Once Upon a Time...
As time progressed and the fears of participating in the activity of reading dissipated, the immense joys it brought as well as the gratifying rewards began to manifest themselves. It spread like the English fire of 1812 and before long, it had overtaken the largest part of the world. Who would have thought the simple act of reading would have such an effect? As previously mentioned, reading had once been not only lucrative by the exclusive number of people who knew how grasp its concepts but also a brave and ambitious venture. Not long ago in world history, reading and literature itself was scoffed and deemed nearly a waste of time. The number of people who were able to partake in this pursuit had remained small and fairly exclusive, such as monks in monasteries, reclusive scientists and philosophers. These were the people who were able to dedicate themselves and all their time to the endeavor that reading is in order to learn and question the world around them, whereas the remaining population of the world unfortunately had to focus their time in the desperation of merely surviving. As this cycle slowly began to evolve, more and more people began to use the arts of reading and literature not only to educate themselves in order to learn but to make their lives more productive and efficient, as well as forms of entertainment or leisure. The perception of reading and literature became such that it wasn’t for the kooks or the old maids anymore; it wasn’t just for learning the most effective ways to plow or rotate crops. People began to make reading and the forms of literature that evolved with it the escape to which they made in order to step away from the reality that was the difficulty of their lives. Reading was everywhere and it was enjoyable. But like all good things, it must come to an end. At least this seemed to be what began to happen as time progressed and great literature was canonized with fault found within it. Reading has found itself in a vicious cycle of being exploited in the same ways over and over again. The world sees this currently in the theories of literary criticism that are applied by scholars all over the world. This article will represent the canon and its primary supporter, Harold Bloom, alongside some of the foundations of how literature is criticized by contrasting other dominant literary theories to Bloom's own.
The Western Canon
Harold Bloom in his work The Western Canon has designated certain literary works into specific categories with the question, "What shall the individual who still desire to read attempt to read, this late in history?" (15) These categories include The Aristocratic Age with authors such as Chaucer and Cervantes. Next is The Democratic Age with such authors as Austen and Tolstoy. Finally is his Chaotic Age where he includes the authors of Freud and Kafka, among others.
Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory
Peter Barry has created a handbook for students called Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory to break down the most popular forms of literary criticism and theory that have evolved throughout history and many tumultuous eras. In his introduction he states, “The simple answer is that after the moment of theory there comes, inevitably, the ‘hour’ of theory, when it ceases to be the exclusive concern of a dedicated minority and enters the intellectual bloodstream as a taken-for-granted aspect of the curriculum” (1). This acknowledgement indicates exactly the vicious cycle into which reading and literature have fallen. It is only natural that as the creativity of the human mind finds itself embedded in the genres that fill the realm of literature, there will be both support and opposition to it. Without the freedom of choice, there would be no freedom to be creative. The unfortunate aspect to having this freedom of choice is that there will soon follow an explanation of why, thereby creating criticism. In the realm of literature, one will hear something like, “I don’t like Shakespeare and here’s why…” Soon may follow the exploitation of the working class, the degradation of women or minorities or that Shakespeare himself had an unconscious obsession to kill his father. With his statement, Barry means to say that the enjoyment and discussion of literature has migrated from the weekly book club to the now-educated-because-of-reading-and-literature minds of the world to become a grossly exploited method to forward one’s own agenda.
Reading has also progressed to not only find fault with a literary work itself but also to find fault with how one actually interprets it. With the historical intertwining of various world languages, an author has a plethora of words from which to choose. That being the case, a reader and literary critic have the same magnitude of words from which to extract meaning. As an example, this idea forms the base of the literary theory known as deconstruction. Jim Powell, in his entertaining explanation through the character Uma in Deconstruction for Beginners, states, “I would say that deconstruction is a way of reading a text.” The deconstructionist finds the gray area in language and forces the literary work into linguistic corners by forcing it apart so the reader can find what Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, calls the words that are undecidable. Powell explains, “Undecidability problematizes any final decision about the meaning of a text.” A reader may ask himself, “Why do I want to problematize Austen or Faulkner or Poe?” Deconstruction is meant to present the error in the evolution of literary theory because it has taken the method one uses to determine the meaning of a literary work and put it on the same level of philosophy intended by the ancients, like Aristotle, for actual human behavior and spirituality. Literature and human morality were never intended to be on the same playing field.
Although one may say he’s long-winded or easily distracted or quite possibly has an openly public fixation on Shakespeare, Harold Bloom is a classic literary critic, with this description having multiple meanings. As a literary critic, Bloom epitomizes the canon and what it stands for in literature. He’s classic in that not only does he review the classics, i.e. the canon, but also that he’s a literary critic for the sake of being a literary critic. He says, “To discover critics in the service of a social ideology one need only regard those who wish to demystify or open up the Canon, or their opponents who have fallen into the trap of becoming what they beheld. But neither of these groups is truly literary” (22). Bloom resorts time and time again to the aesthetic value of literature, meaning its true artistic qualities. In other words, he appreciates literature for what it really is and what its intended purpose has always been: to read and enjoy. He is able to present other literary critics and their ulterior motives in such a way to yank a reader out of the ideological clouds in which he finds himself, not necessarily to refute their educational purposes but merely to say, “Remember how Chaucer actually helped standardize Middle English with works like the Canterbury Tales?”
These days, a person may often find himself unable to read classic literature, especially works of the canon, without feeling forced to find hidden meanings using deconstruction, socio-political prejudices through Post-Colonialism or gender bias with a Feminist critical theory. Often this leaves him to resort to bargain paperbacks with nude men and women on the cover, which have a plot line meaning that no one can argue. Reading will find its original roots yet again, albeit at the hands of an ideologically motivated audience. Literature began its life with a solid foundation that has yet to be cracked even though the superstructure is crumbling around it. When this happens, a reader and even a literary critic will be left with that which has been lost for so long.