On Harold Bloom

This was one of Bloom’s gifts, to hear in any single work many voices. Poems were not themselves. A voice was not just one voice. And Bloom as Falstaff was not Bloom either, only a mask, a shadow: “I call to the mysterious one who yet / Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream / And look most like me, being indeed my double, / And prove of all imaginable things / The most unlike, being my anti-self, / And standing by these characters disclose / All that I seek”—that’s Yeats, whose theory of antithetical characters was one of the sources to Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence.

1930–2019

Image from the cover of Bloom’s The Flight to Lucifer.

The man was not as he was portrayed. Nor as he portrayed himself. The person seated, almost propped, at the head of the seminar table, shirt unbuttoned three or even four down to allow his hand to massage his weakened heart—“my doctor urges this exercise”—often absentmindedly while listening to students speaking, a roll of flesh exposing itself, making it impossible not to think “I, Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs,” a line from the poet and critic whose influence Bloom’s early career had been almost single-mindedly aimed against, and whose often pompous pronouncements he ended up imitating; the person arriving always early to the class and seated in the dark, “I am tired today, my dears,” that was not the man. The airs, the extravagances, the affectations, also not the man.

It was around the time that he was writing Shakespeare: The Invention of The Human. This was a modern American poetry seminar, but he was steeped in Falstaff, “the god of my imaginings,” he called him, auditioning for the character, clowning with pathos, a last hurrah of sorts, the doctors weren’t giving him long, he said. It was then 1998.

Like other teachers and sages I’d known and apprenticed myself to for seasons of my life, Bloom performed, but what he didn’t perform was pedagogy or teaching, not for himself and not for us. He just did readings, in the Bloom way, which was an ongoing drama, in words, between the work at hand and the absent works, lines and phrases that the work had brought itself into being from. This isn’t the same as watered down “intertextuality” or “influence studies” or, god forbid, some kind of seminar or salon-like conversation. It wasn’t “New Critical” thing-in-itself close reading, because poems weren’t things in themselves, they were living subjects, and as full of contradictions and private dramas and unconscious desires and hauntings as any other. While some critics thought about the “political unconscious” and others of just the human unconscious, Bloom found a way to surface the poetic unconscious.

He would sit there, channeling, almost always quoting from memory and at the speed of memory, a few teasing questions to set himself off and running. And he would run nonstop until the doctor-mandated “break,” when he might shift his corpulence, button up the shirt and shuffle unaided for water, or sit mopping his brow, or quiet, eyes closed, returning into silence. He leaked humanity.

I should say that, at the time and for many years after, I received almost nothing from this class. I remembered almost nothing, consciously, that Bloom said about all the poems we’d read. My marginalia is incomprehensible and almost worthless; the notebook long since lost in an attic. Only when I’d completely freed myself from academia and abandoned all hope of an academic career, even an academic life, did I return to those poems, again not even consciously, and find not just pleasure in them but meaning, which is also too earnest and defined a word to say what I discovered. And then in those moments I don’t hear Bloom’s voice at all, but I’m aware that the—pleasure is too soft a word—insight I receive from, say, Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” or John Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended” takes place in a Bloomian universe—gnostic, agonistic, a beauty with terror in it, clashing structures and strange cohabitations, a poem as a play in as many acts as the poet needs.

If you got the Bloom experience at the right time of your life, as a poet or a person who loves poetry, then he could be perfect. At a crisis moment for such a person, he might also be terrible. There is something to be said for teaching that has no “deliverables,” to which the only answer to the evaluator’s question about what was learned is: “Ask me in five years, then again in ten, then in twenty.” In 1998, I had vague feelings for poetry that I didn’t know were at odds with the academic persona I was trying to cultivate. I put poems into meaning machines linked to my ambition and ground them into dust. Years later, once I’d relinquished the need to definitively interpret anything in such a way that it could be professionally recognized and circulated, in ways that credited the originality and rigor of my interpretations, the poems came back to me as poetry and I could hear them: sometimes as poems that did not transcend themselves; sometimes as individuals marked, as we are, by others living and dead.

This was one of Bloom’s gifts, to hear in any single work many voices. Poems were not themselves. A voice was not just one voice. And Bloom as Falstaff was not Bloom either, only a mask, a shadow: “I call to the mysterious one who yet / Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream / And look most like me, being indeed my double, / And prove of all imaginable things / The most unlike, being my anti-self, / And standing by these characters disclose / All that I seek”—that’s Yeats, whose theory of antithetical characters was one of the sources to Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence.

Hence his implacable hostility to identitarianism as a way of thinking about literature and doing literary scholarship, criticism, or creative work of any kind. Why reduce to one thing when one is many things? Why rest in the shelter or ghetto of something handed down to you that you had no choice about when you could be a self-fashioned genius? Great literature and great authors, which is to say anyone that aims beyond their bodily lifespan, encodes their own mortal striving with immortality and are a plural organism.

The Jew from the Bronx tenement who spoke like a parody of a Wasp, the beautiful youth gone fat and old, then thin and old, the person who wrote a very bad fantasy novel based on A Voyage to Arcturus, getting drunk at The Anchor with Paul de Man, how could this person write criticism “as a Jew,” “as a white man,” “as the first-generation child of immigrants.” The closest he came to the traditional formulas of American confession occurs in the preface to The American Religion, in third person: “He is decidedly not a Christian, but is a gnostic Jew who has his own quarrels with normative Judaism.”

What Bloom would call a “knowing,” Marxist-Historicist reading of his criticism would locate it within and as part of a high point of mid-American individualism, less of the rugged than the spiritual kind. He belonged to the cultural moment that gave us Clement Greenberg, Abstract Expressionism in both art and poetry, American Buddhism and the new age movement. His Falstaff was a cold war figure and one of the few times that he conceded the word to a contemporary comes when he quotes Anthony Burgess: “The Falstaffian spirit is a great sustainer of civilization. It disappears when the state is too powerful and when people worry too much about their souls.” That this individualism was never unitary or solipsistic is one of the ironies that Bloom haters and also his very few remaining conservative cultural cheerleaders love to miss.

“The greatest of all fictive wits dies the death of a rejected father-substitute and also of a dishonored mentor”—Bloom about Falstaff, again. Like many of his generation, Bloom strived to ensure that he would avoid this fate, but misapprehended the danger: He permitted no Prince Hals. He founded no school, unlike de Man down the hall, and appeared to disown some of his best students before they could disown him. There was an actual son, rumored to be troubled—either in mind or body—and much beloved. It was for the sake of his health care, it was said, that Bloom had submitted to the indignity of writing all those cheesy Chelsea House introductions and then The Western Canon, the work where he sold out most clearly to a side in a game of politics and political criticism he’d previously refused to play.

Unsurprisingly, this is the work that has most immediately damned him to be misconstrued in the immediate construction of his posterity. The vociferous canon debates, both at the time and ongoing, slowly took the place of the conversations within canons that Bloom thought made original writing possible. And Bloom, with his lists and rankings and fiat value judgments, even when he could always back them up, contributed greatly to this, and so, ultimately, to the misunderstanding and outright decanonization of his own early work. One could hear the usual smirking and jeering in the early version of the New York Times obituary hed: “Critic Who Embraced Western Canon.” They made it sound like a conversion experience, or a shipwreck.

But Bloom’s true scholarly and critical gifts always emerged around questions of “originality.” This was what The Anxiety of Influence was a theory of. The canon for Bloom wasn’t supposed to be about erecting a fence or border wall, as it’s often now currently conceived. Rather, it named a body or a microverse in which writers or critics could come to mark themselves out as original or merely rule-following. Originality is achieved only through a constant and often unconscious struggle with the works of the past. Bloom’s word for this struggle was “reading.” Only Bloom could write the sentence “Shakespeare’s plays read us better than we read them,” by which he meant that something about our self-awareness doesn’t even come into being until the moment we encounter Shakespeare. This sounds elitist, but need not be so. Indeed, it’s something almost every teacher in the humanities implicitly believes, even if they change the subject of that sentence from Shakespeare to Marx, Judith Butler, or Kimberlé Crenshaw. Bloom was just more honest about naming that encounter—and that honesty could be frightening.

In accordance with a gnostic belief that this universe is but one of many, Bloom must have also tacitly acknowledged the existence of other microverses, in which the strong texts and precursors that made up that world’s canon were other than the one he knew and felt at home in, but he also wanted to make sure that people didn’t think willed ignorance, rupture, and censorship were adequate shortcuts to self-styled “originality.” Just as one doesn’t become free merely by killing off a tyrant, one doesn’t become original by not reading one’s precursors, even if they were bad people.

Were they? Was he? I’ve heard the stories and read the articles. I saw his frank over-appreciation of the prettiest women students in our class, heard the endearments he rained down them, an old man’s privilege, an old man’s curse. I’ve heard him called a predator. What here can I say: I never knew him in that way, if I knew him at all. And if he failed himself and others, his students, women and men, too, in these all too ordinary, unoriginal, lecherous ways, he is to be faulted. That fault though should be more on his own terms than in the judgment of a culture and society that had already decided to stop listening to him for other reasons. He got in his own way. The spark that was Bloom is now released from its shell; it travels on, and we may again recognize its brightness, once we let the body go.

—Marco Roth


Harold Bloom loved outrage: his own and others’. I think that was one reason that he loved me (one of scores of people he loved). Many people writing of their memories of him like to recall the way he would walk the streets of the Yale campus, his head elevated and slightly tilted. (He’d had some damage to his inner ear as a young man, and couldn’t drive, and his balance always seemed iffy.). One day, in my sophomore year, I tried to walk by, as inconspicuously as I could, when I crossed paths with him strolling with David Bromwich and John Hollander. Bromwich gave me a curt nod—he did not like my sophomoric ways—and I kept going; but Bloom noticed me, and cried with great joy, “Ah, Wild Willie Flesch, famous non-attender of classes!” I scuttled away but appreciated his relish, not in the rebuke, though it was one, but in the human comedy which brought me to slip on the banana peel of this congeries of worthies right at that moment.

Next year I went back to his class; I’d grown a beard in the meantime and managed to be inconspicuously myself, answering a couple of the questions that he would spend the whole class asking—questions which rephrased each previous answer given by one or another student into something deep and brilliant and unexpected and foundational. I had come into the class, I’ll confess to my shame, having no idea what the fuss about Elizabeth Bishop was about. My friend Andy Paulson—son of Ronald, another worthy in the Yale English Department—and I sometimes drank sherry and congratulated ourselves on not understanding why his father’s colleagues liked Bishop so much. I left the class utterly stunned by her – by her feminism (in “Roosters”) among the many other things that filled Bloom with that so contagious awe that we contracted from him for life.

A week later, after we’d talked about Ashbery, I believe, I came up to him after class to suggest an allusion. He looked at me closely, and said, “Is that you Willie, behind that beard?” I admitted that it was. He was gleeful in his castigation: “You are a reprobate, young man, a reprobate! But never mind. Keep coming to class.” Was I insulted? Of course not, or if so only in the most life-affirming way: Bloom liked to quote what (he said) Philip Roth once said to him: “Harold, we are here to be insulted!” And I did keep coming to class, in body and then in spirit, for the next forty years.

He always called me Willie, which no one else (except the rest of his family) did or does: I think he loved the opportunity to use the Wildean moniker. He had nicknames, mostly affectionate, for everyone; indeed it’s only now occurred to me that the reason he always called me not just Willie but Wild Willie might be because of the pun. Thus his last email to me (nine days ago, Gmail helpfully, heartbreakingly informs me), about coming to tea last Friday:

Dear Wild Willie,

5 or 5:30 would be fine. Six would not be as we always dine then.

Love,

Harold

We arrived at 5:35, and he had just gone up to his sick bed, so we heard but did not see him. The next day he was in the ICU, and he died on Monday, never having had the chance to read his own obituary, which came out online that afternoon.

He’d wanted to read it. He’d asked. When he was interviewed for it, I guess by Dinitia Smith, about twenty years ago, all she would tell him (he told us then) was how long it would be. When he suggested he might read an advance copy, he quoted her as replying, “On no, Mr. Bloom. Everyone has to die before being allowed to read their obituary.” Given the obituary the Times did publish, that was probably a wise move on their part. Like so many other notices of his death and appreciations of his character, it dwelt on his larger-than-life, Falstaffian gusto. (His nickname for himself was Bloomstaff, and he once played the fat knight in a show he wrote: his own revisionist version of Chimes at Midnight.) It was with that kind of gusto that he made the outrageous declaration that his favorite movie, W.C. Fields’s Fatal Glass of Beer, a hilarious short from 1933, was “the sublime of cinematic art.” It taught him, he said, to think about what he had “learned to call the aesthetics of being outraged.” Of course this judgment is meant to be outrageous. It demonstrates and inculcates its own aesthetic, and his subsequent comparison of Fields in that movie with Macbeth, whose outrageous fortune is perhaps even worse than Hamlet’s, is even more, well, outrageous.

But outrageous how? I think I respond to the comparison the way Fields would, not the way Macbeth would, though Macbeth does sound a bit like Fields when he complains about the dead not staying dead. Bloom’s claim was not so much provocative as ludicrous—intentionally ludicrous. And so much of Bloom’s pronunciamientos were intentionally hilarious: not papal bulls but palpable bull. And yet they never were empty: they were the expressions of his Johnsonian or Dickensian aspects, aspects that fooled too many people into thinking that this was most important about him as a thinker or writer or critic or reader. Back in the day that Bromwich glowered and Bloom guffawed, the other aspect of the Yale literary scene comprised the deconstructionists, the students of Paul de Man (and sometimes of Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller as well). They were gliding, etherial, charismatic presences, alert to the alterity in literature, the ways that literature was somehow other-than-human. As Maurice Blanchot, de Man’s great precursor (to use Bloom’s term), put it, literature was not about our world, and not even about another world, but about what is other to all worlds. There is something irreducibly other, irreducibly inhuman, about the space of literature. It is a space of loss.

There wasn’t much room for the comic in that canon, though Hartman and Miller were very witty writers (like Derrida, who taught at Yale every other semester) and Paul de Man was hilarious in person. In class Bloom once said that he’d got lost on the Princeton campus trying to find the next building, because, as everyone knew, a terrible sense of geography and spatial relations was a diagnostic criterion for solipsism. (I mentioned this to de Man once, who said with delight that Bloom certainly knew the exact location of every rest stop on any drive they took together.) This was the same class in which Bloom affected to forget a line from a Stevens poem as illustrative of a moment in Dickinson: “Our, something! What is it! Our something is gone. We are the fruits thereof.” We all knew the famous line—“Our bloom is gone. We are the fruits thereof”—and shouted the missing word: “Bloom!” “Bloom!” He shook his head tragically: “My dears, when you have a memory like mine, you only forget a word because you are placing it under the deepest repression.” “Bloom!,” we cried, “Bloom!” Finally he got out his copy of Stevens, turned to the relevant page of “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” and found the word. Then he looked around with a grand and winning bashfulness, as though we would share the self-evident reason that he had repressed his own name in thinking of the bloom’s evanescence in Stevens.

And yet, what I learned from Bloom was something like the sublime. One way to describe his whole theory is to distinguish between the poet and the person—not as the New Critics made that distinction, since their concern was with the poem rather than the poet. For Bloom the meaning of a poem was always another poem, to quote one of his most central ideas (from The Anxiety of Influence). But the meaning of a person— what a person can mean—is not a poem. And so, for Bloom, the poet is not the person. The poet is always an other—belongs to the uncanny space of literature and not to the world of tea and sherry (or Fundador, which he drank entirely too much of). One of his favorite passages was a letter of William Blake’s, to his friend and fellow printmaker George Cumberland, that Blake wrote four months before he died:

Dear Cumberland

I have been very near the gates of death & have returned very weak & an Old Man feeble & tottering, but not in Spirit & Life not in the Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for Ever.

What a way to open a letter. Very near the gates of death, himself, very weak and an old man, feeble and tottering, Bloom was still very much the ebullient appreciator of the human comedy. But the real man, the imagination, was someone entirely different, still absorbed and captivated by the solitary strangeness of literature, the uncanny otherness to which he devoted his deepest intellectual passion. As a thinker his thoughts were about that uncanniness—not the simple fact that (as he put it) the dead poets were “more outrageously alive” than any of us latecomers with our Dickensian gusto for their works—but that they knew and in their strange persistence as poets still know what it means to be haunted by poets. The first idea of his that ever struck me, in his DeVane lectures in the spring of 1975, my freshman year, was his reading of a moment in Stevens in which “the poet recognizes his absence as a gap his presence could never fill.”

Bloom was not a poet: he was a gigantic presence, a world unto himself, capacious enough for the thousands who loved him and many scores of those who did not. (He always expressed genuine pity for those down on their luck, even his avowed enemies.). But he knew what poetry was, knew what it was to think about poetry and to be haunted by it. And he modeled for us, with his immense and grand appetites, appetites which perhaps culminate in the excess that causes and characterizes outrage, that to be an empirical human being, a character, a more or less colorful or colorless person, did nothing to limit the Real Person within oneself, that invisible noumenal observer of everything including one’s own characteristics, the reader, standing on the darkling shore of the world, who Bloom—the Emersonian—thought could be found in every human being, and the reprobate who does not attend classes but does do the reading.

William Flesch

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