The Influence of Anxiety: Still Nervous about Harold Bloom
Studies of Flowers, Jacques-Laurent Agasse, 1848
by Ed Simon
Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that reads and writes.
—Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why
We come to bury Harold Bloom, not to praise him. The misinterpretations, reactionary poses, and grandiose sentiments too often live after our seemingly once-omnipotent critics pass, while that which was radical, transgressive, and illuminating is interred with their bones. We’ve been told that Bloom was ambitious, and it’s true; dozens of books churned out, a prolific critic, but one apt to dismiss that which he didn’t have the patience to more fully consider. Bloom brought many people to literature, however, and while the critiques of him – elitist, classist, ethnocentric – bear an uncomfortable truth, it must also be admitted that his books and articles introduced more people outside of the academy to criticism than did the entire back run of Social Text and The Minnesota Review. Bloom has died, yet he haunted the discipline as a ghost for many years, decades even, as a goad, a foil, a strawman, and more often than some are comfortable to admit as a brilliant interlocutor.
I suspect that for a certain segment of us, who though we were bored by his evaluations of taste, angered by his accusations of political correctness, frustrated by his provincial Ivy League concerns, couldn’t help but love him once, not without cause. If academic Twitter is anything to pay attention to, then it seems that there is a writ that has been passed against an 89-year-old man who just died. O judgement! We’ve become snarkish beasts; let us not lose our reason. Bear with me; my heart is not totally in the coffin with Bloom – but it is a little bit. There may be skeptics of the man’s myth, count myself at least a bit agnostic, but after his friend Graeme Wood writes in The Atlantic that when Bloom “could still walk, he would allow bystanders on Yale quads to quote random lines of Milton to him, and he would pick up the line and keep reciting until he reached the other end of the quad,” than I’m willing to purchase a votive candle.
Much has been written about Bloom in the past two days, some of it is even partially true. The largely sober considerations depict Bloom as he’s been presented (and as he’s presented himself) for the past several decades – as the stalwart classicist and defender of the Western canon against the rest of us who’ve made an aggrieved assault against the ivory tower. Such a Bloom is the one who wrote in The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages that “Cultural criticism is another dismal social science, but literary criticism, as an art, always was and always will be an elitist phenomenon” or who could slur any approach that he did not approve of, which would be readings that gave due to issues of race, class, and gender. Bloom dismissed such important work as simply being the methodology of his mythic “School of Resentment.” This is the Bloom gently alluded to in Dinitia Smith’s obituary in The New York Times, calling him the “most notorious literary critic in America” who “argued for the superiority of giants like Shakespeare, Chaucer and Kafka,” while Hillel Italie in The Washington Post described him as a “popular author and standard-bearer of Western civilization amid modern trends.” Conservative writers, politely looking the other way as regards Bloom’s socialistic politics (albeit his traditionalist aesthetics) were even more superlative. Perhaps the most accurate assessment was from his friend James Romm in The New York Review of Books, whose title read “His Mind Was Itself a Library.”
Much of academic Twitter was venomous, though not without their reasons obviously. Anyone who has ever read David Lodge’s Changing Places or seen Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? knows of my tribe’s reputation. A perusal of language related to Bloom includes tweets which maintain that his readings were “detestably warped” and “contemptible,” while another user writes “RIP to an asshole” (which is sort of funny at least). Don’t misinterpret me – I’m not of the school which says that one should never speak ill of the recently dead; I’m not so superstitious as to think that Bloom is floating in some Gnostic astral realm getting ready to strike down anyone who says something negative about him. Nor do I think that it’s de facto poor taste to criticize the dead. No necessary deference is owed for having simply died – it’s literally the one thing which we’re all capable of accomplishing. And yes, Bloom does deserve our denunciations for some serious crimes, but what’s contemptible isn’t his reading of William Blake or William Shakespeare, but the credible allegations of sexual harassment leveled against him by former students like Naomi Wolf.
No doubt any consideration of the man that doesn’t take something like that into account is committing intellectual malpractice, yet so much of the Monday morning quarterbacking regarding a human life rather focuses on how we disagreed with his critical practice. Call me old-fashioned, but shitting on someone’s grave because you thought their scholarship was bad is sort of tacky. Hell, I’ve made a veritable cottage industry of my own complaining about Bloom, writing in Berfrois in 2016 (my first original publication at the site) that he was a critic “primarily interested in showing his readers all the very interesting and important stuff he has read, and then even more crudely listing and ranking them.” Say what you will about that, at least I wrote it while he was still alive (though I’m sure he never read it). For Bloom’s worst writings, the endless baseball card collecting of canon construction, I stand by that critique. And no doubt some will read what I’ve already said about Bloom in this article as being ill-considered and ungracious, while others will see it as sentimental and platitudinous.
That’s not because I designed this essay to offend the widest possible distribution of readers; I’ve no desire to anger Bloom acolytes and detractors alike. I’ve written it this way because people are fucking complicated. Bloom deserves to be castigated for failings he didn’t rectify; for injustices left unredeemed. Additionally, no critic’s work is so sacrosanct that we’re not allowed to condemn their excesses, especially as regards a scholar as pugilistic as Bloom. Death confers no automatic right to respect. What reality compels us towards, however, is an awareness of people’s complexity, of their contradictions, of their humanness. We can wisely say that a full accounting of a person’s life must grapple with their darker legacies, but the corollary is obviously true as well (even if the morass that is social media sometimes obscures that fact among people whom in their everyday lives I pray are a bit more charitable). When Henry Kissinger dies, I’m all for saying “RIP to an asshole,” but Harold Bloom – despite his flaws – was no Henry Kissinger. If we lose site of that sort of charity, I worry that our political denigrators will be correct about the worst of our attitudes.
I’ve got no interest in the casual cruelty of our cruel age, because Bloom deserves a better consideration. There’s been a strange obscuring of not just the achievement of so many books published (that if they were sometimes erroneous were at least interesting), but also of his being a Bronx-born Orthodox Jew who ascended to the heights of WASPy Yale, a place notoriously antisemitic in the 1950’s when he attended their doctoral program (I gather it’s quieter now). Alongside his younger colleagues Stanley Fish and Stephen Greenblatt, who are similarly impugned with holding conservative views (whether that’s accurate or not), there’s a silence on the full implications of what it meant to have a man like Bloom become as successful as he did, when he did.
All three of those scholars are proverbial children of Lionel Trilling, who stodgy and tweedy though they might be also helped democratize America’s elite institutions by their mere existence, even if that might be hard to imagine today. Yale’s English department was (is) shamefully male and white when Bloom started there more than a half century ago; it was also overwhelmingly Protestant. He was an elitist, yes. But an elitist who had his own wounds from other, often more noxious, elitists. Greenblatt movingly reflects in The New Yorker on what it meant to be the rare Jew at Yale in the early 1960’s, about there being “something very strange about experiencing ‘The Merchant of Venice’ when you are somehow imaginatively implicated in the character and actions of its villain.” At the beginning of the twentieth-century some antisemitic commentators claimed that Jews lacked the cultural imagination to truly understand Shakespeare; that at this point in our century the most famous interpreter of the playwright was Bloom is its own victory against the antisemites, and I’m not going to let that go unnoted in any consideration on the man either. “You try and learn English in all Yiddish household in the East Bronx by sounding out the words of Blake’s Prophecies,” Bloom joked to Antonio Weiss of The Paris Review, describing a predicament that neither T.S. Eliot nor Cleanth Brooks would have recognized. Something precious and worth preserving in that fact.
Because if anything Judaism was the well-spring of Bloom’s engagement with the canon. At his worst his criticism consisted of the aforementioned baseball card collecting, but at Bloom’s best he read Shakespeare and Jonson, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, with the eye of a kabbalist. The ferment that Bloom brought to literature wasn’t critical, it was exegetical. So much of the denunciations about Bloom’s approach to literature, and perhaps his own denunciations of the rest of the academy, were born from this category mistake. Bloom wasn’t a literary theorist; he was a mystic. That’s not said as condemnation, for we have too many of the former and precious few of the later. He writes in Kabbalah and Criticism that “To be different, to be elsewhere, is a superb definition of the motive for metaphor, for the life-affirming deep motive of all poetry,” for as Bloom defines it “all religion is apotropaic litany against the dangers of nature, and so is all poetry an apotropaic litany, warding off, defending against death.” This is not literary theory, but it is sublime. This is not criticism, but it is transcendent. A identification error that’s caused all of us much trouble in our evaluations with Bloom, for alongside the divine George Steiner, he was not one of our great critics, but rather our great Talmudists.
Kabbalah was an appropriate subject for Bloom, who had a career spanning interest in occultism and hermeticism, writing in Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection that “My spiritual concerns, while personal, Jewish, and American, have a universal element in them that stems from a lifetime’s study of Gnosis, both ancient and modern.” Elsewhere he would describe himself as a “gnostic” (always with the lower-case). In the varied assortment of heresies from late antiquity to which that designation is often applied, there is a commonality of understanding the universe as being created by a demiurge, a being whom in his expansiveness seems as if He is the creator of the universe, even though he isn’t. For the Gnostic, true practice, true belief, and true ritual involves the subversion of the demiurge, transgressing against Him and gesturing towards some truer reality beyond. Conflict and influence were at the core of Bloom’s most innovative work; his first major study The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry famously posited that all of literary history and development is the result of writers rebelling against their proverbial fathers. “An awareness of the anxiety of influence – our own,” Bloom wrote, “might partly cleanse us of the resentments of a scholarly belatedness.” As it is with all of us, late to a certain game while condemning Bloom, for though so many hate him we’re so frequently in his stead, not just his actual scholarship, but the idea of scholarship which he represented.
None of that is to say he was right – he sometimes was and often wasn’t – but Bloom has always been a convenient foil to fight against, a cipher to project onto, an idol that demanded smashing. To pretend that he wasn’t good for all of us cultural studies folks is disingenuous; just as he made a name over attacking his “School of Resentment,” so too did we make him into a convenient figure to define ourselves against. Where he was stuffy, we’d be radical; where he was narrow, we’d be expansive; where he was traditional, we’d be transgressive. Ultimately we were both right and we were both wrong on that score. Bloom was our demiurge, and we were to be forever attacking him, in thrall to the process that the critic called “agon.” Oh, difficult Bloom, dialectical Bloom, infuriating Bloom, invigorating Bloom. Writing in A Map of Misreading, Bloom noted that the “father is met in combat, and fought to at least a stand-off, if not quite a separate peace.” That seems about right. Such is the nature of a reciprocal relationship. We need one another. Bloom was, in his own way, a critical god. And gods always have deicides about their idols, and resurrections in their futures.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.