Battle of the books

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Is there a canon of great works of Eng Lit that are indisputably the best? Michael Duffy watches the struggle between elitists and populists and discovers the vital role of inspired teaching

There is nothing new about the battle of the books. Jonathan Swift summed it up neatly in 1726 in his famous fable of the spider and the bee. The modernist spider - "was ever anything so modern as the spider in the air?" - "spins and spits entirely from himself" and produces nothing more substantial than flybane and a cobweb. The traditionalist bee, on the other hand, labours diligently and "by a universal range, long search, much study, and true judgement and distinction of things brings home honey and wax". Swift was on the side of the bees.

But in the United States, where the battle has raged with unusual severity for 20 years, the bees have been in retreat. The "great books of western culture", once a required element in a majority of undergraduate courses, are everywhere losing ground to the postmodernist forces of deconstruction and contextualism, and to the strident imperatives of class, race and gender studies.

In 1994, however, the conservative critic Harold Bloom, attacking what he called "the current squalors and mere anarchy being unleashed on what used to be called the learned world" (and with a $600,000 advance reputedly in his pocket) published The Western Canon - a defiantly categorical shortlist of 26 indisputably classic authors, with a separate long (indeed, very long) list of 3,000 must-read works by authors who don't quite make the premier division.

Bloom's book, in some ways a Lear-like cry of rage against the insolences of youth and the times ("professors of hip-hop, ideologues of gender and various sexual persuasions, multi-culturalists unlimited") was mocked for its tone and the occasional perversity of its choices. It struck a chord, though, and the debate swelled.

In 1996 David Denby, long-time film critic of the New York Magazine, added to it by publishing Great Books, an account of the year he spent re-taking the Columbia University Literae Humaniores and Classical Civilisation courses that he had studied as an 18-year-old some 30 years before. Now William Casement has joined the field with The Great Canon Controversy - the battle of the books revisited, as it were, with some eminently sensible armistice proposals.

Reading is a very personal experience, and classifying it was always problematic. "No taxonomy without misrepresentation", we might reasonably reply. Lists are hard to resist, however, and best books lists are no exception. There is so much to read - pace Harold Bloom, so many shelves of "classics" in our crowded bookstores - that we need some pointers and some guidance. Were we so minded, we could follow the debate at this simplistic level, and write off the critical hostilities as skirmishes in the turf wars of academia.

But Casement's short book shows that there is more to it than that. True, "great books" courses are alien to English education. The context of the debate is different, too. It would be highly unlikely that English students would ever march, as those of Stanford did in 1987, to the chant of "Hey-ho! Hey-ho! Western culture's gotta go!". Even so, the battle of the books raises real issues for English readers, not least because it is rooted in divergent views about the nature of education. When politicians of all colours cite "education, education, education" as their priority for action, we need to think carefully about the changes we are promised.

Besides, there are already pointers in the wind - and not just the fact that Tony Blair improbably chose Ivanhoe as his favourite on Sue Lawley's Desert Island Discs, and that the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, anxious to emphasise the proper degree of difficulty of the A-level English literature syllabus, announced that in future it would be impossible to pass without studying (as if this was new) "key texts from the English literary heritage".

For some time now Nicholas Tate, the chief executive of SCAA, has been hinting that it is time to revisit the national curriculum, still in suspended animation after Sir Ron Dearing's compromise review. The curriculum lacks, Tate says, "a unifying strategic direction"; it needs "to engage more with the ideas, values and attitudes that underlie everything we do".

There is a subtext here, as Tate himself makes clear: "Schools are suffering from the side-effects of a general weakening of a proper sense of pride in our culture, our history and our distinctiveness." That's pretty close to the classic American expressions of western canonism: "We teach western culture because it's ours and because it's good." Or (Tate again): "There is a danger in egalitarian societies of sinking to the lowest common denominator, especially in moral and cultural matters, and in matters of the mind that are difficult."

That's not a thousand miles from Harold Bloom. It's even closer to the chilling dictum of F R Leavis, the Cambridge critic whose extraordinarily narrow view of English Literature greatly influenced most postwar English teachers: "Out of triviality comes evil." But what is distinctively good, and what is trivial?

Let's be clear, then, that we are part of this debate. The positions that are taken up on one side or the other are our positions; like the books that feature on these lists of good and better, they need consideration and reflection. There is an assumption, for instance, on both sides of the argument - and Dr Tate certainly seems to share it - that the right books (by extension, the right curriculum) - can inculcate a particular morality.

Interestingly, both Casement and Bloom demolish this. The west's greatest writers, Bloom asserts, are subversive of all values, both ours and their own. Other assumptions, however, are harder to dislodge. One of them (to which Bloom most certainly subscribes) is that if you add to the canon, you necessarily dilute it. "More means worse", as Kingsley Amis once put it.

The thesis here, deeply rooted in English educational thinking, is that one of the functions of the cultural curriculum is to be exclusive - to mark out, so to speak, "us" from "them". The code words here are "rigour" and "excellence", defined of course in terms of the minority who achieve them. Learning has to be uncomfortable, too: it should yield what Bloom revealingly describes as "high unpleasure". John Major's catechism of educational virtues - "Knowledge. Discipline. Tables. Sums. Dates. Shakespeare. British History. Standard English . . . Tests" - catches this mood precisely.

It's not far from this to a third assumption, held particularly by those who dispute the peculiar virtues of the canon, to the effect that the classic text curriculum is exclusive and conservative in the political sense as well. It represents, they say, a traditional view of western culture and a traditional view of society and marginalises those who by race, class or gender do not fit that framework. In a divided, pluralist and multi-cultural society, that is its critical failing.

Denby's book, however, is a powerful counter-argument. His account of his year at Columbia (it's subtitled "My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World") makes exhilarating reading. There is a sense of "discipline" (Kant was particularly demanding) but there is an intoxicating sense of pleasure too as a writer professionally immersed in the visual media rediscovers the extraordinary power of ideas and language. What strikes most forcibly, though, is the response of his fellow students, white, black, Asian and Latino freshmen, to the unfamiliar texts that they read, engage with and discuss.

Mediated by remarkably skilful and perceptive teachers, the texts provoke argument, hostility, enjoyment, sometimes passionate dislike - but never indifference. Sitting in on their seminars, Denby watched students learning to confront directly, free of "the media haze of second-handness", the universal issues of selfhood, community and morality. The last thing these books are, he says, is reactionary; taught like this, in each other's context, they are properly and profoundly radical.

Taught like this. Not the least of the pleasures of Denby's encounters with the 30 or so "indestructible" works that he re-reads is the insight it gives into the strategies that teachers employ to open the doors of understanding. There are some outstanding teachers in these pages who can "build up a reading ego in their students, brick by brick". "Think double," one of them constantly advises. "Every choice is an exclusion." Like Denby's writing, it's a comment that throws both the battle of the books and our own long curriculum debate into very sharp perspective.

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom, Macmillan Papermac, Pounds 20.00; Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World by David Denby, Simon and Schuster, $30.00; The Great Canon Controversy: The Battle of the Books in Higher Education by William Casement, Transaction Publishers, $29.95

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