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Harold Bloom, the Falstaff of lit crit

Bloom was a working-class Jew from the Bronx who, like Saul Bellow, had autodidactified himself to the gills despite being in the university

October 15, 2019

12:12 PM

15 October 2019

12:12 PM

In a time when literature is held to be futile, it is cheering that some literary values persist. One of those values, confirmed by T.S. Eliot in ‘The Function of Criticism’ (1923), is that writing a book is almost invariably less futile than writing a book about books. Criticism, Eliot wrote, could not be ‘autotelic’, expressing only itself, because criticism was about other things, like ‘the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste’. The critic, then, performs a kind of clean-up operation after the party.

Harold Bloom, who died yesterday at 89, was a rare exception to that rule. For Bloom, criticism was the vehicle of spiritual autobiography. The value of reading his books about books lies less in their erudition and range –– though if you’ve read and understood Bloom, you really have no need to waste four years on Eng Lit at Yale –– than in their rearrangement of what Eliot called the ‘ideal order’ of art’s ‘existing monuments’. In this, as in his pursuit of the spotlight and his democratizing public presence, Bloom had more in common with ebullient and emotional Victorian grandstanders like Carlyle and Emerson than with a parsonical puritan like T.S. Eliot, let alone the fashionable puritans whose mobilizing of criticism as politics supplied a Malvolio-like counterpart to Bloom’s Falstaff routine.

Bloom was a lover of literature with a wandering mind and, more than one female student and interviewer alleged, wandering hands. He was inarguably Jewish in an erratic way, and intermittently homosexual in a married way. All of this might have been perceived as radical in his youth, when Columbia’s English department wouldn’t hire a Jew, homosexuality was illegal and female students fair game, but it became reactionary in his dotage.  It is Falstaff’s fate to decline in Prince Hal’s eyes from a monument of the ideal order, the young man’s ‘reverend vice’, to a fat, lecherous, balding windbag. Bloom, especially in his extended coda of portly-panda shuffling and gnomic uttering, showed more than a little of Falstaff’s self-pity and afflatus. His handsiness was notorious and inexcusable. But his virtues –– love of literature, immodest curiosity, honest subjectivity and a care for the written word –– are the virtues that make it worthwhile to read books about books, or even to read books at all.

Eliot, in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1917) stops at ‘the frontier of metaphysics and mysticism’ and limits the critic to ‘practical conclusions’. Bloom overshot that frontier and styled himself a ‘Jewish gnostic’, which as oxymorons go, is up there with ‘literary criticism’. His critical breakthrough, The Anxiety of Influence (1973) rearranged literature’s monuments in the ideal order of the modern metaphysician, Freud: literary creativity as the son’s Oedipal struggle with his literary fathers. Though literature’s daughters didn’t feature much, The Anxiety of Influence is an intriguing account of how influences are absorbed, rejected and reincorporated into literary style: a paradigm for the forming of literary personality.

Orson Welles, like Falstaff and Bloom a portly knight, thought Falstaff ‘the best role that Shakespeare ever wrote’. The Bloom persona was Harold Bloom’s greatest creation –– the hammy premise, perhaps, for the publicizing of his esoteric thoughts about literature, because he sounded great, whether we understood him or not. The metaphysical, mystifying tendency is well under way with The Anxiety of Influence, with its private language of categories from the Greek –– clinamen is the ‘misprision’, the misreading that makes a new meaning, kenosis the attempt to separate from an influence, apophrades the ‘return of the dead’, the fulfillment at which an author’s mature work stands eye to eye with its inspirations. Later, it hardened into a defiant kind of occultism. His last major work, The Anatomy of Influence (2011), was modeled on Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and admitted that its procedures were ‘a purely personal dialectical dance, part of the Kabbalah of Harold Bloom’. He appeared to believe that he had achieved apophrades, so could talk of himself as he talked of his masters: in the third person, with awe.

This ambition of scale and that confession of irrational egotism placed Bloom utterly at odds with critical fashion. Bloom, in his intellectual and physical unbuttoning, thought and behaved more like a visiting poet than a tenured professor –– imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, for though Bloom was no poet, he was a poetic kind of critic, making new meanings that were confessional yet aspiring to Whitman-like resonance within their society. He would have gone over well in Alexandria during its decadence, at the court of Ferrara when the d’Este were feeling tolerant to Jews, or in the taverns of the England of Bacon and Shakespeare, or in Paris or London or Concord, Mass. between the time of William Blake and William Butler Yeats. But not at Yale in the age of Foucault and identity politics.

Bloom was a working-class Jew from the Bronx who, like Saul Bellow, had autodidactified himself to the gills despite being in the university. At Yale, he lost the culture war to the heirs of T.S. Eliot’s puritanism. For an illustration of Camille Paglia’s lament for the lost energies of American culture, look no further than the contest between Bloom and Paul de Man at Yale in the late Sixties. Bloom was a Romantic, with all the attendant flaws of grandeur and egotism. De Man, who had repressed the facts of his wartime service as literary pimp for the Nazis, now pimped in America for the unreliable narrator of interior life, Michel Foucault. The rest is posturing gibberish, the speech-codifying theatre of repression and virtue, and tenure for the virtuous Malvolios.

The students of de Man and Foucault went on to kill the thing they loved, rendering academic English the province of an elite of incomprehensible masochists, and collapsing enrollments as they raised the ladder. This is as far as you can get from the ideal of Blake, Carlyle, Emerson, Whitman and Ruskin –– the ideal fulfilled in the Everyman Library, the family encyclopedia, and the kind of state education that fitted Bloom, a graduate of the Bronx public schools whose parents didn’t speak English in the home, for public life –– the ideal that literature makes us more human, and that if we are to thrive as a liberal and democratic society, we need literature to connect us both to the sources of our culture and to its potentialities.

Instead, criticism was hijacked by what Bloom called the School of Resentment: one of the numerous codes and creeds by which the managerial elite of late 20th century-America maintained their lucrative conspiracy against the laity. As Melville wrote in ‘Falstaff’s Lament Over Prince Hal Become Henry V’:

‘For now intuitions
Shall wither into codes,
Pragmatized morals
Shall libel the gods.’

What Bloom offers is something rarer and, when he’s on form, near-priceless: a perspective of the world from a brilliant mind. Bloom the Jewish gnostic gives us Hamlet in the way that Joyce gives us his fictional ‘jew-greek’ man of appetites and digressions, Leopold Bloom. It may be fiction, the expansion of subjectivity; it may, in Bloom’s case, be books about books; it may tip from greatness to grandeur and then to grandiosity. But it is the real thing, authentic to that Miltonic streak of rebellion that runs through the modern West, with its secular order and religious impulses, as to the Whitman-like Americanism that announces the universal spirit like a defrocked preacher, as to Bloom himself.

One of the lessons of literature, and of criticism done well, is that we are free to arrange the monuments, as in Bloom’s Western Canon (1994) or his admission in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) that Bardolatry ‘ought to be more of a secular religion than it already is’. Another is that if we must live as though the ideal order is a matter of free choice, then the doing it right means doing it well. Bloom’s style was earnest and comedic –– if you listen to him on the radio, it’s impossible not to envision Zero Mostel in a toga –– but he did it well. He got right the task of being Harold Bloom for his edification and entertainment as for ours. Again, his integrity seems closer to that of the artist-critic than the critic of artists –– closer to Walter Pater than Edward Said.

For books, even when they’re books about books, should entertain. As Toby Belch tells ‘virtuous’ Malvolio, there should always be ‘cakes and ale’. This is why it is worth reading Bloom, grandiosity and all. He may have had his cake and eaten it when he stroked his students’ knees, but he was right about what ails modern criticism. He was right about the rarified virtues and democratic potential of literature too.

Dominic Green is Life & Arts editor of Spectator USA.


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