U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Nymphs Who Know

The famous Yale literary critic Harold Bloom passed away earlier this week.  I did not know the man, and will leave it to others to mark his passing or offer reflections on the sum of his life.

But as a historical subject, Bloom is familiar to me; his interventions about “the canon” are of course part of the debates I’m focused on.

But I’m not primarily interested in what Bloom had to say about “the Western canon” in the 1980s and 1990s. I’m much more interested in some of his earliest published writing on the composition of “the” canon.

Here are a few paragraphs lifted straight out of my book-in-progress:

In the 1970s, Yale literary critic Harold Bloom abstracted current political critiques of the syllabus into a more general process that could be studied, to which he gave the name “canon formation.” Bloom certainly did not coin that term, nor did he pioneer the critical interrogation of literary canons.  The history of canon formation – particularly the formation of scriptural canons of various kinds, the sacred antecedent to the secular age’s various sets of recognized authorial, national or transnational literary oeuvres (e.g., the Shakespearean canon, the canon of French literature, the Western tradition etc.) – had long been an object of study among scholars of religion and Biblical languages and literatures.[1]

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the explicit project of questioning, critiquing, dismantling and perhaps remaking the Western canon as instantiated in the college syllabus was a crucial aim of Black and feminist scholars within the academy.  Their pointed challenges to the tradition as taught, challenges that grew out of a particular politics as well as of a particular relation to the academy as outsiders coming in, made the constructed and contingent nature of what had passed for unalterable and unaltered tradition all the more visible.  Black, Chicano and feminist activism to remake the college curriculum, particularly the curriculum in English classes, laid bare a mother lode of questions and problems for further exploration by the broader scholarly community.  Their work of contestation made it both possible and urgent to think of “canon formation” as a distinct and important field of inquiry.  Bloom staked an early claim to shape the critical contours of this field, via a pair of essays, published in the mid 1970s, addressing that current concern with “canon-formation.”[2]

In “The Dialectics of Literary Tradition,” published in 1974, Bloom argued for a long and continuous Western literary tradition, a tradition grounded in and dependent upon pedagogical concerns about what should be taught and learned, and what those who have learned should come to teach in turn.  These are, Bloom maintained, “commonal” concerns: “what is literary tradition? What is a classic? What is a canonical view of tradition? How are canons of accepted classics formed, and how are they unformed?”[3] On the one hand, Bloom attempted to defang or domesticate current debates about the literary canon and the college curriculum as simply present-day expressions of “these quite traditional questions,” the latest manifestation of the particularly Romanticist stance of Oedipal resentment toward tradition, a resentment that was itself thoroughly traditional, he argued, by the time of Bloom’s writing.

On the other hand, Bloom argued that something had changed, that something was new, that the basic continuity of the canon and the process of contesting it might be upended at last by a new phenomenon breaking on the horizon.  No longer “are there Muses, nymphs who know, still available to tell us the secrets of continuity,” Bloom lamented, “for the nymphs certainly are now departing.”  That departure of “nymphs who know” was not just poetical, not just figurative.  The “nymphs” once ubiquitous on the university campuses had metamorphosed into something less accommodating: liberated women.  “I prophesy though that the first break with literary continuity will be brought about in generations to come,” Bloom wrote, “if the burgeoning religion of Liberated Woman spreads from its clusters of enthusiasts to dominate the West.  Homer will cease to be the inevitable precursor, and the rhetoric and forms of our literature then may break at last from tradition.”[4]  In Bloom’s “prophecy,” feminism threatened the very foundations of “the West” – or, at least, of the Western literary tradition.  In claiming that the critiques of “Liberated Woman” threatened a decisive break with the past, Bloom was in effect claiming that feminists could not be considered as participants in that long tradition of pedagogical contestation within the university.

That’s all I’ve written about Bloom so far, and I may not have much more to say about him in the book.  Whatever his academic reputation had been, his popular renown as a defender and definer of “the canonical” came in the wake of the Stanford canon debates, and is in many ways a consequence of those debates.  Curricular change in the 1980s sparked many a declension narrative and many a stirring defense of “the great tradition” in the 1990s and beyond.  The Stanford debates made “the canon” a national story and helped give Bloom and others a larger audience for their later reactions and interventions.

“Clio, Euterpe, and Thalia” (1652-55), Eustache le Sueur

I do find it significant that in one of his early explorations of “canon formation,” a central question for literary criticism in the 1970s and 1980s, Harold Bloom identified feminism as the main “threat” to a Western literary tradition. His lament, “the nymphs are certainly departing,” reverberates faintly with rhetorical echoes of passages from 1 Samuel and Ezekiel, where the glory of the LORD had departed or was departing.

But that lament reverberates with other registers of meaning as well.  That’s partly why I stopped writing about Bloom at just that point in that chapter draft.  I didn’t quite know what to do with his definition of the Muses as “nymphs who know,” beyond noting that he linked the entrance of “liberated woman” with the exit of the nymphs.

“The nymphs are certainly departing,” wrote Harold Bloom in 1974.

Not so fast; Clio is still here.

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[1] See, for example, “Books Received,” Journal of Religion 2, No. 4 (Jul. 1922), 447; “Proceedings, December 27-28, 1950,” Journal of Biblical Literature 70, No. 1 (Mar. 1951), iii.

[2] Harold Bloom, “The Dialectics of Literary Tradition,” boundary 2 2, No. 3 (Spring, 1974):528-538; “The Necessity of Misreading,” The Georgia Review 29, No. 2 (Summer 1975):267-288.

[3] Bloom, “Dialectic,” 531-532.

[4] Bloom, “Dialectic,” 532-533.

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