Canon salute

By Peter Craven
Remembering Harold Bloom (July 11, 1930 – October 14, 2019)

Harold Bloom. © Mark Mainz / Getty Images

It was November in 2003, and the autumn twilight was making the day bleaker and greyer by the moment, when my partner, Colin Oehring, and I arrived at the Newhaven home of Harold Bloom, by then long-established as the most famous literary critic in the world, at least if universities and general readerships were your yardstick.

And the great Bloom proceeded to talk a bit dismayingly, as if he were the extroversion of his own clichés. Perhaps it was about anxieties of influence (you have to kill the parenting poet), of how the Western canon was all you knew on earth and all you needed to know, of how Shakespeare had invented the human and Americans were all hitched to a millenarian bandwagon, which was also an Emersonian one, an exaltation of the self.

It seemed a bit dreary, even though we revered the man, but then something happened. Was it that Colin mentioned he had written a piece of fiction called “Lust in Action”? And suddenly Bloom was off; he quoted the whole of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame”. His eyes quickened and shone, the voice soared and he talked ravishingly and rhapsodically, full of human feeling and passion and concern.

At one stage in the conversation, I said, speaking for all three of us, because it was an indisputable implication, that we were cultural conservatives, and he looked up with something like pain and surprise in his face and then said, almost in a voice of wonder, “I suppose that’s what we are. Cultural conservatives. I hate to think that that’s how we must be described but… that’s right. And we must conserve at all costs.”

The conversation ranged around who could defeat George W. Bush in the next election. There was horror from the emotive Bloom at the left-wing Howard Dean, who had behaved with excessive emotional exuberance, and in a quite shrewd way he was terrified that the Democrats would end up with someone who was too left-wing to be elected, even though you knew that as left-wing as you could be was fine with Harold.

He was a different man and a lovely one. I remember at one stage mentioning that the poet Anne Carson – whom I’d discovered was pretty much the greatest poet alive, a fact Bloom had picked up before I did, calling her “a wisdom writer” – wrote dreadful critical prose that I’d described as Lacanian because of its resemblance to the gnomic utterances of that far-out French psychoanalyst.

“I would not describe it as Lacanian,” Bloom said, without irony, as if he thought this was a terrible thing to say about anyone.

We had cake, we had tea, his wife Jeanne fussed around in a down-to-earth way, and he took a call from the playwright, Tony Kushner, and he said, “My dear, I will be there”, referring to the cinema preview of Mike Nichols’ film of Angels in America, with Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson.

The meeting was a kind of benediction, a kind of laying on of hands, and it left Colin and I high even though we both thought it had started so dispiritingly.

A few days after the meeting with Bloom we were back in Manhattan and went to see the great Susan Sontag, still statuesque and beautiful at 70-odd though she would die, alas, a year later. If there was a critic whose reputation had been soaring like a steeple rather longer than Bloom’s, without the benefit of academia and bestsellerdom, it was Sontag. Colin, for whatever reason, was in no awe of Sontag, and she had no time for his hero, Harold Bloom.

“Harold Bloom,” she said. “Shakespeare as the inventor of the human. Now there’s an idiotic idea if ever there was one.”

Sontag later made some basic literary remark and Colin immediately said, “That’s something Harold Bloom says.”

“Well,” said the six-foot mind with the long black hair and the white streak, “a stopped watch is right twice a day.”

Bloom was right more often than that, and it’s interesting that he rose like such an archangel of truth and beauty just as literary theory and all its attendant relativisms went haywire in the universities, and carried, for a while, all sorts of eminent figures – Frank Kermode at Cambridge, ambiguously, Paul de Man at Yale with a partisan vehemence – some part of the way with it.

We published Bloom in Scripsi, the literary magazine I edited in the 1980s and early ’90s, and the interview Imre Salusinszky did with him, which subsequently appeared in his book of interviews with critics – Criticism in Society – is still one of the best introductions you could read to Bloom’s lucid and paradoxical thought, and his sublimely hammy and theatrically extroverted personality. Here, though, is Bloom at his least exclamatory and most formidable:

The strength of [Doctor] Johnson … and of Hazlitt is that they show us that there is no distinction between the uncommon and the common reader: to be a reader is to be uncommon. Reading is a frightfully élitist activity. It always has been, and it always will be. Mr [Northrop] Frye has, thank heavens, nothing in common with the Marxists, pseudo-Marxists, neo-Marxists, und so weiter, but like them he has idealized the whole question of what might be called – to use his own trope for it – the extension of the franchise in the realm of literature and literary study. Idealization is very moving: it is also very false. It allows profound self-deceptions at both the individual and the societal level. Literature does not make us better, it does not make us worse … It only confirms what we are already, and it cannot authentically touch us at all unless we begin by being very greatly gifted.

He also says there:

Although I can write, and probably will write, my dear – if I live – another thirty-five books, I am reconciled to the fact that to my dying day and beyond I will be regarded as the author of one book, The Anxiety of Influence.

So the obituaries have proved. That’s the book published in 1975 where he argues that a writer – primarily a poet but by extension any writer – must get on top of his great determining and influencing precursor. She has to suck her dry and spit her out. You can argue that’s what T.S. Eliot did with Tennyson, what Auden did with Eliot. Bloom who thought of Shakespeare as a god (if not God) thought that only Shakespeare was immune.

It’s possible to see Bloom as not an especially sensitive-to-sound critic – his love of John Ashbery is his most attractive enthusiasm among poets – and yet to think that he is a tremendously companionable critic. His great influence, apart from his romantic heroes about whom he wrote in A Visionary Company (1961), is Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, the great systematic study of William Blake. But Bloom is terrifically attractive in the freedom of his sweep and attitude. He used to say he was not only a Jew but a working-class Jew – one of the only ones, he maintained, that Yale ever let in. He maintained that he was the true Marxist because he followed Groucho: “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”

He loved people comparing him with that very great comic actor Zero Mostel, and perhaps he had some of the high comic tilt towards some other, some tragic intimation that allowed Mostel to do not only The Producers but to be so good as Harold’s namesake, Leopold Bloom, in Ulysses in Nighttown.

It was in the same issue of Scripsi, right back in 1986, that Michael Heyward and I published the great essay about Falstaff. There is no piece of criticism I’ve envied more than this one of Bloom’s, written for the Chelsea House critics’ volumes.

History, in Shakespeare, is hardly the genre of freedom for kings and nobles, but it is for Falstaff. How and why? Falstaff is of course his own mother and his own father, begotten out of wit by caprice. Ideally he wants nothing except the audience, which he always has; who could watch anyone else on stage when Ralph Richardson was playing Falstaff? Not so ideally, he evidently wants the love of the son, and invests in Hal, the impossible object. But primarily he has what he must have, the audience’s fascination with the ultimate image of freedom.

It was a pleasure too in Scripsi to publish the Bloom essay along with a photo of Sir Ralph Richardson as the fat knight, a performance that thrilled the 16-year-old Bloom when he saw it in 1946.

It should be easy enough for the reader to hear the propulsive charm of this kind of seriously reasonable literary chat out of which Bloom shaped his criticism. He liked to identify with Dr Johnson, the greatest of all critics, and he knew he owed quite a bit to Oscar Wilde’s paradoxes and poses.

Much of his work comes out of a concerted wrestling with Freud, but even more out of an impassioned panoramic romanticism, which is a bit improbably linked to the idea of the canon. At one level, Bloom was a professor intoxicated with lists, but a sublime one – he has a list at the end of The Western Canon (1994), which includes various novels by Patrick White and Christina Stead and Thomas Keneally.

He succeeded as almost no one does (without the benefit of television) in being a supreme populariser. He’s up there with Robert Hughes, Kenneth Clark and David Attenborough, and it’s fascinating that he created his own persona without having to translate himself into another medium.

In 1991, The Book of J is (in terms of the myth of the Jahwist as a woman from the court of Solomon) a highly intelligent reading of The Book of Genesis, just as The Western Canon, Genius (2002) and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) suck the reader’s soul away with their revelations of the greatness of the classic.

The books about the American cult of self-reliance, born of Emerson’s notions of the will, are concentrated and serious. Bloom’s account of the agon, in books like The Anxiety of Influence and The Map of Misreading (1995) have permanently changed criticism by the way they hold the mirror of the Freudian up to literature and its discontents.

If you want a single book that will demonstrate why Bloom was a great critic and teacher, have a look at How to Read and Why (2000). It’s full of close reading and sensitive reading. It’s not at all camp, and it will touch your heart and make you realise why this rabbi of the greatness of literary art had a warmth hardly anyone else can touch.

Bloom is survived by his wife Jeanne, a one-time psychologist whom he married in 1958, and two sons.

He was born in 1930 and went to the Bronx High School of Science and could read English, Hebrew and Yiddish from the age of three or so, apparently at great speeds. He was said to know many great works of literature by heart (though if you published him you would realise he sometimes slightly shifted around the words). He graduated in 1951 from Cornell (where he was taught by the great scholar of Romanticism, M.H. Abrams) and eventually gained a full professorship from Yale. But with the passage of the years he found himself less and less in sympathy with the deconstructionist and theory oriented English department dominated by de Man, J. Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartman. He was made Sterling Professor of Humanities in 1977 so that he was answerable only to himself. He also came to have his own chair at New York University from 1988, where he taught part of every week, back in the great city where his father had been, he used proudly to say, “a garment worker”.

It seems appropriate that he should have given his last class just a few days before his death because he had the air of a man who was a performer to the end. Needless to say, the fact that many of us read him for decades made us imagine he would last forever; as a spirit, as a schtick, as a great comedy act of heart and mind and spirit, he will. He loved literature like a destiny, with all the self-mockery and poignancy such a sense of election could allow.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

Harold Bloom. © Mark Mainz / Getty Images

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