Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach:” A Cultural Polysemy
Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” which has always been a popular text of the Victorian canon, embodies a number of cultural intertexts with multiple thematic and semantic dimensions. What follows is, therefore,
an attempt to demonsrate this culturally
polysemic nature of the poem and gesture towards the uses of cultural criticism in the study of the canon. However, before we can proceed with this task, it is necessary first to dwell in general terms on the problematics of the relationship between the canon and the practice of cultural criticism. I say “the problematics” because, as many of you will recall, a great controversy has already risen between pro-canonists and students of cultural criticism over the issue whether great literary works which, for Harold Bloom, constitute “the Western canon” can be subjected to the aims and practices of cultural criticism. As far as Bloom is concerned, it is more than a mere controversy: it is a war which the pro-canonists including Bloom himself have fought and lost to the champions of cultural criticism. Although Bloom’s heavy tome The Western Canon (1994) is the final blow to date delivered at cultural criticism and its work, the victory in this war has already fallen
Paper presented at the Cultural Studies Conference “Crossing the Boundaries: Cultural Studies in the U.K. and the U.S.” 16-17 May 1996. Ege University, Izmir.
to cultural critics. So The Western Canon opens with an introduction which is entitled “An Elegy for the Canon” (15-41), implying that cultural critics have murdered or, rather, about to murder the canon and that what remains to be done is to write a funeral song for
the canon. Upon the publication of his Western Canon, Bloom was interviewed by Newsweek, and in the interview, entitled “We Have Lost the War,” he repeated his argument in an explicitly polemical and aggressive fashion:
There is no future for literary studies as such in the United States. Increasingly, those studies are being taken over by the garbage called cultural criticism. At New York University I am surrounded by professors of hip-hop. At Yale, I am surrounded by professors who are far more interested in various articles on the compost heap of so-called popular culture than they are by Proust or Shakespeare or Tolstoy. Still, I am aware that I am fighting a rear-guard action, and that the war is over and we have lost (7 November 1994 : 60).
For him, “cultural criticism is another dismal social science” (The Western Canon, 17. Hereafter cited as WC), which must be resisted stubbornly in order to preserve and maintain the aesthetic value of the canon (WC, 17 ff.). Furthermore, it is, he argues, a grave mistake to see literature and literary works as social documents (WC, 18) and seek social utilitarianism in them.
Fundamentally, Bloom’s denunciation of cultural criticism stems from the disregard which he believes cultural critics have of the aesthetic qualities of the canon; he argues that, as “pseudo-Marxists, pseudo-feminists, watery disciples of Foucault and other French theorists” (Newsweek, 60), whom he brands as “the School of Resentment”
(WC, 4, 23, 527 et passim), cultural critics make no distinction between good and bad literature and “substitute the library for the canon and the archive for the discerning spirit” (WC, 9), that is, any written text is good enough for study, and cultural referentiality rather than literary merit is what counts most in it.
Bloom’s arguments obviously constitute a canonical ideology and become a formulation for the re-mystification of the canon. Then, the fundamental question is this: What is cultural criticism? Of course, various critics and theoreticians from Williams and Foucault to Greenblatt have answered it in detail through their extensive studies. However, before we offer a concise account...
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