Fine taste among the generality of men of letters can exist only while it is still uncorrupted.
…….– Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone
In a dismal and otherwise dismissive tone that monarch of literary taste, T.S. Eliot once suggested that in a “formless age there is very little hope for the minor [author]* to do anything worth doing”.1 As if literature had been all used up, the formulations and forms of all past literary endeavors brought to such a final perfection that there was no need to continue, literature was now exhausted; completed, finis. He would also speak of the need of great criticism, of the development of sensibility and a true sense of literary taste or critical awareness, of the need for an aristocracy of letters that would give birth of a “higher culture” from which a new future would arise guided by a resolute and innovative absorption of the past rather than its dissolution. He would castigate those like Walter Pater as non-critics, as aesthetes of literature – by which he meant mere appreciators who through their “arid cleverness build theoretical scaffolds upon one’s own perceptions,” a formless waste and accumulation of a mass of unstructured nonsense. While for him the “really appreciative mind” allows perceptions to form themselves as a structure, and criticism is the “statement in language of this structure; it is the development of sensibility.”
Harold Bloom who despised T.S. Eliot’s criticism and reactionary politics as that “Eliotic cant” would develop the opposing trend of a Romantic formlessness that followed Pater rather than Eliot. Against his own immediate precursor Northrup Frye (whose work on William Blake Fearful Symmetry and Anatomy of Criticism would haunt Bloom throughout his career), Bloom shows the uneasy relationship between what many term the Platonic and Anti-Platonic stance in life, literature and thought that has been a leitmotif running through Western Culture and Civilization like a bitter and relentless war between two sensibilities – the Traditionalist, upholder of classicism and the past; and, the Romantic gnostic, the rebel and outrider of passion and the wildness of freedom and a knowing that is no longer constrained by the dictates of reason and tradition. A movement between order and chaos, form and formlessness, taste and sensibility, structure and process, being and becoming – that has littered the intellectual diminishment and pursuits of men of letters from the beginning to now. These two tendencies at war in our culture from the beginning have navigated and plundered the riches of ancient days and now installed themselves in the political sphere of our current malaise and ennui threatening to destroy and annihilate each other in some coming bloodbath, a literal immersion in those ancient textual universe of Dante and Milton. A literalization of that old world of Manichean dualism of a war of all against all.
This battle between innovation and tradition, progress and refinement has led to a heated and turbulent history in recent times. The notions of Literary Canons, of inclusion and exclusion, of literary racism and speciesism, the politicization of literature itself rather than its aesthetic appeal. The use and abuse of culture in the education of our children, etc. The deep divide over just “whose” culture should rule our so to speak mental worlds of thought and belief. While others would wipe the slate clean, burn the archive, dismantle the “dead white” world of European cultural imperialism, etc. As if the past of culture were an enemy that must now be expunged, rewritten, revised from a minoratarian standpoint, alleviating centuries of oppression and exclusion, rewriting the textbooks of all past eras to redress the wrongs of those victimized and abused at the expense of art and intellect. Others would offer a conclusion far different, stating flatly that these so called cultural wars were nothing but the graveyard of bitter and dissatisfied, resentful literati and leftists who wanted nothing better than destroy the past for their own selfish aggrandizement, to bury the dead white world of man and men who for far too long had held power over thought and life.