The Literary Salon

A free salon wherein patrons and passers-by may view or contribute ideas on literary and generally intellectual matters. The blog will strive to maintain its commitment to wit, humour and perspicuous analysis.

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Location: Toronto, now Ottawa, Ont, Canada

Monday, May 08, 2006

On the Standard of Taste

I was recently thinking of what constitutes poetic greatness, along with the popularity of hack writers and critics/theorists (see my previous post). I've been reading some Bloom lately (The Western Canon), but more interestingly, I came across Hume's thoughts on the subject in his On the Standard of Taste, which are as true today as they were 250 years ago:

"The same HOMER, who pleased at ATHENS and ROME two thousand years ago, is still admired at PARIS and at LONDON. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory. Authority or prejudice may give a temporary vogue to a bad poet or orator, but his reputation will never be durable or general."

My point exactly: history has shown us that writers and even critics who are artificially popular (i.e., not because of any inherent greatness) disappear after enjoying a brief vogue.

Hume goes on to make another interesting observation, that Poetry (or literature) outlasts philosophy, and it is for this reasonthat literature afford a good standard of taste:

But in reality the difficulty of finding, even in particulars, the standard of taste, is not so great as it is represented. Though in speculation [philosophy], we may readily avow a certain criterion in science and deny it in sentiment, the matter is found in practice to be much more hard to ascertain in the former case than in the latter. Theories of abstract philosophy, systems of profound theology, have prevailed during one age: In a successive period, these have been universally exploded: Their absurdity has been detected: Other theories and systems have supplied their place, which again gave place to their successors: And nothing has been experienced more liable to the revolutions of chance and fashion than these pretended decisions of science. The case is not the same with the beauties of eloquence and poetry. Just expressions of passion and nature are sure, after a little time, to gain public applause, which they maintain for ever. ARISTOTLE, and PLATO, and EPICURUS, and DESCARTES, may successively yield to each other: But TERENCE and VIRGIL maintain an universal, undisputed empire over the minds of men. The abstract philosophy of CICERO has lost its credit: The vehemence of his oratory is still the object of our admiration."

If I'm not mistaken, Plath says as much in the Bell Jar (though it is by no means the focus of the work).


Blogger Davyth said...

I'm reading Bloom's new book - Jesus and Yahweh - as we speak. It has his usual meandering digressions, and often curmudgeon sensibility - except he's refreshingly so (and often sensible) about certain blindspots in literary, including Frygian, interpretations of the Bible. Definitely worth checking out.

1:57 p.m.  
Blogger Pious Labours said...

That book became a bargain book very quickly (which doesn't mean it's bad).
What's his thesis (if any)? Lemme know how it is.
I respect Bloom immensely, and I admire his erudition, but I don't htink he's a great critic.
Even his Western Canon (which is one of his better works) isn't great: I like his opinions, but he lacks that critical faculty that guys like Frye had (maybe I'm wrong). I remember reading some of the essays in his work "Genius," and, in the article on Hemingway for instance, he would contradict himself all the time.
He's worth reading, but I don't think he'll change your life in the way that, say, Frye would. I would love to have a drink with him, though.

7:42 p.m.  
Blogger Davyth said...

I haven't read much Bloom - I read his 'anxiety of influence' and 'misreading' theories in my first year of university, that's all. But my imaginative hat is off to him for his pugnacious attitude towards common literary assumptions and biases. What I respect most about him, like Frye, or Tom Harpur, for that matter, is how his writing snarls and bites with that protective spirit of a bull-dog against those who are trying to rob literature of its better, deeper meaning.

10:27 p.m.  
Blogger Pious Labours said...


10:43 p.m.  
Anonymous zelda said...

pious, when are you off to ottawa?

2:57 p.m.  
Blogger Pious Labours said...

Not for a while: I think I'm gonna go hunting for a place later this month or early next (it's still early), and I won't move until, at the earliest, late August.

12:19 p.m.  

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