Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, has spent a career advocating of an aesthetic approach to literature against Marxists, New Historicists, Post-modernists, and others in academic literary criticism who would seek the key to art in one all-encompassing theoretical framework. His most widely known work, “The Western Canon”, which makes a case for the indispensable great works of Western literature, starting with Homer and ending with Beckett, with particular emphasis on Shakespeare, would seem to mark him out as a conservative fuddy-duddy. And as regards culture (the word culture here used in the narrow sense, not the use it is set to in the new American right’s “Culture Wars”) that might not be too far off the mark.
But politically he is rallying to the standard of liberalism, and charging the new right with not only abdicating their defence of western culture, but being among the very barbarians at the gates of that civilisation. In a somewhat rambling essay, called “Reflections in the Evening Land”, he muses on the United States’s self-destructive tendencies and declares “democracy” to be a ruined word in any meaningful discourse in that country following its mercenary use by the the neoconservatives of the Bush administration.
he tries to trace the roots and tendrils of American identity and culture through its great writers, and Walt Whitman, as his representative of the “party of hope”, has not fared well in Bloom’s view. The old liberal order is doomed. The south has indeed risen again, and scored a belated victory in the Civil War, while Condoleezza Rice is proclaiming the return of Christ from the pulpit.
Lawrence [British novelist and poet DH Lawrence], frequently furious at Whitman, as one might be with an overwhelming father, a King Lear of poetry, accurately insisted that the Americans were not worthy of their Whitman. More than ever, they are not, since the Jacksonian democracy that both Whitman and Melville celebrated is dying in our Evening Land.
Though he possesses a Yale BA and honorary doctorate, our president is semi-literate at best. He once boasted of never having read a book through, even at Yale. Henry James was affronted when he met President Theodore Roosevelt; what could he have made of George W Bush?
Having just reread James’s The American Scene (1907), I amuse myself, rather grimly, by imagining the master of the American novel touring the United States in 2005, exactly a century after his return visit to his homeland.
Perhaps more than anything the article is a lamentation on behalf of the old east coast aristocracy. If one defines conservatism more as a defense of the recent status quo than any fixed set of principles, many members of this brahmin class, who originally opposed it, now feel called to man the battlements of the old liberal order.
A feeling has also sunk in that, some political differences aside, this Ancien Régime and their old liberal adversaries at least share a common culture, one with recognisable roots in a canonical European heritage going back to the Greeks. It is a culture that stresses moderation, balance and sets more store by reason than faith. It is also increasingly a culture under siege from the western frontier and on both sides of the political spectrum.
On the left the Enlightenment project is under siege from the forces of multi-culti relativists and postmodern corrosion who undermine the very idea of any fixed values at all and thus the possibility of making a stand for them. While on the right, the traditional reverence for culture and values has all but lost out to the combined onslaught of the new robber barons, who this time around acknowledge no value but that of profit above all else, and the religionist right, with roots in the old south and the mid-west, whose core attitudes have more in common with their enemies du jour, the islamists, than either the old guard east coast brahmins, or the mainstream of European thought.
What has happened to the American imagination if we have become a parody of the Roman empire? I recall going to bed early on election night in November 2004, though friends kept phoning with the hopeful news that there appeared to be some three million additional voters. Turning the phone off, I gloomily prophesied that these were three million Evangelicals, which indeed was the case.
Sometimes I find myself wondering if the south belatedly has won the civil war, more than a century after its supposed defeat. The leaders of the Republican party are southern; even the Bushes, despite their Yale and Connecticut tradition, were careful to become Texans and Floridians. Politics, in the United States, perhaps never again can be separated from religion. When so many vote against their own palpable economic interests, and choose “values” instead, then an American malaise has replaced the American dream.
It is a paradox indeed that those who bang the drum of American exceptionalism the loudest, are the very people who would undercut the values that country’s success was founded on at every turn. It is an achievement of perverse greatness how the deist and steeped in French enlightenment ideas founding fathers have been re-written into a congress of mullahs. It baffles the mind how, in the name of fiscal conservatism, national finances have been turned into a Ponzi scheme of towering debt, and how civil liberties are being eroded in the name of safeguarding those very same liberties.
More often than choices are foisted on them by outside circumstances, nations come to point where they must collectively choose their path to the future, choose what kind of civilisation they wish to be. The Depression was one such time. The United States chose FDR and The New Deal. A strong case can be made for this being one of those moments.
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