September 25, 1994 Section Page Buy Reprints
IN EARLY SUMMER, I PAID TWO VISITS TO Harold Bloom, the eminent literary critic famous for his prodigious intellectual energy. On both occasions, he seemed intent on staging a deathbed scene. Collapsed on a reclining armchair, brow furrowed, mouth sour, the 64-year-old Bloom looked worse than pained. “The battle is lost,” he whispered. “These resentniks have destroyed the canon.” Enfeebled despite his generous bulk, he summoned the stamina for some impressive elegiac flourishes, usually prefaced with a “My dear” or a “My dear fellow.” Once, with a tragic sigh, he breathed, “I am weary unto death.”
Literature is dying and so, ipso facto, is Harold Bloom. Or could it be the other way around? No — Bloom admits that despite a bleeding ulcer that nearly killed him a few years back, his life is not in immediate danger from any somatic cause. The end is nigh, but the threatened Bloom-doom is strictly literary. “The rabblement, the barbarians have taken over the academy,” he wailed, his voice, nasal and tremulous, rising piteously.
He pulled the sleeves of his V-neck sweater down over his hands, making it into a comfortable kind of straitjacket, and announced with dark certainty that “the School of Resentment” is killing off the art of reading: “Instead of a reader who reads lovingly, with a kind of disinterest, you get tendentious reading, politicized reading.” He shielded his eyes, as if overcome. “It may be a waning art, the art of reading closely, lovingly, scrupulously with the excitement of seeing how the text will unfold.”
Throughout this superbly melodramatic performance, I kept expecting Bloom to wink or burst out laughing. But if he was conscious of his theatrics, he didn’t let on. His best pals acknowledge that he’s incorrigibly fond of self-dramatization. Years ago, when an old friend told him he looked like Zero Mostel (the black furry patches for eyebrows clinch it), Bloom turned to him and answered, deadpan, “I am Zero Mostel.”
FOR ALL HIS POSTURING, BLOOM IS HARDLY A victim. He is a colossus among critics: Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale; Berg Professor of English at New York University; author of more than 20 books, including “The Anxiety of Influence” (1973) and his 1990 best seller, “The Book of J,” in which he took on the Bible, arguing with brilliant abandon that some of his favorite parts of the Pentateuch were written by a woman. He has edited and written introductions to some 400 volumes of literary criticism. Everything about him is outsized: an encyclopedic intellect, exuberant eccentricity, a massive love of literature. The legend of his genius, ratified by a 1985 MacArthur fellowship, spans four decades. His notorious ego has grown vast as all literature — which is just about the scope of his new book, “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages,” a sweeping study of 26 canonical authors, from Chaucer and Cervantes to Kafka and Beckett.
In the pages of “The Western Canon,” Bloom strikes a heroic pose, the critic at the barricades defending the literary tradition of the West. He marshals those writers he judges “authoritative in our culture,” Shakespeare foremost among them. He sings out the names of the elect; he accounts, with many a virtuoso turn, for their superiority. And he slaps insistently at his enemies (“these resentniks”), an insidious network of politically correct academics and journalists who resent, Bloom claims, precisely what he cherishes: the esthetic value of literature.
The despised “rabblement of lemmings” includes Marxist critics, feminists, New Historicists — anyone who might read a poem as a social document, mix politics with literature or in any way dilute the primacy of the esthetic. Bloom scorns as well critics on the right who argue for the canon — the roll call of Great Books that define the Western tradition — in the name of patriotism or moral values. He dismisses the whole bunch with haughty authority: “To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all.”
Literature, for Bloom, is a capacious arena, set well apart from the swirl of history, where titans meet and clash. Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Emerson, Tolstoy, Freud, Bloom himself — they all fight for canonical survival and for the great prize, originality. The struggle, as Bloom famously conceived it in “The Anxiety of Influence,” is a belles-lettres re-enactment of Freud’s “family romance” — the sons in Oedipal revolt against their poetic fathers. The stronger the filial poet (or playwright or novelist), the closer he comes to committing patricide by fudging all evidence of influence and asserting his own originality. Feminists have long objected to the gender bias implicit in the Freudian model, but Bloom’s thesis, boiled down to its essence, is sex-blind. Helen Vendler, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard, who calls Bloom “the foremost critic of his generation, which is my own,” ignores the macho intergenerational arm-wrestling in favor of what she believes to be his central insight: “Every poem is an answer to an anterior poem.”
With “The Anxiety of Influence,” Bloom rewrote literary history as a bickering succession of begats punctuated by provisional victory parades. The strong survivors, their hard-won originality proudly displayed, march under the banner of the Western canon.
WHEN BLOOM PRACTICES THE waning art of reading closely, as I heard him do publicly the evening after that first funereal visit, he is miraculously revivified, a resurrected champion of great literature. Still disheveled (no comb dares order the white wisps that decorate the brain dome) but properly professorial in a rumpled coat and tie, he stood behind a podium at the Century Club in Manhattan and guided an audience of some 150 high-toned New York poetry lovers on a rapid, word-by-word tour of “The Poems of Our Climate,” a short lyric by Wallace Stevens.
Bloom in lecture mode resembled an impassioned heretical rabbi preaching from secular text. He was also witty — citing Oscar Wilde, playing with etymologies. The only trace of deathbed melodrama was a passing reference to “the declining old Bloom.”
He mentioned once meeting Stevens, whom he ranks as “perhaps the major American poet after Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson”; he noted that Stevens was exactly his age when he wrote “The Poems of Our Climate” — minor points but symptomatic: Bloom personalizes poetry, linking poem, poet and critic in an intimate, if fraught, bond. According to Bloom’s theory of poetic influence, poets inevitably “misread” their precursors; “poetic misprision,” his term for this kind of creative misreading, is the first step in the “belated” poet’s assertion of originality. Bloom believes that a similar process occurs when critic confronts text — interpretation is another form of more or less creative misreading. He tells his students, “There is no method except yourself.”
“The Western Canon” is Bloom engaged in an extended series of one-on-one matchups, a lively spectacle and heartening. Here is a truly learned man whose life is literature and who isn’t at all ashamed to proselytize. Lindsay Waters, executive editor at Harvard University Press, believes that “Bloom is always asking what would it mean for America to have a spiritual life that is not identified with or rooted in organized religion.” The goal of Bloom’s criticism, in the view of Waters, “is to goad us into living that life.”
Bloom isn’t asking us to worship the great books. He asks instead that we prize the astonishing mystery of creative genius. “In the end,” he told me, “the canonical quality comes out of strangeness, comes out of the idiosyncratic, comes out of originality.”
The most original writer we will ever know, Bloom tells us, is Shakespeare. Beginning with Falstaff, and most famously with Hamlet, he invented characters who are, Bloom argues, richly lifelike in a new way — Shakespeare “originates the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing.” His finest characters become “free artists of themselves.” Here, perhaps, is the Bloomian spirituality Lindsay Waters has in mind. Leading always by example, and with scattered allusions to his beloved Emerson, Bloom is offering us a chance at a kind of creative individualism — or rather he’s offering it to “the few who have the capacity to become highly individual readers and writers.”
Brooding on the mutability of Shakespeare’s characters, Bloom comes up with one of his most startling claims: “The introspective consciousness, free to contemplate itself, remains the most elitist of all Western images, but without it the canon is not possible and, to put it most bluntly, neither are we.” The Bloomian notion of originality is not an egalitarian affair. Few can attain it; few can appreciate it. But great literature, he avers, has nothing to do with social justice: “The esthetic is, in my view, an individual rather than a societal concern.”
All of this is anathema to the politically correct. In “The Western Canon,” Bloom tries to dispatch the “School of Resentment,” but unfortunately, as John Hollander maintains, “Harold is not particularly a good explainer.” His mode is “vatic,” says Hollander, Bloom’s close friend and Yale colleague. “He’ll get hold of a word and allow this to generate a concept for him, but he’s not in a position to say very clearly what he means and what he’s doing.”
Who are Bloom’s enemies? What do they believe? In “The Western Canon,” he mentions Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, the reigning triumvirate of French theorists — he does not say what these names signify. Anyone keyed to the culture wars should be able to decipher this insider shorthand, but the “common reader” (for whom Bloom says the book is intended) may well be mystified. Bloom’s endless caustic asides about the rabblement of lemmings seem less like argument than some kind of nervous tic. Camille Paglia, who proudly calls Bloom her mentor and who hails “The Western Canon” as Bloom’s “spiritual autobiography,” nonetheless worries that the book won’t change anyone’s mind: “My feeling is that the people who are against the canon are not going to be convinced by this. That is my disappointment.”
The canon, Bloom believes, answers an unavoidable question: What, in the little time we have, shall we read? Bloom also wants to tell us how to read. “You must choose,” he writes. “Either there were esthetic values or there are only the overdeterminations of race, class and gender.”
WHEN BLOOM TALKS ABOUT HIS childhood, he begins with reading. Born in 1930 in the East Bronx, he was the youngest child of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Russia, neither of whom ever learned to read English. His first books were volumes of Yiddish verse, but he also remembers a poetry anthology edited by Somerset Maugham, wherein he read some poems of Hart Crane — and found his first love. “I remember my sister Esther at my request took me along to the Melrose branch of the New York Public Library — I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 — and I got her to take out the collected poems of Hart Crane, and I think a volume of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, and Auden, and I went home and devoured them and fell even more violently in love with Hart Crane’s poetry.” After Crane came William Blake. “I memorized almost instinctively all of the long poems. I went from Blake to Milton and from Milton to Shakespeare,” he told me. “I read my way through the Melrose library.”
As though owning up to a guilty secret, he said: “I am probably the largest monster of reading I have ever known. I can read at a shocking rate and I can remember nearly everything.” M. H. Abrams, the noted authority on English Romanticism who was Bloom’s adviser at Cornell University, recalled that even as an undergraduate Bloom was “a formidable person. He was a prodigy, beyond anything I’d ever seen — and there was never anyone since who came close.”
After graduating from Cornell in 1951, Bloom went on to Yale. (“We insisted that he go to another university for graduate school,” said Abrams with a laugh. “We couldn’t teach him anything more.”) Four years later, he joined the Yale English department as a junior faculty member. In New Haven, he met and married his wife, Jeanne, who is now a school psychologist for the Branford, Conn., school district. They have two sons.
“I have always thought of myself,” Bloom likes to say, “as a sect or party of one.” Yale in the 1950’s and 60’s could only reinforce in him that sentiment. The dominant orthodoxy was T. S. Eliot-inspired New Criticism. Bloom’s field, Romantic literature, was held in low esteem; the tone was gentlemanly, high-church Protestant. “And I,” as Bloom put it, “am very Jewish, and lower-class Jewish at that.” During the 70’s, he allied himself briefly with the deconstructionist “Yale School” that he now derides, but by the end of the decade he was making every effort to distance himself from what he calls “French fanciness.” In 1977, after 22 years of sporadic internecine feuding, he split entirely from the English department to become Yale’s only professor of humanities, splendid in his isolation, a “department” of one.
But Bloom’s career has been shaped less by feuds and alliances than by a financially burdensome family circumstance: a son who has a chronic disability and requires expensive treatment and care. Bloom won’t discuss this matter. Friends report that in addition to covering the current costs, Bloom feels he has to earn enough to provide for his son’s future. To supplement his Yale salary, he has been moonlighting at New York University since 1988. Since 1984, he has edited 395 volumes of literary criticism for a small publisher called Chelsea House. These quickie collections reprint other scholars’ essays about a specific author, work or character. The books are stamped prominently with Bloom’s name and prefaced with his short, often cursory, always idiosyncratic introductions.
Even some of Bloom’s most loyal supporters have their doubts about the value of this mass-production scholarship. They worry that he’s spreading himself too thin, stretching the limits of his admittedly vast competence. But his Chelsea House venture has at least proved lucrative. “He’s been a fabulous moneymaker,” says Bloom’s friend and colleage, the biographer R. W. B. Lewis. “The Western Canon” earned Bloom a $600,000 advance from his publisher, a huge sum for a nearly 600-page book about the greatest hits of literature.
The big money and the genius legend have made Bloom an academic superstar. And yet he has no following (“I don’t indoctrinate; I don’t clone,” he boasted to me). He is eminent, but largely ignored. In the 1980’s, the critical pendulum swung from text to context, and Bloom (along with the Yale School deconstructionists) was left out in the cold. Said John Guillory, author of “Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation”: “What literary critics do today bears almost no relation to Bloom’s project. The project of intertextuality — understanding relations between texts across time — has been more or less abandoned in the profession.” Guillory, who taught at Yale for 10 years and was himself deeply influenced by “The Anxiety of Influence,” nonetheless feels that “Bloom’s paradigm is circumscribed” — limited by his refusal to relate works of literature to their particular cultural and historical moment. Many younger academics think of Bloom as an outdated oddity, a critic who once made a significant contribution to literary theory but who hasn’t budged since. The surface dazzle of his writing, decked out with rhapsodic effusion and cutting wit, can make him seem like a glib showman spicing up a tired act. As early as 1976, after Bloom had published his fourth book in three years on the poetics of influence, the British critic Christopher Ricks declared in The New York Times Book Review, “Bloom had an idea; now the idea has him.”
Stardom has brought with it unwanted attention. In 1990, GQ published an article called “Bloom in Love,” an expose by innuendo of Bloom’s intimate entanglements with female students. When I mentioned the GQ article, he dismissed it with cold fury: “A disgusting piece of character assassination.” But rumors of his affairs with Yale graduate students are legion. “His wandering,” R. W. B. Lewis told me, “I gather is a thing of the past. I hate to say it, but he rather bragged about it, so that wasn’t very secret for a number of years.”
Old friends attribute his “wandering” to an urgent neediness — and, paradoxically, to a kind of family feeling. “He’s like a tribal patriarch,” said a loyal former student. “He wants to make the whole world his kin.” John Hollander, explaining the demands Bloom makes on his closest friends, said, “In general, his tremendous energy ingests as well as produces.”
Bloom certainly ingests literature with a greedy gusto. Falstaff is among his favorite Shakespeare characters and so Bloom is apt to become Sir John, a boisterous wit with a glutton’s appetites and a pernicious talent for mischief. When angry, he apes Dr. Johnson’s quirky dignity, adding a stiff-arm “Sir” to every utterance. He makes a habit of kissing friends on the top of the head — the patriarch’s blessing.
FOR ALL HIS ANTIC ECCENTRICITY, his pride in saying No! in thunder, Bloom is a fool for precise hierarchical classification. Every work of literature must submit, he insists, “to the ancient and quite grim triple question of the agonist: more than, less than, equal to?”
As an appendix to “The Western Canon,” he includes lists of all the canonical authors and their canonical works, from “Gilgamesh” to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” The lists are partly a marketing gimmick, partly the nose-thumbing gesture of the inveterate provocateur, though his choices, from the earliest epics through the end of the 19th century, are mostly unexceptionable. When it comes to choosing among his contemporaries, however, Bloom’s idiosyncrasies take over. What happened to Mary McCarthy, Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg? Why list only one of John Updike’s novels, “The Witches of Eastwick,” and nine of Philip Roth’s, including his latest, “Operation Shylock”? (The answer to the second question could be that Updike once referred to Bloom’s criticism as “torturous,” while Roth is the would-be canonizer’s pal.)
Bloom and his publisher are banking on the lists, hoping they will ignite controversy and boost sales. At the very least, he has fed the “School of Resentment” something new to resent.
But the lists are not at all the meat of “The Western Canon.” Even if the “declining old Bloom” is spreading himself too thin, or blowing the same note too many times, he’s still a wonderful reader. His enthusiasm for literature is a joyous intoxicant. He scatters insight with manic profligacy. M. H. Abrams, Bloom’s mentor nearly half a century ago, ponied up a blurb for “The Western Canon.” Reading Bloom’s commentaries, Abrams wrote, “is like reading classic authors by flashes of lightning.” Though Abrams intended an unalloyed compliment, the image works two ways: The illumination is sporadic — and yet thrilling, unpredictable, powerful in effect.
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