HAROLD BLOOM: THE PROPHET OF DECLINE
THE PROPHET OF DECLINE
BY RICHARD AVEDON
Harold Bloom, October 28, 2001, New York City.
Harold Bloom's influential anxieties.
BY LARISSA MACFARQUHAR
Harold Bloom, nhà tiên tri
của thoái trào.
Giờ thì hết rồi.
Và Gấu cứ nghĩ Bloom là Thầy của Thầy Cuốc, như Roland Barthes vân vân và vân vân.
Tình cờ vớ được bài này trong 1 số báo cũ, The New Yorker, Sept 30, 2002
TV post và dịch, nếu có thể, để trình ra 1 nhà phê bình đương thời của mũi lõ, xem có giống những nhà phê bình Mít mũi tẹt tí nào chăng?
t is tempting to say that Harold Bloom is a man marooned in the wrong place and time, and that living out his late years in twenty-first-century America is what’s making him miserable. It is so easy, after all, to imagine him gleefully roistering through taverns like his Shakespearean hero, Falstaff, constructing a tottering folly of puns; or denouncing Aristotelian aesthetics at some bacchanal in Rome (although the thought of Bloom in tights or a toga is alarming). One can picture him a feverish poet in nineteenth-century Russia, growing dotty and millennial like the elder Tolstoy. “He’s a wandering Jewish scholar from the first century,” Sir Frank Kermode, the English literary critic, says. “There’s always a pack of people sitting around him to see if any bread or fishes are going to be handed out. And I think there is in him a lurking sense that when the true messiah comes he will be very like Harold.”
But to think this way is to make two mistakes. One is to suppose that mere history—a change of scene—can alter a spirit. That is a very un-Bloomian notion. And the second is to believe that miserable is a bad thing to be. Bloom, in his lyric sadness, his grandiloquent fatigue, and his messianic loneliness, is a great soul. “He did not seem happy,” a former student says. “But happiness seemed a trivial quality compared to whatever Harold was.” Bloom is not low so much as over the top. In his misery, he is magnificent.
Bloom is a prophet of decline. In his view, Western literature reached its apogee in Shakespeare, and it has been downhill ever since. Bloom loves Emerson and Whitman but he doesn’t believe them: to him, belatedness is now a permanent condition of man, and there can be no overcoming it—no return, even in America, to an original fullness or freshness or purity of spirit. But it would not be right to say that Bloom is nostalgic for the past. Unlike the cultural conservatives with whom he is often (wrongly) grouped, he does not long for a more genteel or simpler era. In his view, the fact that Shakespeare lived in sixteenth-century England does no credit to the time or the place, because Shakespeare’s genius was sui generis—it emerged out of nowhere. The truth is, Bloom has no interest in history as such—no interest, that is, in the difference between one time and another—because to him all poetry that is valuable is timeless. Anything that time has made foreign is a period piece, bric-a-brac.
In fact, it’s not just historicizing that Bloom rejects—it’s pastness per se. He reads poems as though reliving their creation. Bloom likes his poems bloody, trailing ruptured veins and muscles torn in struggle. It is the lyric urge and the strife of poetic parturition that he values, more than the poem itself. For the epigraph of his book “Shakespeare,” Bloom chose a quotation from Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols” that is an extraordinary statement to place at the beginning of a book about Shakespeare, or, indeed, about any sort of literature: “That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.”
Bloom is a literary critic at Yale and New York University, an authority on the Romantic poets and on Yeats and Wallace Stevens. He is the author of “The Anxiety of Influence” and, more recently, of best-selling books such as “The Western Canon,” “The Book of J,” and “How to Read and Why.” Next month, he publishes his twenty-eighth book, eight hundred pages long, titled “Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Minds.” Despite these critical credentials, however, Bloom is not, for the most part, a close reader. He doesn’t dissect stanzas, he doesn’t worry words, because he doesn’t read the way most people do. Bloom is famous for his memory and his reading speed. He has memorized a large proportion of canonical poetry written in English; once, when drunk, as an undergraduate at Cornell, he recited Hart Crane’s long poem “The Bridge” backward, word by word. He claims that in his youth he read a thousand pages an hour. Bloom has had poems inside him for so long that he doesn’t really read them anymore. They are not a series of lines following one after the other—they exist in him all at once. He has swallowed them whole.
Bloom, sitting, temporarily unattended, somewhere unfamiliar. He sits with his arms hugged around himself, head sunk, blinking miserably, in the posture of one who is obliged to wait in the rain without an umbrella or hope of shelter. From time to time, he hunches his shoulders and twists with a pained expression, as though trying to shift something heavy on his back.
Bloom’s face is a cluster of big, swollen, sensing instruments: a heroic nose, nostrils dilating; plump, colossal lips; a giant’s heavy eyes, rolling or tearing; thick, congested eyebrows, heaving up or thrusting down; deep fissures in the forehead. There is no mere skin on his face—it is all membrane. Bloom is an intensely sensitive animal, vulnerable to the most delicate waft of emotion. His stomach is prodigious, like a great cathedral, in which all the uncountable poems and plays that he has swallowed roil and commingle with his own passions. Bloom has suffered heart attacks and stomach ulcers and is intermittently, and with tepid conviction, on a diet. But his Falstaffian fat is part of his majesty.
When Bloom teaches, he uncoils and grows even larger. He seems to his students not quite in control of himself: he gets carried away, he throws himself around, he slips his hand inside his shirt and grasps his chest, he quivers with feeling. He is a superb spectacle. He worships, he adores, he falls at a poet’s feet, but not differentially—intimately. He is rabbinical, prophetic; but he is also, in his bigness and his emotion, like a giant mother. He is disarmingly feminine: his voice, emerging out of the roomy torso, is a gentle tenor. A number of his female students find the combination of these qualities overwhelmingly, destructively, seductive.
Some of Bloom’s students form a kind of Orphic cult about him. They become preoccupied with him, and spend hours engaged in awed or prurient speculation. Absurd rumors circulate. It is whispered that, using his astonishing memory, he worked as a document courier, in the nineteen-fifties, for the Israeli government. A small sear on his forehead is suspected to be the mark of a bullet wound he suffered in Palestine in the 1948 war. He was said to be the bestselling romance author Harold Robbins, writing under a pseudonym.
Women students go early to class in order to secure a seat next to him. “I suppose he was already on his way to Wordsworth’s egotistical sublime,” one former student says. “There was always something exciting about the way he staged that sense that he had some enormous thing inside him, some huge soul or being that’s too big for this world and his body. But his teaching seemed crushing to me. You weren’t encouraged to think on your own. He was the sow who rolls over and kills her young.” “I really feel I am a different person for having studied with Bloom,” another student says. “He changed the scale of my ambition: he showed me that there was a moral righteousness in reading. He made me feel it.” “I had the most intense castration dream of my life after one of his classes,” says a third, a woman. “I dreamed that I had a dotted line for cutting drawn across my neck.”
Many of Bloom’s students love him; others grow up to become feminists and Marxists and New Historicists, and reject everything he taught them. Bloom is Falstaff; but Falstaff was betrayed by only one Hal. Bloom is betrayed by thousands.
Every year, Bloom is invited to Europe, to receive a prize, or to give a lecture, or for some other reason. Every year, he accepts, and then, every year at the end of the journey, he vows never to travel again. This year, on a radiant afternoon in late spring, Bloom boarded a ferry from Barcelona to Majorca.
Some months previously, he had been approached by a man named Michaelangelo, a Spanish psychoanalyst who practices in London and is a passionate Borges enthusiast. With the aid of a wealthy local lady, Michaelangelo had established a Majorcan Borges society and had invited Bloom to speak at a society dinner. Bloom had accepted the invitation because he was planning to be in Spain anyway: he had been summoned to Barcelona to receive the Premi Internacional Catalunya—the Catalan equivalent, he was told, of the Nobel.
Upon his arrival in Barcelona, Bloom had been reminded, earlier than usual, of his previous year’s vow. He had discovered that his acceptance of the prize obliged him to submit to two and a half days of interviews, so that by the time he departed for the ferry he was utterly exhausted. In the car on the way to the dock, Bloom’s wife, Jeanne, chatted with the driver about Snowflake, the famous albino gorilla who lives in the Barcelona zoo. Jeanne had read in the newspaper that specialists at the zoo had been breeding him over and over again in the (vain) hope that he would produce an albino heir, even though Snowflake was now quite elderly, and the constant fornication had left him visibly depleted. “Let us change the subject, please,” Bloom entreated weakly from the front seat. “I am beginning to identify with him.”
The ferry ride, at least, was something to look forward to. Bloom had been told by an American friend that travelling by boat between Barcelona and Majorca was a beautiful passage, the water as smooth as a sea of glass. Bloom had been taken with this phrase, “sea of glass,” and during the dark days of interviews he had pictured himself sitting on a sunny deck, as peacefully and solidly as if he were seated on a stage while a painted background of sea and sky scrolled by behind him.
Bloom walked very slowly from the car to the boat. At every step, he moaned softly. Bloom is now seventy-two, and he has taken a semester off from teaching for health reasons, but he has behaved like a man on the point of death since he was in his thirties. “Oh Bloom, Bloom, Bloom,” he sighed. Jeanne, wearing the voluminous blue skirt and white polo shirt she sets aside for travelling, strode ahead onto the dock, carrying the hand luggage and peering up at the sun through her large glasses.
Alas, Bloom’s friend proved to have been mistaken. Although the weather appeared calm, gradually, mysteriously, the ship began to roll. Spray spattered the windows. Bloom watched apprehensively as passengers standing out on deck, smoking, began to totter about. He heard a distant crash from the second-class section as something fell to the floor. The sky darkened, and the ship began to pitch more violently.
At a certain point, Bloom was obliged to answer the call of nature. He rose, clinging fiercely to his chair, which was, thank God, bolted to the floor. He plunged toward the next chair, grabbed it with both hands, and paused to catch his breath. He measured how far he had still to go. There were twenty chairs at least between him and the men’s room, and he realized with horror that a single failure of balance could send him crashing to the floor to break a limb or, very likely, worse. Bracing himself, he lurched wildly toward the next chair, found his grip, and, breathing heavily, hung on. It was a hard four-hour crossing to Majorca, and it was an ashen and traumatized Bloom who emerged, trembling, onto the gangplank. For days afterward, he recalled this voyage in appalled jeremiads, and an account of it appeared in at least one of the local papers.
In the early nineteen-fifties, when Bloom was in graduate school at Yale, the atmosphere in the English department was very High Church and stiff. Bloom was big and messy and emotional and, in a department whose Anglophilia often functioned as a genteel form of anti-Semitism, Jewish. Students wore jackets and ties to class. Bloom slumped around in an old Russian leather coat he had inherited, a pair of fisherman’s trousers, and, on one unfortunate occasion, his pajamas.
The department was still very much under the influence of T. S. Eliot, and this meant, among other things, a disdain for Romanticism. Shelley in particular was considered by the Eliot school rather uncontrolled and adolescent, and Blake, with his mythological obsessions, was thought to be a borderline lunatic. In Bloom’s view, however, Eliot’s classicism was a kind of desiccated, cerebral discipline entirely foreign to what he valued about poetry. He had grown up loving Shelley and Blake. He set out to revive first the one and then the other.
Eliot, in delineating what he considered to be the Western canon, had revived the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century and concluded with the twentieth-century poets he considered the metaphysical poets’ true heirs, such as Pound, the late Yeats, and Eliot himself. To Eliot, Romanticism was a regrettable but thankfully finite episode that could be separated quite cleanly from the rest of literary history. Bloom turns this theory upside down: he argues that the Romantic was invented by Shakespeare, in the character of Hamlet, and was refined by Milton, in the figure of Satan. And poetry ever since, Bloom claims, has been a form of Romanticism, whether orthodox or in rebellion against it.
Bloom was not the only one engaged in Romantic revivalism. His undergraduate mentor, M. H. Abrams, wrote a book titled “The Mirror and the Lamp,” in which he celebrated the Romantic view of the imagination as a “radiant projector” (the lamp) that imbued nature with its own spirit, as opposed to the classical notion of imaginative literature as imitating nature (the mirror). Northrop Frye had argued, in his book “Fearful Symmetry,” that Blake was not a rambling madman but an inventor of coherent mythological systems. But Bloom took his Romanticism further.
The conventional view of the movement held that the Romantic poets longed for salvation in the form of a oneness with nature, as expressed, for instance, by Wordsworth, in his “Intimations of Immortality” ode. The usual Romantic hierarchy placed Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats at the apex of the movement. But Bloom felt that this longing represented only the more earthbound form of Romanticism. The true Romantic, as represented by Shelley and, above all, Blake, looked not to nature—a thing external to the self—to save him but to the world-altering power of his own imagination. Nature was material, and therefore fixed and limiting. Only by struggling to liberate itself from the world entirely—to fill itself with invented mythical forms rather than natural ones—could the imagination be free.
Earliest memories. Bloom, aged three or four, sits on the floor of the kitchen in his family’s apartment in the Bronx. He is reading a library book, and his mother is moving around the room in her bare feet, preparing dinner. Every now and then, without looking up from his book, Bloom reaches out to press his mother’s feet, and every now and then his mother reaches down to rub his head.
Bloom’s father, who is employed in a garment factory, comes home from work. He doesn’t speak to anyone, not because he is moody or unloving but because he just doesn’t speak very often. After dinner, he sits in the living room by himself, with the lights off, smoking a cigar.
Bloom’s mother, Paula, is born in a shtetl outside Brest-Litovsk, the daughter of a carpenter; Bloom’s father, William, is born in Odessa, the son of a dockworker. Paula and William both emigrate to America after the First World War, but most of their relatives stay behind and die in the Holocaust. When Bloom’s parents first arrive in New York, they live on the Lower East Side; they meet on Orchard Street. They marry, keep an Orthodox household, and speak only Yiddish. When they have a little money, they move to the Bronx. They have three daughters, who grow up to do secretarial work, and, ten years later, two sons. The elder son becomes a postal worker. Harold is born on July 11, 1930.
Bloom is the only one in his family to take an interest in reading, but this interest is neither disparaged nor fussed over. He is taken to the local public library by his sisters. The collection at the library is excellent, and Bloom memorizes much of Hart Crane and William Blake by the time he is ten. He teaches himself to read Yiddish at three, Hebrew at four, and English at five. (He learns English by reading Blake and Crane—he didn’t hear the language spoken until he was six.) He hesitates to be bar mitzvahed, because he feels that the family’s rabbi has failed to resolve his doubts about certain parts of the Bible. For instance, he feels that Yahweh’s impulse to murder Moses in the Negev has not been adequately accounted for.
Bloom attends the Bronx High School of Science. He hates school and performs badly, but because he does well on his Regents exams he obtains a scholarship to Cornell. On his first evening in Ithaca, he is startled and horrified by the sight of a cow (he didn’t know what it was).
Bloom has a few friends, but not many—he is lonely. He loves his sisters and his parents; he doesn’t care for his brother. A moderately happy childhood, in other words.
On the phone, Michaelangelo, the Borgesian psychoanalyst, had been extremely friendly. However, in the few days since Bloom’s arrival in Spain, he had become increasingly paranoid. He had shown up at the prize dinner in Barcelona, a lurking, shifty-eyed figure with a soul patch and a mustache, whose hair had receded into the frazzled tonsure of a graying clown. He was convinced, it emerged, that the Catalans who had surrounded Bloom since his arrival were enraged that he, Michaelangelo, had persuaded Bloom to participate in an event about Borges, since Borges was not Catalan. Bloom heard, further, that Michaelangelo had a problem with Catalans because he was a devout Franco supporter. “He is not very well,” Bloom commented sadly, as it came to seem to all involved that Michaelangelo was perhaps out of his mind.
Indeed, the longer Bloom spent on Majorca, the more he felt oppressed by a sense of encroaching lunacy. The first night in his hotel, he had been sitting up in bed, reading, when the automated lighting system switched itself off, and, baffled by the profusion of switches and blinded by the darkness, he was obliged to stumble out into the corridor, completely naked, in order to knock on Jeanne’s door and secure assistance. The following day, he learned that a Majorcan theatre group was staging a production of “Macbeth” which involved a nude leading man and copulation onstage. (“I trust that the males and females involved have an authentic regard for one another,” he said.) At a press conference, a young man asked him a staggering question that was translated as “Is the U.S. now Titus Andronicus, or is Mother Teresa Hamlet, seeing as Hamlet fought for what he believed in?”
The day before the Borges dinner, at a glorious three-hour lunch in a white-and-gilt room with a sea view and chandeliers in the shape of palm trees, Bloom met a dean of the local university, Perfecto Cuadrado (“perfect square,” he explained), who confirmed his fears about Michaelangelo. Moreover, the occasion was sounding more and more elaborate. Michaelangelo had arranged for after dinner music and entertainment and proposed that the guests tango late into the night. Bloom had begun to envision the evening as an endless, nightmarish orgy, a coming-to-life of the Buñuel film “The Exterminating Angel.” There would be tangos and cacophony and one unendurable entertainment after another and more tangos and he would be trapped with no hope of escape.
At the lunch, champagne was followed by white wine, which was followed by red wine, French brandy, Majorcan brandy, and, the coup de grace, a famous local liquor, viscous and bright green, which smelled like ouzo and tasted like maple syrup. Bloom grew bold.
“That’s it!” he announced at the meal’s conclusion. “I cannot go. I simply cannot attend this dinner.”
“Harold, you have no choice,” Jeanne told him.
“You will have to tell him I am dead.”
In the early evening, Bloom, in a better mood, agreed to attend the dinner, but only if he and Jeanne settled on a foolproof plan of escape. When Bloom needed to leave, he told her, he would grasp each of his large earlobes between thumb and forefinger and wiggle them vigorously. At that signal, Jeanne was to stand up and announce that she had to go to the ladies’ room, Bloom would make a similar announcement, and they would flee. The guide assigned to show Bloom around Majorca suggested cheerfully that the dinner might be fun. “My dear,” Bloom replied, “If I were to dine with six versions of the younger Sophia Loren, each doing a slow striptease, I would still not be looking forward to it.”
The evil day arrived.
“Harold!” Michaelangelo greeted him forcefully at the door. Michaelangelo was wearing a white shirt with ruffled cuffs, under a black suit whose trousers he had hoisted up, in the style of the nineteen-thirties, to a few inches below his armpits. Something about his outfit brought out a resemblance to Salvador Dali. He appeared tense. He gestured impatiently for a waiter to bring Bloom and Jeanne each a glass of champagne.
Bloom accepted the champagne and, explaining that he needed to sit down, edged away from Michaelangelo, toward the lecture room. The room—marble-floored and heavy-curtained—was clearly too large for the occasion, and sixteen richly upholstered armchairs had been placed across the floor, three or four feet apart from one another. As yet, the room was empty. Bloom sank into one of the armchairs and looked around. Just outside the open doorway, a champagne cork popped, and the noise was so sharp in the empty marble room that Bloom and Jeanne both jumped.
Perfecto Cuadrado turned up, looking grim. Soon afterward, Michaelangelo herded the society’s small group of guests into the room, and he and Bloom and Cuadrado took up seats at a table in the front. Bloom lectured on Borges and the decline of criticism. The men and women in the audience, who were dressed in silks and jewelry for the formal dinner, sat quite still and listened attentively, even though, there being only a few English speakers among them, most could not understand anything he said. Michaelangelo then gave an impassioned and psychoanalytically informed address of his own, in which he explained that Borges had stuttered because at the age of four his mother had dragged him around by his hair.
At dinner, over striped bass, Bloom chatted with a pretty young woman who had a broken leg and painted silk scarves for a living. Suddenly, Michaelangelo appeared at the table.
“Do you think, Harold, that Shakespeare is a writer made by love?” he challenged.
“I suppose all of literature has to be made by desire, broadly speaking,” Bloom began doubtfully.
“But I have the impression that Shakespeare is a poet of love!”
“At the end,” Bloom said, “the revulsion toward desire is greater than the desire itself.”
Michaelangelo left, dissatisfied. Shortly thereafter, Bloom, turning to Jeanne, who was sitting next to him, pulled solemnly on his earlobes. He rose, she rose, and they returned to the hotel.
When he was thirty-five, Bloom fell into the deepest depression of his life. The worst of it lasted eight or nine months, through most of 1965. He started reading Freud and Emerson obsessively, every day. Freud insinuated himself into Bloom’s mind and festered there. Bloom began teaching a graduate seminar on psychoanalysis which became quite popular, owing to a phenomenon that Bloom called Uncle Siggy’s Revenge. Each year, as the semester progressed, Bloom gradually lost control in the most rococo way. “My transference to Freud got more and more dubious,” he says, “and the parapraxes would become so monstrous that in the final two classes everything was an unintended pun or a double-entendre or some terrible self-revelation. I wasn’t saying what I meant to say at all. It became occult!”
One night in the summer of 1967, Bloom, still in the midst of his depression, had a hideous nightmare. He dreamed that a giant winged figure, a terrifying angel out of the Book of Ezekiel, or Blake’s vision of the Covering Cherub, was pressing down on his chest. He woke up gasping for breath. The next day, he started to write what he thought of as a prose rhapsody titled “The Covering Cherub.” He worked on it for six years.
For Bloom, this was an excruciatingly slow pace. He toiled, he agonized, he groaned. He phoned his friend and colleague Geoffrey Hartman and talked to him for hours, until Hartman began to feel like a midwife to whatever strange progeny Bloom was bringing forth. “It was some kind of psychomachia, a battle within the psyche,” Hartman says. “The ratios and their naming”—the theory was divided into six “ratios”—“were a kind of parturition. There were labor pains, and you could see them. Harold would struggle, and there would be a contraction, and out would come one ratio, and then another.”
At some point during his years in the wilderness, Bloom lost his faith. He decided that Blake—and, through Blake, he—had been deceiving himself. No longer did Bloom believe that real imaginative freedom was possible. It was still the duty of the poet to struggle for it, against the stifling force of his great poetic predecessors—if he avoided them, he would remain weak, a minor poet. The fight was a worthy one, a soul’s crusade, but it was doomed to fail. “I really did use to believe that I could clear my optics, the inner and the outer eye,” Bloom says. “I believed that the world could be remade. I thought that teaching Blake and Shelley could put people in touch with some kind of inner light. It sounds absurd now, a very beautiful delusion. But when I was young I did believe it.”
As he was losing his faith in Blake, Bloom was undergoing a conversion of sorts, to the ancient heretical creed of Gnosticism. The Gnostic—whether of the Jewish, the Christian, or the Sufi variety—believes that, as the result of a primal, catastrophic splitting, the universe is utterly alienated from God. All of nature, the world as we know it, was created by an evil demiurge, and is man’s prison. Man himself—his body, his mind, what he calls his soul—is also wholly fallen. All that remains of God on earth is a spark, or pneuma—a fragment of the divine that resides in humans but to which they have no access without Gnostic revelation. Salvation can be achieved only by gaining “knowledge” of this spark and thus reuniting with the alien God. (Bloom even wrote a “Gnostic novel,” titled “The Flight to Lucifer.” It was a schematic, underfictionalized work, though, and he now wishes he had never published it.)
If Bloom had once, by embracing Blake’s mythology, turned away from a Wordsworthian view of nature, his conversion to Gnosticism removed him infinitely further from it. Nature, he now believed, was not only not redemptive—nature was fallen, and if a man was to be saved he was obliged to reject it completely. Gnosticism was, in many ways, ideally suited to Bloom’s temperament, because it rejected all worldly authorities outside the self, and because it allowed him to hold an utterly bleak view of the universe while preserving a morsel of transcendent, visionary hopefulness.
In 1973, Bloom finally, painfully, finished the book that had begun with his nightmare. The book, “The Anxiety of Influence,” was dense and complicated; it employed so many obscure terms that it seemed to have been written by a kabbalistic Lewis Carroll. “We all remember the great night at Ezra Stiles College when Harold was going to unveil his new theory of poetry,” says Perry Meisel, now a professor at New York University, then Bloom’s student. “It was a very big event. We didn’t understand a word of it”—a year after the book came out, Bloom read it again and was amused to discover that even he couldn’t figure out what he was talking about—“but we all remembered one line: ‘There are no poems, only relations between poems.’ ”
What Bloom had done, in essence, was to distill his disappointed Romanticism through a kind of disembodied version of Freud. From Freud he borrowed the notion that the human quest for imaginative autonomy takes the form of a son struggling to deny his origins—to be, in a sense, his own father. Thus, the poet’s quest for originality takes the form of struggling against his poetic influences: struggling, that is, to appropriate and warp, or “misread,” his precursor’s work in such a way that, to a later reader, it would appear that the precursor had failed. It would seem that his poem was in some way asking to be corrected by the poem of the later poet; or as though the precursor were the weak successor to the later poet, and not the other way around. This struggle was motivated by a profound ambivalence toward the poetry’s influence—“the giving that famishes the taker,” as Bloom put it—and it was savage. Savage, but also tricky, underhanded. The strength of the strong poet, as Geoffrey Hartman said in an essay about Bloom, “is chiefly cunning: more Jacob’s strength than Esau’s, more Odyssean than Achillean. The revisionary ratios are a ‘typology of evasions.’ ”
The form of the theory was Freudian, but Freud much changed. For one thing, Bloom, unlike Freud, allowed no room for optimism; in Bloom’s theory, there was no equivalent of sublimation, no acceptable substitute for the impossible goal of self-birth. A poem, Bloom wrote, was not “an overcoming of anxiety” but “an achieved anxiety.” The struggle for meaning was the only meaning to be had. What’s more, there was nothing sexual, or even psychological, about Bloom’s theory. Bloom placed enormous emphasis on the difference between the poet-as-poet—what he called the “aboriginal poetic self”—and the human being who wrote poetry. “Anxiety” was not a psychological term. It was purely literary, having to do only with the relationship between one poem and another.
Bloom stressed this because he was committed to the idea that genius was a universal quality, separable from the arbitrary colorings of psychology or historical period. But as he banished these impurities his conception of the poet became so utterly leached of human qualities that it came to look strangely like the non-author he despised in deconstruction.
Duet. The Blooms’ living room in their New Haven house, midsummer. The house—large, dark-wood shingled—is on a quiet side street with porches and gardens, and there is no sound of traffic from the busier streets nearby. The living room is dim and cool, because white cloth shades have been pulled down over the windows. Bach, turned very low, is playing on the stereo. In the far corner, on one side of the door that leads to the dining room, Bloom lies, motionless, on a brown leather lounger, his feet propped on an ottoman. On the other side of the door, facing her husband like a matching andiron, Jeanne reclines on a blue velveteen La-Z-Boy. Bloom addresses his wife’s suggestion that he should retire from teaching because it exhausts him. Jeanne herself is a retired child psychologist. She and Bloom have been married for forty-four years. They have two sons, Daniel and David. Bloom’s voice is broad and soft and he speaks slowly. Jeanne’s voice is harder, quicker, more nasal. They have had this conversation before.
“If I stop teaching, I’ll be a burden for you,” Bloom says sadly. “My sense of isolation would become greater and greater and already you complain that I follow you around and demand to know when you’re coming back, and so on. At least teaching takes me into campus and makes me see people. I don’t meet many people anymore. It’s so hard to make new friends.”
“It wouldn’t be hard if we only had people to dinner. We have to cultivate people. If you cleaned off the dining-room table, we could have people to dinner.”
“I don’t have enough friends. Which must be my fault.” In a desolate tone: “I don’t see how that happened.” Bloom broods. After a while: “We do pick up occasional quasi-grandchildren among my students. And if I don’t teach, there won’t be any more of them.”
“Yes, but Harold, we’ve met a lot of nice people in the last few years. We don’t cultivate them.”
“Because I always have to write.”
“So it’s circular. You have to write because you don’t have more friends.”
“I’d feel totally useless if I couldn’t write. And it’s the same thing with teaching.”
“But when you come back from a seminar, Harold, you’re exhausted.”
“I’m exhausted because I’ve failed. I used to teach better than I teach now. I hopelessly digress. I get lost, and have the embarrassment of having to ask the class where I was before I digressed. It’s a sign of old age. I don’t know. I don’t mean to sound so fretful.”
The décor in the room is professorial modern—a Scandinavian-style wood coffee table; a square-cornered sofa; a crowd of pictures and books; an upright piano; a harpsichord. On top of one bookshelf stands a large, heavy head sculpted in clay, thick-featured and monumental: Bloom, aged thirty-seven, by his late mother-in-law. On the sofa and on the piano is arranged a collection of small stuffed animals, belonging to Bloom: a penguin, Percival; an owl, Wordsworth; a donkey, Eeyore; a gorilla, Gorilla Gorilla; a duck-billed platypus, Oscar; and a wombat, MacGregor. The wombat is named for a real wombat owned by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which Rossetti used to bring over to William Morris’s house. Morris, being fond of animals, would play with MacGregor while Rossetti slipped upstairs and played with Mrs. Morris.
“You really didn’t get tired when you were younger,” Jeanne says.
“Ah. That is the heart of the matter. I’m now so exhausted so much of the time, and it makes me irritable and fretful like a little child.”
Bloom is growing old in this room. He spends much of his time reclining in his lounger. At his right hand and at his left are side tables on which small piles of books await his consideration. It is a good room for such a vulnerably receptive instrument as Bloom—protected from light and noise and heat and unpredictable demands on his physical or emotional resources. When he is alone in his living room, his melancholy and his weariness can breathe and ripen, undisturbed.
“I am alienated from my entire profession,” Bloom says.
“You don’t get along badly with people you know. It’s people in print you don’t get along with.”
Bloom is indeed alienated from his entire profession. He has given up teaching graduate students because, he says, he fears that they will be tarred by his brush. (The value of his support has also been somewhat downgraded by his habit of scrawling genially, on recommendations, “Best student I ever had.”) As much as for his notions about literature, Bloom is mocked for his gargantuan persona. “He has a kind of Tamburlaine ambition,” Kermode says. “He wants to ride through Persepolis. In our age that always seems slightly absurd.”
When Bloom’s colleagues read his recent writing at all, it often appears to them impressionistic and self-indulgently personal. With his best-sellers and his middlebrow, preacherly tone (“How to Read and Why”), Bloom is thought to have become little more than a popularizer, cooking chicken soup for the literary soul. When he is not dismissed altogether, he is disparaged for being naive: historically naive to imagine the poetic soul to be a virgin birth, uncontaminated by the poet’s social world; politically naive to ignore the ways in which poetry has profited from various sorts of oppression; aesthetically naive to, for instance, discuss the characters of plays as though they were real people rather than components in a poetic structure. He is, in certain circles, a laughingstock.
Bloom is aware of this contempt, and he more than repays it. He calls his opponents “a rabblement of lemmings,” made prisoners of a “ghastly conformity” by the fear of political censure. He finds ridiculous the sorts of criticism which imagine that, by unmasking insidious political messages in literature, they are contributing to a freedom struggle. He considers multiculturalist theory a condescending, sterile form of social work, its proponents ignorant cheerleaders. He knows that people find baffling his obstinate march backward, away from criticism’s contemporary sophistications and toward the desacralized fetishes of the past—character criticism! genius! universal aesthetic value!—but he claims that he no longer cares. John Hollander, a friend and colleague at Yale, said of Bloom’s Shakespeare book, knowing it would please him, that it set Shakespeare criticism back a hundred years. Bloom has said, of the experience of giving a lecture at Oxford, “I watched the faces of my audience as I delivered this, and I saw blank incomprehension. I had a vision of an airplane flying over cows in a meadow.”
For Bloom, to discuss a poem as merely one document among others, without evaluating it aesthetically, not only misses the point; it also, more perniciously, hastens the day (which he feels is now inevitable) when aesthetic evaluation is an extinct art, and literary criticism has become indistinguishable from history or sociology or cultural studies. To talk about a poet as a kind of soil sample, to be analyzed for layers of historical and sociological sediment, is to deny the most precious thing in human life: individual genius. In Bloom’s view, moreover, the denial of genius is not just an arbitrary trend; it is deeply motivated, by the bitterness of petty minds who, unable to be great or to appreciate greatness, attempt to debunk the very notion out of spite. He has dubbed these minds—in which group he includes all feminist critics, Marxist critics, queer theorists, New Historicists, multiculturalists, and others—the School of Resentment. This group has obsessed Bloom for years. “One gets angry too easily,” he says distantly. “One gets too aggressive. One doesn’t have much forgiveness.”
A dean of the School of Resentment, in Bloom’s mind, is Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespeare and Renaissance literature scholar at Harvard and the progenitor of New Historicism. Greenblatt was once, long ago, an undergraduate in Bloom’s Romanticism seminar, and thus his historicist theories smell, to Bloom, of Oedipal treason. It was for this reason that Bloom found himself in an interesting situation when, several years ago, he was invited to give the Tanner Lectures at Princeton, with Greenblatt as one of his respondents. When Greenblatt received his advance copy of the lecture, he found that it contained an extremely belligerent attack on New Historicism and, by implication, on Greenblatt himself, including all Bloom’s most withering epithets.
“I’m not usually very good at letting out aggression,” Greenblatt says, recalling his feelings upon receiving this paper. “But I thought, Why not try to let it out for once, so I wrote a paper about what I thought was weird and wrong about the Shakespeare project. Well, the way the Tanner series works is that you have a fancy lunch before the lectures. I hadn’t seen Harold in years, and he gave me the full treatment: huge wet kisses, a lot of ‘my darling’s and ‘dearest’s, and he kept calling me ‘the Noble Greenblatt’ for some reason. Meanwhile, he had his paper about the rabblement of lemmings and I had my own piece of toxic waste in return. But he insisted on sitting next to me, and he kept squeezing my thigh and repeating that I was the Noble Greenblatt and carrying on and saying what an old man he was and what an amiable brontosaurus. The whole number. We finished lunch and went into the very grand lecture hall, filled with people, and he again insisted on sitting next to me. Then, near the end of the introduction, he leaned over and whispered, ‘By the way, my dearest, I want you to know that I’ve changed my lecture.’ He looked around at Princeton, the arch-goyish place, and said, ‘After all, we are landsmen.’ The Masonic handshake for Jews! And he went on to give a lecture about Falstaff, and there was no rabblement of lemmings and no attack on the School of Resentment!
“Well, I quickly took a few things out, but if I’d taken out all the nasty bits there would have been literally nothing left. So I delivered my lecture, and the audience laughed uproariously, and Bloom sat on the platform and he began folding up his face and holding his head and looking miserable and looking like he was dying—a very, very elaborate series of expressions about being treated in this way. And then I realized, halfway through my own performance, that he had brilliantly set me up. I fell right into his trap. It was just so splendidly done.”
From the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth, the most common mode of Shakespeare criticism focussed on the plays’ characters. The creation of memorable, lifelike personalities was held to be Shakespeare’s greatest achievement (his language was felt, by many, to be unnecessarily convoluted and obscure), and the business of criticism, accordingly, was to illuminate and explain these personalities, in the way that one might explain the personality of a real person. Great characters, in the words of the critic Hugh Walpole, were “friends for life.” The New Critics, however—the school that was in ascendance from the thirties through the fifties—found this mode of analysis ridiculous. To them, a play, like a poem, was a unified poetic structure that consisted of a particular series of words. Character, plot, themes, and imagery were all integral elements in that structure, and to discuss them separately, as though they had an existence outside it, was to misunderstand what literature was. It was as absurd to discuss a character as a personality distinct from his play as it would be to ask, as the critic L. C. Knights did in the mocking title of a 1933 essay, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” By the time Bloom was a student, the New Critics’ view was firmly established as orthodoxy; and even though other aspects of New Criticism have since gone out of fashion, character criticism still appears as preposterous to most critics today as it did then.
It is for this reason, among others, that Bloom’s book on Shakespeare appears so startlingly eccentric. His focus is astonishingly narrow: he cares only about character. He doesn’t care about structure—what the play shows and what it leaves out, how the action unfolds. (Indeed, just as it is the sign of genius to exist apart from the particularities of historical situation, so, for Bloom, the sign of greatness in a character is to seem only accidentally part of the play. He likes to imagine his favorites taking journeys outside their texts and visiting one another—Rosalind chatting with Falstaff.) Bloom doesn’t care about circumstance or luck or disaster or choice or other people or any of the forces that make up plot. He emphatically rejects the Aristotelian claim that plot generates character, rather than the other way around. He barely even discusses the plays’ language.
Bloom’s forty-nine-page chapter on “Hamlet” does not once discuss Hamlet’s choices or the situation in which he finds himself. It seems as though, as far as Bloom is concerned, Hamlet might as well have stayed in Wittenberg and passed through his twenties staring moodily out the window, since it is only his soul that counts. The old line about missing the main event says “It’s ‘Hamlet’ without the Prince of Denmark”; Bloom presents the Prince of Denmark without “Hamlet.”
When, in this and other books, he does discuss crucial choices—bad choices—that characters make and that thenceforth define them, he is never convinced. He is not convinced that Shylock would “really” convert to Christianity. He is not convinced that Isabel Archer, in Henry James’s “Portrait of a Lady,” would really marry Gilbert Osmond. He sees Macbeth as a helpless man at the mercy of fates and visions. This is one of the reasons, presumably, that characters seem to Bloom (as he is always saying) like real people: many of the noticeable differences between characters and people—that people have a physical existence; that characters’ biographies are not complete, from birth to death, but involve only a few, connected incidents—simply do not matter to Bloom. To him, what matters is the essence of personality, and all the rest is dross.
In the book’s preface, Bloom declares himself as “strongly favoring character over action,” but he goes further than that. Action, or, indeed, movement of any kind, seems vulgar and provincial through Bloom’s eyes, because it is local—moored to a particular time and place. Poetic spirit, on the other hand, is timeless and placeless and therefore free. Moreover, action requires an inhibition of consciousness—it requires turning away from other possibilities and, in the moment of decision, blocking off all those mental motions that work against action, such as futility and ambivalence. The will to act, therefore, is a sign not that a man is full of force but that he is empty of human richness. “The exaltation of the will, in Iago,” Bloom writes, “emanates from an ontological lack so great that no human emotion possibly could fill it.” Action, decision, will—all are limited. Bloom’s hero is Hamlet, whom he compares to Nietzsche’s Dionysian man. “Both have once looked truly into the essence of things,” he writes. “They have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things. . . . Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet.”
Shakespeare’s plays, for Bloom, are Romantic consciousness turned into spectacle. David Bromwich, once a Bloom student and now a colleague at Yale, says that when Bloom talks about a poem he seems to inhabit it, as an actor inhabits a role. The voice of a poem is a literary character for Bloom, and, similarly, a literary character is the voice of a poem.
In his writing in the last ten years, Bloom has turned away from the academy entirely. This is, of course, in one sense, an act of war—a violent secession from the School of Resentment. But at the same time there is, in his more recent books, an odd new gentleness, as if he were turning away from the eternal agon—the glorious battles that had always defined for him the spirit of poetry. In “Genius,” the anxiety of influence is no longer a matter of crushing a beloved enemy. The real anxiety, Bloom writes, may be the “agon with the self”—the fear that one’s own powers are not large enough. In the past, Bloom saw criticism as part of the history of literature, crashing into its battles and slashing about with its judgments. Now he feels that the chief role of the critic is appreciation. “Appreciation may judge, but always with gratitude, and frequently with awe and wonder,” he writes in “Genius.” He quotes Emerson in the book’s introduction: “We need not fear excessive influence. A more generous trust is permitted. Serve the great.”
Bloom identifies “Genius” as a book in the tradition of Emerson’s “Representative Men” and Carlyle’s “On Heroes.” But “Genius,” as well as “The Western Canon,” “Shakespeare,” and “How to Read and Why,” belongs also to another tradition: that of the American entrepreneur of discernment. In the first few decades of the last century in particular, a number of writers set out to cater to the American desire for self-improvement by means of cultural enrichment. In 1909, for instance, Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, began publishing his famous multi-volume anthology of Western classics, the “Five-Foot Shelf” of books. In the nineteen-twenties, John Erskine set up the Columbia great books curriculum. William Lyon Phelps, an English professor at Yale, fashioned himself into America’s most popular literary critic by lecturing to women’s clubs, writing folksy articles for The Rotarian and Ladies Home Journal, and discussing literary topics regularly on a radio variety program. During the Second World War, John Erskine’s student Mortimer Adler, the author of “How to Read a Book,” started up an enormously popular series of great books discussion groups in Chicago.
Eliot, Erskine, Phelps, and Adler were inheritors of the Arnoldian tradition and, closer to home, the Unitarian tradition, which held that aesthetic self-cultivation would lead to moral improvement. They, like Bloom, rejected historicism as a matter for narrow scholars. The most valuable insights to be gleaned from the great works were universal, and it was a sign of greatness in a book that it spoke to people across time and cultures. Any man, they believed, who resolved to spend a quiet hour patiently with a book could begin to tap its essence. And they believed, as Bloom believes, with Emerson, that “culture implies all which gives the mind possession of its own powers.”
Bloom has joined this tradition in his usual massive fashion, not only with his best-sellers but also with the six hundred-odd volumes in the Chelsea House series that he founded in 1983. Each Chelsea House book—“Bloom’s BioCritiques,” “Bloom’s Major Poets,” “Bloom’s Notes”—is a collection of critical essays about an author, with an introduction by Bloom. And Bloom—like his idol, Dr. Johnson, in his comprehensive “Lives of the Poets”—bows to the commercial instincts of his publishers, writing introductions to books about even those authors for whose work he has no respect whatever. (In his delicately worded introduction to “Bloom’s BioCritiques: Alice Walker,” he writes, “There is a tenacity in her quest that compensates the reader for at least part of what is sacrificed in storytelling and in the representation of character.”)
Bloom, like his predecessors, has become rich and famous. He loves this, of course. But there was a blithe, paterfamilias confidence about the earlier entrepreneurs that Bloom’s work is missing. To read Bloom with Erskine and Adler in mind is to realize that the forties were a long, long time ago. The Erskines and the Adlers believed that they were bestowing moral and cultural goods on the masses; Bloom describes himself as seeking refuge in the common reader—the last man, he feels, who still might read for pleasure. They retained an Arnoldian faith that reading good books inculcated sound principles; Bloom has said, “If we read the Western canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation.” Adler’s productions were marketed as tools enabling their user to impress his friends at cocktail parties; Bloom, poignantly, has steered the opposite course. “Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness,” he writes in “How to Read and Why.” “We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable.”
New Haven, midsummer, just before dinner.
“Jeannie Bear, don’t you want a drink? Do you want to relent and have some Scotch? It’s so cold in here.”
Jeanne has turned off the air conditioning, but it is still very cold in the kitchen. She has recently given up alcohol, along with most carbohydrates, for health reasons. For Bloom, cognac is a life-giving nectar.
“No, thank you,” Jeanne says.
“I think you shouldn’t have given up Scotch,” Bloom tells her. “It’s a shock to your system. I’ve known you for nearly half a century and you’ve always drunk Scotch.”
“No I haven’t always drunk Scotch, Harold.”
“Well, you have as long as I can remember.”
Bloom sets his cognac down on the countertop and proceeds distractedly, morosely, to unload the dishwasher. His great back bows, lowered against the gentle counter force of his red-and-blue striped suspenders. He unbends, reaches for his brandy, and gazes unseeingly at a shelf of glasses. As he straightens, his wide, gloomy face looms into a mirror with a round red plastic frame that hangs next to the shelf.
Later, just before bed, Bloom eases into a chair and turns on the kitchen television to check on the progress of the Yankees game. His passionate love for the Yankees has remained constant since he was a child. He draws up his chair until it is inches from the screen.
“Ah, Little Bear, we are winning!” he cries out to his wife. “How amiable!”
At eight-forty-five, even earlier than usual, Bloom switches off the television. He is exhausted. Jeanne intends to stay up to watch an old movie, so he bids her good night and slowly climbs the stairs to his bedroom. He will read for a while and try to doze, but it is unlikely that he will sleep soundly. Bloom suffers the insomnia of giants. ♦
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