In 1994, the critic Harold Bloom mounted a vigorous public defense of the western literary canon, which was then under siege. In his volume, "The Western Canon," Bloom lauded the tradition of great western books, portraying himself as a singular reader in a one on one reverie with each of twenty-six canonical authors. No aspect beyond aesthetics, or influence, should count. Or so he argued from one side of his mouth.
But the Bloom-related buzz came from the very theme he pretended his readers should ignore--the political context surrounding the book, a context which, sadly, belatedly, persists. For the main problem with Bloom's stance is that, as many writers with origins outside or partly outside the West can tell us, the Canon is universal in ways Bloom simultaneously grasps and discounts. Bloom's is a one-way universality found when productions of Shakespeare travel to Teh ran. But all too rarely does Tehran get to Stratford-upon-Avon.
Indeed, all writers who came after Shakespeare have stood in the shadow of his influence. And all, willfully or almost willfully, misread him--as a result of their "anxiety of influence" and as a way to cast him off and find their entry point into the Canon that Bloom and his school of thought would hold. In Shakespeare's case, you can only work around him. He contains all of us. He invented us, anticipating all the scholarly breakthroughs in philosophy and psychology that would follow.
This argument risks being buried under the multiculturalists' program--a veritable "School of Resentment," populated by Marxists, feminists and other fellow travelers. The anxious defenders of the long-standing Western Canon come to rest on the notion that opening the Canon dilutes it. There simply isn't enough time to read key parts of the Canon--even less after we include works merely for their multicultural values. Bloom, that pied piper of the Western Canon, was clearly wrong to see fidelity to the tradition of great writers as fundamentally incompatible with multiculturalism. It shows a deep misunderstanding (by this icon of western culture) of multiculturalism's corrective impulses. It shows how much he misdiagnosed the true threat.
In 2010, the Berlin Wall is still down. Markets rule, though tentatively. The world's straight-jacketed superpower has its first black president, with roots in Kenya and a youth spent in Indonesia. Suddenly, the great agenda of multiculturalism holds sway, despite the strains imposed by large-scale immigration in Europe and the United States, and the backdrop of the war on terror, with its latest "ground-zero mosque" frenzies. Multiculturalism will overwhelm these threats, too, because it has already found consensus. The United States, Europe, Africa (notably Nigeria), India and other parts of Asia, notably the Philippines, are all flush with brilliant writers who may write in English but whose parents or grandparents spoke the language only second, or not at all. Then there are the great Japanese and Chinese writers who come to us in translation.
Many of these writers remain rooted in their original birthplace, but have a relationship with the West via language, work, schooling, exile or immigration. Others reside in the West, and tell stories of double-life, double identity--the here before here was here. Largely, it's the back and forth, literally and figuratively, that initiates and drives many of these authors. How to be your own doppelganger, culturally speaking, is the great subject of the global age--how to be at odds with yourself as you toggle between cultures.
In today's atmosphere of an all but moribund publishing industry...