One of the only remaining literary critics who hadn’t become a political writer rather than an aesthetic one, Harold Bloom was among the most Romantic, pugnacious and controversial critics of his time. His dictum that ‘the only method is the self’ divided him from an academy increasingly convinced that the only method was the use of socio-political-cum- literary ‘Theory’. The New York Times once described him as ‘the most original literary critic in America’, which is underplaying it not a little.
As he once said, ‘To a rather considerable extent, literary studies have been replaced by that incredible absurdity called cultural studies which, as far as I can tell, are neither cultural nor are they studies.’
Bloom’s views of originality, influence and critical judgement are well-summed up by this quote, from his great (and perhaps most important) book, written for a popular audience, The Western Canon (US link):
What theory did the great critics have? Critics like Dr. Samuel Johnson or William Hazlitt? Those who adopt a theory are simply imitating somebody else. I believe firmly that, in the end, all useful criticism is based upon experience. An experience of teaching, an experience of reading, one’s experience of writing—and most of all, one’s experience of living. Just as wisdom, in the end, is purely personal. There can be no method except the Self.
These beliefs made him a glad pariah, a willing outcast, a melancholy prophet in the tenured wilderness. He is worth reading and listening to for the sheer joy of his attacks, the sublimity of his purist feud with everything he felt was wrong with the study of literature.
Bloom rather grandly styles himself as “The Last Shakespearean”, and in conversation he speaks contemptuously of the “School of Resentment, the feministas, the Foucauldists, the Historicists, other Frenchy types, and the huzzarai in general”.
He described his career like this: ‘In 1976, I resigned from the once splendid Yale English department, which I had joined in 1955, to protest the decline in aesthetic and cognitive standards in the profession. I became a professor of the humanities, a department of one. I have been the pariah of the profession for the last 45 years.’
His antipathy towards the left-wing ideologies that became the basis of literary interpretation was not to do with his politics: ‘Feminism as a stance calling for equal rights, equal education, equal pay—no rational, halfway decent human being could possibly disagree with this. But what is called feminism in the academies seems to be a very different phenomenon indeed.’
He remained an American liberal, as well as an elitist, an aesthete and a Romantic who often spoke fondly of ‘the sublime Oscar.’ He was a transcendent contradiction who stubbornly preferred Longinus to Aristotle; Longinus was the ancient critic that Bloom’s tutor, mentor and lifelong friend M.H.Abrams saw as important to Romantic thinking.
Bloom wrote commentary about literature that only he could have written. He had the knack of saying profound things about big ideas in a way that cuts right through into ordinary speech and feeling. His passion as much as his register, tone and style are what make him the abiding critical genius of the last century, if not longer; he keeps company with only a few predecessors: Johnson, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Pater. He once paraphrased Hamlet’s final words to his mother as, ‘So much for you, kid.’
Who else could frame the debate as elegantly as this, while holding tenure at Yale?
He describes one young member of the English department as ”an out-and-out Marxist agitator” and ”a horse’s ass,” and he says some leftist notions of bourgeois art have grown so crude as to be unrecognizable. ”It’s almost the poet-as-slumlord theory. They have their colleagues terrified.”
He was in many ways preserving and re-creating an older approach to literature which had been slowly eroded by the efforts of post-modernism, post-structuralism and all the others who took the political agenda of their academic ideology more seriously than the aesthetic value of the books they were mistreating.
It is difficult to know to what extent Bloom’s position as the outsider was essential to his work. Camille Paglia, once his doctoral student at Yale, who shares his polemicism if not all of his critical opinions, once said she had no idea why with his position he had not done more to attack and denounce post-structuralism. Although she was a defender of his ideas, arguing that the canon should be the result of looking at the works which persevere rather than the result of professors looking to ‘intensify their power’, she was disbelieving about the way he declined to fight the corruption of the humanities:
For example, although he had made passing dismissive remarks about post-structuralism (“Foucault and soda water”), Harold Bloom never systematically engaged or critiqued the subject or used his access to the general media to endorse debate, which was left instead to self-identified conservatives. The latter situation was clearly counterproductive, insofar as it enabled the bourgeois faux leftists of academe to define themselves and their reflex gobbledygook as boldly progressive.
In October 1990, I sat with my longtime mentor Bloom at a presidential dinner preceding his Shakespeare lecture at Bryn Mawr College in the Philadelphia suburbs. I told him about the exposé of post-structuralism that I was writing for Arion (and that took six months to do). He flatly replied, “You’re wasting your time.” I must suppose there was simply a generational divide: as a product of the 1960s, I still passionately believe in reform as an ethical imperative. Furthermore, most of my teaching career has been spent at small art schools, which have always spurned the conformist formulas and protocols of traditional universities.
His aim was to re-preserve the canon. And he took the religious influence of his childhood Judaism into the fight against the secularisation and deconstruction of the canon, proclaiming that ‘There is no God but God and his name is William Shakespeare.’ His foundational belief was to admire, incant and love great literature.
If you spend a lifetime reading and teaching and writing, I would think that the proper attitude to take toward Shakespeare, toward Dante, toward Cervantes, toward Geoffrey Chaucer, toward Tolstoy, toward Plato—the great figures—is indeed awe, wonder, gratitude, deep appreciation. I can’t really understand any other stance in relation to them. I mean, they have formed our minds.
Bloom was the High Priest of Romanticism, having read William Blake aged nine, and he embodied the basic principle of the lamp and the mirror devised by his mentor Abrams. Abrams showed that before Romanticism, art was a mirror held up to nature, and afterwards art became an expression of the inner lamp, the soul, the mind, or as the ancient Greeks would have had it the daemon.
Bloom was a lamp among a profession of people who wanted neither mirror nor lamp, but tools to deconstruct the world. He was, in that sense, like Portia’s lamp that shone from the window ‘like a good deed in a naughty world.’
The daemon was a core idea for Bloom. ‘Though it’s not the unconscious in the Freudian sense, the daemon is the creative spirit. It is, as Emerson called it, “the God within”.’ The greeks were foundational to another of Bloom’s controversial ideas: the anxiety of influence. This is almost impossible to summarise accurately, as Bloom noted acidly about various attempts, but in essence it says that poets compete with each other for dominance. A young poet in overawed by the work of a predecessor, feeling it is too late for them to produce anything good, but by the process of ‘strong misreading’ the young poet realises the old poet has gone so far but then a change is required, a swerve.
It was perhaps in this context that he talked of Johnson as his great precursor.
He developed the idea into a small book, which he called a dithyramb (an ancient Greek religious incantation in praise of Dionysus) as the result of a dream about an angel, ‘the Freudian interpretation of which I do not wish to know.’
The theory of the anxiety of influence is rooted, as well as in Greek thought, in Freud, Neoplatonism and Biblical study as well as Bloom’s astonishing, unparalleled knowledge of Western Literature. Freud was always a keystone for Bloom, and was in his group of essential canonical writers. Freud was, Bloom believed, Shakespeare in prose. And Shakespeare was the centre of the canon.
Bloom used to compare Falstaff and Hamlet as the two major dynamic forces in Shakespeare. People are predominantly one or the other. The Falstaffs are fat, joyous, life-affirming types; mischievous, scandalous, loveable. Hamlets are skinny, moody, life-contemplating types; they are dangerous, serious and sunken.
He was a self-proclaimed Falstaff, lamenting in his old age that he was too thin to play the character anymore, having lost weight from illness. Falstaff is a force of joy, humour, engagement with the world, action, inspiration, pleasure, hedonism. All the things Bloom stood for in studying literature.
As a critical Falstaff, he was the very opposite of the affective fallacy – a theory coined by New Criticism which said that reader’s emotional responses to literature are not a reliable way to assess their worth, which Bloom fiercely denied: he used to come back from teaching Emily Dickinson visibly disturbed, and would have to argue with his colleagues about whether that was the appropriate critical response – and as such, Bloom believed in and represented the common reader, the critical ability to appreciate character and the passion that starts and keeps people on a lifetime of reading. As he said:
the term “philology” originally meant indeed a love of learning—a love of the word, a love of literature. I think the more profoundly people love and understand literature, the less likely they are to be supercilious, to feel that somehow they know more than the poems, stories, novels, and epics actually know.
And yet, Falstaff was also melancholy. He was depleted by age, authority and the trend to a new sort of world, a more serious time. ‘Peace, good Doll, do not speak like a death’s-head, do not bid me remember mine end.’ Bloom had much of Flastaff’s joy – he kept stuffed animals in his house, was a wonderful flirt and always had a witty quote to hand – but he was also melancholy, once saying, ‘Shakespeare, in a strange way, is terribly just. He does not want to show us sorrow and the ending of sorrow. He wants to show us sorrow and the sorrow that does not end at all.’
Bloom is perhaps best thought of as a ‘tragic ironist’, as he said of Shakespeare.
Hamlet was described by A.C.Bradley as his own Falstaff. Perhaps in a similar way, Bloom was his own Hamlet: although he remained a fundamentally comic persona, endlessly seeking to be the cause of joy in us through his love of literature, he was somewhat overburdened by the sorrow of what academic literary criticism has become.
Dr Johnson disliked Hamlet, so it is probably no coincidence that Hamlet was quite so important to Bloom: they were in other ways so similar, after all. After he wrote his mammoth book on Shakespeare he wrote another all about Hamlet, the ‘poem unlimited.’ The inseparability of the melancholy and the transcendent is crucial to Bloom’s view of Hamlet, and perhaps of himself:
though Hamlet is called a tragedy, it isn’t actually a tragedy. It’s an apotheosis, a transfiguration, a kind of upward-breaking transcendence of the protagonist. It actually has more in common with the high comedies written just before and after it—As You Like It and Twelfth Night—than it does with Julius Caesar or Othello.
The best introduction to him is probably the interviews such as the NYPL interview covering his career, and the Charlie Rose interview about Hamlet. As he says, Hamlet is ‘the most extraordinary single work of Western Literature… a kaleidoscope, of no genre whatsoever.’ The same could be said of him.
As the man who said, ‘We read frequently if unknowingly, in quest of a mind more original than our own’, and who was such an inventive, personal critic he sounded more like a peer of the writers he studied, it was maybe inevitable that he was the critic who attracted more opposition than any other: even Christopher Ricks once remarked, ‘Bloom had an idea; now the idea has him.’ Let’s give the last word to Bloom’s hero Falstaff.
‘Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me: the brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not able to invent anything that tends to laughter, more than I invent or is invented on me: I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.