Harold Bloom, a Prolific Giant and Perhaps the Last of a Kind

Harold Bloom, the imperious and convivial scholar and literary critic, the last colossus in terms of his ardor and prodigious memory, a self-described “tired, sad, humane old creature,” and a man who was increasingly isolated in his opinions about what the great books are and why they matter, was nothing if not prolific.

Bloom, who died on Monday at 89, published more than 40 books. Sometimes two squeezed through one’s door at the same instant. A story used to go around about him back in the 1990s. A graduate student had telephoned him at home. Bloom’s wife answered and said, “I’m sorry, he’s writing a book.” The student replied: “That’s all right. I’ll wait.”

Bloom was a powerful synthesizer of texts and ideas, notably in books like “The Anxiety of Influence” (1973), “The Western Canon” (1994) and “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” (1998). More saliently, perhaps, he was a kind of prophet of sublimity.

It was impossible to read deeply in Bloom without him flooring you with feeling. “Walt Whitman,” he wrote, “overwhelms me, possesses me, as only a few others — Dante, Shakespeare, Milton — consistently flood my entire being.” In today’s world, there is competition to be more concerned than anyone else. In Bloom’s, there was competition to be the most exactingly delighted. There were more arrows in him, aesthetically, than in St. Sebastian.

He read like a man picking up crumbs with a moistened index finger. He often considered loneliness in literature. You felt he was attracted to loneliness as a theme for the same reasons that Ishmael, in “Moby-Dick,” liked to join funeral processions. It made him feel more open, invigorated and alive.

Bloom’s most important book, “The Anxiety of Influence,” remains a touchstone. He wrote it quickly, after a personal crisis. He investigated the way poets and other writers struggle to create without being smothered by the work of those who made them want to write in the first place.

“The Anxiety of Influence” is among those fortunate books in which thesis is embedded in title. The book’s ideas may be complicated and heavy, but there’s a simple handle with which to pick them up.

The title of another of his major books, “The Western Canon,” is also a kind of planted flag. That book examined the work of 26 writers, largely but not entirely male and white — the list included Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and Fernando Pessoa — whom Bloom saw as particularly sublime, and pivotal to our understanding of what it means to be sentient.

It was also an attack, from a crenelated embankment, on what he called the “School of Resentment” — critics and scholars he would later describe, in a 1991 Paris Review interview, as “displaced social workers” and “a rabblement of lemmings.”

“Literature is not an instrument of social change or an instrument of social reform,” he said in that same interview. “It is more a mode of human sensations and impressions, which do not reduce very well to societal rules or forms.”

The sound you heard on Monday, at word of Bloom’s death, was the cheering of some of his enemies. To dabble in the canon wars from anywhere near the right of center is to see oneself fired from that canon.

Bloom could be painfully oblivious to the ways in which shifting and enlarging of the canon was not merely necessary but joy-filled work. One reduces him to a caricature at one’s peril, however. To read him closely, to get down into the grass with him, is rarely to find a padlocked mind.

He saw how the women in Saul Bellow’s work were, to use his word, absurdities. In a later interview with the writer Amy Bloom (no relation), he noted how much great American poetry came from gay or bisexual writers. An uncompromising highbrow, Bloom sought to hoist his readers up to the level of what he saw as the greatest books.

He was born in New York City, where he grew up speaking Yiddish in an Orthodox Jewish household. His father was a garment worker from Odessa. He lost many relatives in the Holocaust. Bloom’s life is was a bildungsroman with the bildung done quite early; he seems to have emerged from the womb a capacious reader, starting with The Bible and Hart Crane.

His abiding interest in religious thought led him to write “The Book of J” (1990), in which he asserted — without a great deal of evidence — that the first author of the Hebrew Bible was a learned woman in King Solomon’s court. He would later say, “Emerson is God,” and remark to an interviewer: “You are confusing Shakespeare with God. I don’t see why one shouldn’t, as it were.”

I met Bloom (he had hands like big damp croissants), but never studied with him. For a while he was, at the same time, the Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale and Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. To get a flavor of his teaching, turn to Larissa MacFarquhar’s magnificent 2002 profile in The New Yorker.

“When Bloom teaches, he uncoils and grows even larger,” MacFarquhar wrote. “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 deferentially — 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.”

That last line is a reminder, perhaps, that in 2004 the writer Naomi Wolf accused Bloom of sexual “encroachment” by touching her thigh when she was a student at Yale two decades earlier. It is a charge he has denied, but many more hints emerged over the years of affairs with students.

Bloom wrote too much. By the end, he was rehearsing the same material, pressing “shuffle” on the same orotund playlists, and his work lost much of its consecrating power. Many critics turned against him. He said, memorably: “As someone sympathetic once said of my reviews, ‘It’s an invectorium.’”

“Maybe one writes to ward off death,” he commented. “I’m not sure. But I think in some sense that’s what poets do. They write their poems to ward off dying.” For Bloom, the worst part about death was surely that he could not take a book with him.

Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.

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