141. Solitude and Education, Part 3: Harold Bloom on Reading for Greatness and the Sublime

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), in his book Daybreak (1881), wrote:

On Education. – I have gradually seen the light as to the most universal deficiency in our kind of cultivation and education: no one learns, no one strives after, no one teaches – the endurance of solitude.” (aphorism #443, translated by Hollingdale)

But why the endurance of solitude? So far we have considered three answers: (1) solitude can help us find our authentic individuality and (2) solitude can help us understand other people and things more objectively (for these earlier posts go here). Now let’s consider a third answer that will continue to expand our cumulative case in defense of Nietzsche’s claim. We will see, again, that the answer tends to revolve around the notion of self-actualization.

(3) We should endure solitude if we are to truly read in order to encounter greatness and expand our self.

Harold Bloom, in his classic The Western Canon (Harcourt Brace, 1992), wrote: “Aesthetic criticism returns us to the autonomy of imaginative literature and the sovereignty of the solitary soul, the reader not as a person in society but as the deep self, our ultimate inwardness” (10). Here Bloom is reacting against those “resenters of aesthetic value” (518) who make the study of literature a means to some social or political reform. He hopes to inspire people to approach literature aesthetically, that is, for its inherent worth and on its own terms. Such a person “does not read for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a solitary existence” (518). Thus the means to enlarging one’s solitary existence, one’s “ultimate inwardness”, is through reading which is “a lonely activity and does not teach anyone to be a better citizen” (519). What then does it teach?

“Traditions tell us that the free and solitary self writes in order to overcome mortality. I think that the self, in its quest to be free and solitary, ultimate reads with one aim only: to confront greatness. That confrontation scarcely masks the desire to join greatness, which is the basis for the aesthetic experience once called the Sublime; the quest for transcendence of limits. Our common fate is age, sickness, death, oblivion. Our common hope, tenuous but persistent, is for some version of survival. Confronting greatness as we read is an intimate and expansive process and has never been much in critical vogue. Now, more than ever, it is out of fashion, when the quest for freedom and solitude is being condemned as politically incorrect, selfish, and not appropriate to our anguished society.” (523-4)

Reading isn’t so much about teaching as it is about having an encounter with greatness that can make us greater. It is essentially about having an aesthetic experience of the sublime that allows us to transcend our limitations. For Bloom, this greatness can be accessed by reading the Western Canon; and “the Western Canon is Shakespeare and Dante. Beyond them, it is what they absorbed and what absorbs them” (521). He argues that “the literary canon does not baptize us into culture; it does not make us free of cultural anxiety. Rather, it confirms our cultural anxieties, yet helps us give them form and coherence” (526-527). Unfortunately, many people can only encounter such greatness indirectly due to the “cheerleading for various social and political crusades” that accompany them. Or, what is worse, “the artifacts of popular culture replace the difficult artifices of great writers as the material for instruction” for a “culture of universal access” (519-520). One thinks here of the many books and lessons that replace the beauty and sublimity of classic works with the uninspired yet digestible media with which students are already familiar.

Reading Boy (1863), Eastman Johnson

So we see that those who can’t embrace solitude will be denied the experience of greatness through reading; and this denial will impoverish their selves. It is interesting that Bloom uses Kierkegaard’s word for an authentic self, namely, inwardness. So Bloom’s connection of solitude to education through reading is consistent with the claim made by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche that solitude can help us develop as authentic individuals. It also connects nicely to our second reason insofar as solitary reading can be one of the ways we obtain the distance necessary to see things more objectively.

Bloom’s argument is certainly powerful. It has encouraged me to seek out greatness and avoid mediocrity despite my ego. But I have never seen the aesthetic and instrumental approach to literature as mutually exclusive. That is, I think we can both read works for their own sake and for how they can be used for social and political ends. So at times I think Bloom is offering us a false dilemma. And, like so many others, I have some issues with his interpretation of the so-called canon. But I do think he is right to emphasize that solitude is integral to any educational process that relies on serious reading whatever one’s orientation.

For a fourth way we can connect solitude to education go here.

Go here for my overview of Immanuel Kant’s theory of the sublime.

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