Harold Bloom is the preeminent literary critic in the world, and as such he is perhaps the last of a dying breed.
Dec 2 2008, 12:00am
Harold Bloom is the preeminent literary critic in the world, and as such he is perhaps the last of a dying breed. Bloom adheres, passionately and single-mindedly, to the true and first tenet of lit crit—to take a book and judge it on its own merit, to see it as a thing in and of itself. The aesthetic value of the prose, the mastery of metaphor, strength and conviction of theme—these are the sorts of things that a critic like Bloom pays attention to.
Much of contemporary criticism takes a novel and holds it up to a series of incongruous and irrelevant sociological magnifying glasses—gender theory, feminism, Marxist analysis, and all sorts of postmodern muck. These critics, whom Bloom has memorably called the School of Resentment, have gained such strength that they have colored, even infected, writers whose careers have started since the Resentment began. So what we are seeing is criticism that changes literature for the worse and, as Bloom laments, contributes to the idiot-ization of the entire world. It’s a mess, and it may be irreversible.
And so we return to Harold Bloom, the old voice crying out in the wilderness, who, besides writing one of the most important and useful books on Shakespeare (The Invention of the Human) and coining the term “the anxiety of influence”—an extremely useful theory of literary evolution—in the book of the same name, took on the whole of academia (for that is now just another name for the School of Resentment) in the towering 1994 work The Western Canon. It is in this book that Bloom first and most comprehensively did his part to preserve what’s important—essential, really—to humans from all the great works of writing that have been produced from the Bible and Gilgamesh all the way up to, well, right now. The professors and critics of the world will only get their hands on my copy of this book when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.
Vice recently spoke with Bloom over the phone. He was in his office at Yale, where he teaches two classes a week.
Vice: I was hoping to talk first about The Western Canon.
Harold Bloom: Do you mean the whole category, or what I wrote about it?
I mean your book.
But can we make an agreement? Let’s forget that damned list.
Ha. Do you mean the appendix in the back of the book that lists all the canonical works?
The list was not my idea. It was the idea of the publisher, the editor, and my agents. I fought it. I finally gave up. I hated it. I did it off the top of my head. I left out a lot of things that should be there and I probably put in a couple of things that I now would like to kick out. I kept it out of the Italian and the Swedish translations, but it’s in all the other translations—about 15 or 18 of them. I’m sick of the whole thing. All over the world, including here, people reviewed and attacked the list and didn’t read the book. So let’s agree right now, my dear. We will not mention the list.
It’s a deal.
I wish I had nothing to do with it. I literally did it off the top of my head, since I have a pretty considerable memory, in about three hours one afternoon.
It does seem like the sort of thing that a publisher would ask for to make the book more palatable to a casual reader.
It doesn’t exist. Let’s go on.
I started college in the same year that this book was published—1994.
1994. That’s a long time ago now. That’s 14 years. I am now 78 and I’ve come off a terrible year. I nearly died. But I’m all right now and I’m back teaching.
A whole series of mishaps and illnesses, but the big one that knocked me out for six months and nearly killed me was that I quite literally broke my back in a fall. But let’s forget about it. It’s over now.
Looking at the book, and thinking about it being available right when I was starting college—
Where were you at college?
Well, that’s part of the problem. I went to a very small liberal-arts college with no grades and no majors. Let’s not speak its name. Or OK, let’s. It’s called Hampshire.
Oh yes, I know it very well. It was supposed to be very elite. I remember they once wanted me to talk there and I sort of dodged it because I felt it wasn’t going to work.
It wouldn’t have worked. And I feel like I should have just read your book instead of going to school there. But can you tell me, do you think that things have become better or worse in terms of the School of Resentment since the book was published?
Obviously they’ve gotten much worse. Just look at the enormous international as well as domestic dumbing down and decline in serious reading and indeed the falling apart, inevitably, of standards.
Yet you’re still soldiering on, teaching undergraduates.
But I’ve turned my back on the academy even though I still teach at Yale. I am part of no department—I became a department, or nondepartment, of one when I walked out on the English department back in, my God, way back there in 1976. That’s a long time ago now. Thirty-two years. But I started to write books pretty early on—certainly from about the late 1980s on to the present, so for about 20 years now, addressed to the general reader all over the world. And it has worked because I now have an enormous general readership, mostly in an incredible number of translations. So there is always a saving remnant of readers out there, as I have discovered. On the other hand, every single one of those countries, like our own, does suffer from a kind of dumbing down.
It’s in all sorts of culture and media, but it’s mostly in books.
It has something to do with, though not everything to do with, technological change—the fact that most kids grow up not reading deeply or going to a museum and staring at a picture or going to a concert and really listening to authentic music—including authentic jazz. People are trapped in the age of what you might call the triple screen: the motion-picture screen—and this is in ascending order of evil in terms of what it does to their minds throughout the world—the television screen, and finally the computer screen, which is the real villain.
It’s disappointing because the internet could have been such a good thing. It could have been like an indestructible Library of Alexandria, but with porn.
This goes back to what I said about the saving remnant. You’re part of that saving remnant. As I’ve been saying for years: If, in fact, you have an impulse to become and maintain yourself as a deep reader, then the internet is very good for you. It gives you an endless resource. But if, in fact, you don’t have standards and you don’t know how to read, then the internet is a disaster for you because it’s a great gray ocean of text in which you simply drown.
I started school, ostensibly at least, as a poetry major. But I couldn’t find a class there that wasn’t “Transgendered Chicano Poets of the Latter Half of 1982” or something. Not that I don’t like transgendered Chicano poets of 1982—they’re great, I’m sure. But I wanted to learn more than that. Or rather, I wanted to start from the very beginning and work my way up to transgendered Chicanos. I wanted the context of history, and I couldn’t get it at college.
Oh my dear, let’s not get into that. I’m so weary now of being called a racist or a sexist. I can’t take that anymore.
But where does this fear of reading the works of what some critics derisively call “dead white men” come from?
Well, we’re about to crash on the scale of 1837, the Great Panic, or 1929, and now we’re going to have the Panic of either 2008 or 2009. That is a consequence—it’s one of many consequences including a lot of innocent dead everywhere—of the way in which the counterculture ultimately, by its enormous recoil, helped give us George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. They are both semiliterate at best. They both exude self-confidence. And they both claim a direct relationship with God.
Hopefully she’ll disappear now, or just start a talk show or something.
She is a very, very dangerous person.
Agreed. But moving on… If a person wants to seriously approach literature on their own, outside of academia, it’s very difficult.
Without a real teacher, an authentic teacher, a real mentor, it’s very difficult for anyone to get started.
Can you explain to me your concept of the solitary reader? That’s who you say you address your books to.
It’s not a concept. It’s just a fact. There are solitary readers all over the world. I don’t have any special insight into this. I do not know why it is that certain young people, from the beginning, are loners—perfectly sane—who want to go and be alone with a very good book. Again, it’s the saving remnant. It’s a sort of strange grace and of course I’m profoundly thankful for it. So you don’t have to ask me what I mean by the solitary reader. I mean you—on the basis of what you’ve told me. All you need to know about the solitary reader is Pearson.
Nice! Can we talk about the School of Resentment?
Their name is Legion. I have wasted my breath on them. Doctor Samuel Johnson, my hero, told us to clear our minds of cant. But my friend John Hollander keeps warning me to stop ranting against cant, which is what I do. By the time you’ve spent a certain amount of energy ranting against cant, it becomes a kind of cant in itself. So let’s not bother with it.
But it’s been a struggle of yours for so long.
Phrases that you formulate come back and haunt you. I shouldn’t have formulated “the School of Resentment.” I once called them a “rabblement of lemmings,” and I run into that phrase everywhere. And I now wish that I hadn’t formulated the single phrase that I seem to have given to the language: “the anxiety of influence.” Of course everybody misunderstands it.
How do they get it wrong?
They interpret it as an affect in the later writer. But it isn’t an affect in the later writer. It doesn’t matter whether the later writer does or does not feel an anxiety, conscious or otherwise, with regard to a precursor figure. It’s actually the relationship between one poem and another poem, one novel and another novel, and so on and so forth.
It’s an inescapable thing, and an ancient thing. It’s simply what happens from being part of the lineage of writers and writing.
The current paperback of The Anxiety of Influence has a long introduction by me on Shakespeare and Marlowe, which makes very clear that I don’t think of it as a post-Enlightenment phenomenon anymore. In fact it exists in Pindar in relation to Homer and obviously in Plato in relation to Homer. It’s universal. It’s in ancient Chinese. It’s even in the Hebrew Bible. Think of the relationship between Ben Sira and the Apocrypha, so-called, the ecclesiastical, so-called, the wisdom of the fathers, in relation to Coheleth or Ecclesiastes. But go on.
Yeah, I’d better because I’m getting way out of my league there. In the introduction to The Western Canon you say that you agree with this idea that “there is a god, and his name is Aristophanes.” What’s so great about him? He was sort of the first literary critic, right?
Yes, the great point about Aristophanes as I see him is that he is the real beginning of Western literary criticism, particularly when he savages Euripides in favor of Aeschylus. In fact, he really talks about a kind of anxiety of influence on the part of Euripides in relation to Aeschylus. What I can recognize as Western literary criticism really began more in Aristophanes than in Aristotle. His formalism tells me that criticism always has a close relationship to the origins of parody, of satire, of a kind of desperate irony. And of course we don’t have literary critics anymore. It’s an archaic notion.
Oh, but hey, what about James Wood? I’m sort of kidding, of course.
Oh, don’t even mention him. He doesn’t exist. He just does not exist at all.
I thought his last book was fun to read because he gets so enthusiastic about things, but yeah, I don’t really understand the phenomenon of him on the whole.
My dear, phenomena are always being bubbled up. There are period pieces in criticism as there are period pieces in the novel and in poetry. The wind blows and they will go away.
His last book seemed to be a period piece at least in terms of its cover design. It looked like a textbook from the 30s or 40s. It was kind of cute.
A publisher wanted to send me the book and I said, “Please don’t.” I think it was my own publisher, of the huge book I’m working on called Living Labyrinth: Literature and Influence, in which I’ve been bogged for five years now. It’s meant to be a grand summa and may be my undoing. Anyway, I told them, “Please don’t bother to send it.” I didn’t want to have to throw it out. There’s nothing to the man. He also has—and I haven’t ever read him on me—but I’m told he wrote a vicious review of me in the New Republic, which I never look at anyway, in which he clearly evidenced, as one of my old friends put it, a certain anxiety of influence. I don’t want to talk about him.
OK. Maybe this next one is a silly question.
Ask what you will, dear.
How do we read Shakespeare?
Well, I of course teach Shakespeare. I’m back to teaching again after a year off, and I always teach a class on Shakespeare that goes through the year and a class on how to read poems that goes through the year. But this is a very hard thing to answer. Critical books on Shakespeare usually don’t help much.
Is going to see productions of his plays valuable while reading him?
If it’s the right production. I won’t go to almost anything because I know it’s going to be hacked up and smashed by some stupid, pigheaded, politically correct, high-concept person who thinks his or her concepts are higher than Shakespeare’s, which is ridiculous. So I don’t even go once a year. I doubt that I’ll ever go to one again.
So are there no useful guides besides your own?
I also like Harold Goddard’s book. It’s called The Meaning of Shakespeare. It’s now in two paperback volumes and I really urge you to read it and get other people to read it—as well as to read my admittedly rather ramshackle book on Shakespeare.
I’ll do what I can. How many of his plays do you get through in your course on him?
I manage in the course of a year to cram in 24 of the 38 or so plays because two dozen of them really are of the highest quality.
You have a particular affection for the character of Falstaff, who appears in the two Henry IVs and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Oh yes, yes. In this I follow [literary scholar] A.C. Bradley, who was there before me. In fact, that’s still a good book. His work on Shakespearean tragedy is far preferable to most modern books on the same thing. Bradley said that the four Shakespearean characters most inexhaustible to meditation are Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, and Cleopatra—which might at first seem an eccentric choice, but you brood on it and you see that he is right. Lear is beyond you so you can’t really keep meditating on him past a certain point. Macbeth is too uncomfortably close—you can’t meditate on him. Rosalind is too free of you, is too sane and normal.
What makes those four characters so rich?
They’re so powerfully, elliptically presented, and I guess increasingly that’s the clue to my Shakespearean teaching. From the first moment on, I try to show the students that even though he is the richest of writers, he is also paradoxically the most elliptical. You always have to follow what it is that he’s leaving out on purpose to make your mind’s work harder. With Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, and Cleopatra, an enormous amount is left out.
Does teaching young people give you any hope for the future of literature and criticism?
It gives me personal exhilaration at the moment because I was awful tired of lying on my back and being cut off. And I refuse to teach graduate students. I have for a number of years now for obvious reasons.
Is it because they are ruined by contemporary academia at that point?
Look, I’ve become the pariah of the profession. You have to write letters for graduate students and I found that I was giving them the kiss of death. I’m not going to put that on my head in my old age. So I gave it up maybe eight or ten years ago, when I was already old. The only thing that I think is a little awkward is going into my Shakespeare class every Wednesday and my poetry class every Thursday and finding that my students are, after all, since these are Yale undergraduates, very good and highly selected ones. They’re all quite wonderful, I think. But they are between roughly 19 and at most 22 years of age and I’m 78. There is an age gap there and I can’t always be sure that I’m able to bridge it.
And which era of poetry are you teaching?
Oh, I did a huge anthology called The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Robert Frost, though it actually goes beyond Frost. He’s simply the last person to be alive and to write poems. I wanted to end it with the close of the 19th century in terms of the poet’s birth, with Hart Crane, who is still my favorite poet, born in 1899. I follow that book out for the first semester, and in the second semester I go back to the four poets who after all this time are the ones I most care for among the 20th-century poets: William Butler Yeats and Wallace Stevens, upon whom I’ve written very large books, Hart Crane, on whom I’ve written a couple of essays, including the centennial introduction to the current best paperback of Crane’s poetry, and D.H. Lawrence, whom I’ve written only a couple of essays on through the years, but who is a marvelous poet.
And now my voice is failing. We’ll have to stop.
Thanks for talking to us.
And thank you, Mr. Pearson. Before I go into the Great, perhaps we will meet.