characterised by literary achievements that are taken to be superior in some sort of absolute and universal way, so that critics simply recognise the greatness of those works and teach their students to do so as well.

On the other hand, there are those on the Left who believe that any literary canon tends to reflect the political and ideological values of the powers-that-be, and that it is the leftist critic’s task to challenge and overturn those values, and to replace less deserving Dead White Males on the canon (those who were included not because they were truly great but because they were dead, white, and male, and confirmed dominant ideological assumptions) with women and other persons of colour.

Harold Bloom (born 1930) wants to distance himself from that particular battle. He attacks the leftist approach angrily, accusing his younger colleagues of hating literature, indeed generally hating “aesthetic value”; but he tries (not always successfully) to avoid simply adopting the older conservative position according to which the canon is based on universal aesthetic value.

Bloom’s most famous books on literary theory from the 1970s, The Anxiety of Influence (1973) and A Map of Misreading (1975), persuasively and controversially argued that the “strength” of a great writer was largely an illusion created by the writer himself or herself in an anxious attempt to overcome a precursor’s overwhelming influence. He called—and in The Western Canon continues to call—this engagement a later writer stages with an earlier writer an “Agon” (battle); this Agon, he said (and says), is the true basis of all aesthetic value. What we value about a great writer, he argued—and continues to argue—is no collection of specific literary talents that are universally recognised as great but precisely the power of the agonistic illusion the great writer creates through his or her work.

Prof Robinson, who was a strong supporter of Bloom’s approach to literary study in those two works from the 1970s, offered a critique of Bloom’s vacillations and contradictions in The Western Canon, but then went on to explore what he called the “somatics” of literary criticism: the ways in which how we study literature and other art forms is grounded in affect.

Most notably, Bloom attacks the dominant left-leaning approaches to literary study as “the School of Resentment”—the idea being that the most respected literary scholars of our day resent actual literary greatness and want to tear it down, for reprehensible reasons. Resentment, obviously, is an affect; and it is one that was powerfully analysed in a historical sweep by one of Bloom’s greatest mentors, the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Genealogy of Morals (1886). And, like Nietzsche, Bloom too attacks his opponents’ resentment resentfully. Prof Robinson used his discussion of resentment in Nietzsche and Bloom to outline a “somatic” approach to the study of literature.

* A literary canon, modelled historically on the Biblical canon—the collection of books that were ultimately included in the Christian Bible, or viewed as “canonical”—is generally taken to consist of the literary works in any national or other tradition that we take to constitute its Great Literature. We talk about a British literary canon, which would include Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and so on up to our times, or an American literary canon, which would include Emerson, Poe, Melville, Whitman, Hawthorne, Twain, Dickinson, Hemingway, Faulkner, and so on.

About Prof Douglas Robinson

Prof Douglas Robinson is Tong Tin Sun Chair Professor and Head of English at Lingnan University. He did his undergraduate and graduate work in the US and Finland, taking his PhD in English at the University of Washington in 1983. He has also held professorial appointments at universities in Finland (Jyväskylä and Tampere) and the US (Mississippi). He is author of four books on American literature and culture, eight books on translation, two books on linguistics, five textbooks, and a novel; he is also editor of an anthology of translation theory readings from Herodotus to Nietzsche and co-author of a Finnish-English bilingual dictionary. His recent book publications include Introducing Performative Pragmatics (Routledge 2006), Estrangement and the Somatics of Literature: Tolstoy, Shklovsky, Brecht (Johns Hopkins University Press 2008), Translation and the Problem of Sway (John Benjamins 2011), and the forthcoming First-Year Writing and the Somatic Exchange (Hampton 2012).