2008. Vice magazine interviews Harold Bloom.
Vice: I was hoping to talk first about The Western Canon.
Harold Bloom: Do you mean the whole category, or what I wrote about it?
I mean your book.
But can we make an agreement? Let’s forget that damned list.
Ha. Do you mean the appendix in the back of the book that lists all the canonical works?
The list was not my idea. It was the idea of the publisher, the editor, and my agents. I fought it. I finally gave up. I hated it. I did it off the top of my head. I left out a lot of things that should be there and I probably put in a couple of things that I now would like to kick out. I kept it out of the Italian and the Swedish translations, but it’s in all the other translations—about 15 or 18 of them. I’m sick of the whole thing. All over the world, including here, people reviewed and attacked the list and didn’t read the book. So let’s agree right now, my dear. We will not mention the list.
It’s a deal.
I wish I had nothing to do with it. I literally did it off the top of my head, since I have a pretty considerable memory, in about three hours one afternoon.
It does seem like the sort of thing that a publisher would ask for to make the book more palatable to a casual reader.
It doesn’t exist. Let’s go on.
I am posting this exactly 1 minute after first discovering it.
My first reaction is: this doesn’t affect my project in the least. It has always been absurd and I’ve always cheerfully acknowledged its absurdity. Any endeavor must be yoked to some absurdity or other; I picked this one in full awareness of its arbitrariness. The point has never been that the illustrious Lord Harold Bloom hath delivered this Most Correct List unto us and I am therefor devoting myself to it. My attitude is, rather, that I found this very very long and varied list of all sorts of literary works. A list long enough to provide me foundation for a habit. Lists like this come from all sorts of places. I picked the longest one I could find online. Done.
But no question, his asserting that his list doesn’t exist sure felt like a slap in the face when I read it just now. That hurts my feelings. Yes it does exist Harold! Harold!
I don’t doubt that he’s embarrassed about it and wants to disown it. But go back and read the interview again, and between the lines. He is not saying that the whole idea of such a list is wrong. He is saying that he wrote it in a arrogant, lazy way and doesn’t want to have to answer for that — so let’s just not speak of it. This is an egotist’s evasion, which throws out the baby with the bathwater.
“I left out a lot of things that should be there and I probably put in a couple of things that I now would like to kick out.” Dude, I can assure you, I already knew that. Everyone already knows that. You’re not saying it was a flawed project, you’re just saying your work has flaws. So instead of disowning it, you could go make revisions, improve it. But you don’t want to.
This brings me to my second reaction: the reason he doesn’t want to is because list-making is a losing game. He doesn’t want his list to be “reviewed and attacked,” as it always certainly will be, because he doesn’t feel that he can win those battles and (relatedly) doesn’t think they’re important. I sympathize. But that’s exactly why I think the notion of a “Western Canon” itself is so absurd. That which one feels cannot be successfully defended in its particulars, one ought not to be pompous about in the abstract. There is a hypocrisy here.
In the rest of the interview, as usual, he comes off as an absolutely unbearable prig. In addition to insisting that his own list doesn’t exist, he also asserts us that James Wood doesn’t exist. “He just does not exist at all… There’s nothing to the man.” He wrist-flaps through a whole exchange on his utter, utter non-awareness of James Wood. It makes sense to me that Mr. Bloom would feel very threatened by anyone else entering his playpen and picking up his toys. He seems comfortable only when posturing to look down from a very, ah-very, ah-very great height – to the point of clownishness, my dear – which suggests that he is terrified of having actual peers. I personally have never felt that the notion of an “anxiety of influence” is particularly compelling or important, but I’m not surprised that it would be to Harold, who seems to operate according to a parallel anxiety.
So anyway, this has no bearing whatever on what I’m doing. The proof is in the reading, and so far the success rate has been very high. Though I do have my doubts about this one that I just started. (The one that I just finished will be written up soon.)