Harold Bloom died this week. He was 89 years old and still teaching, writing and thinking, thinking, thinking all the time.
One of my teachers in graduate school in the 1980s told me once what it was like to be in a seminar with Bloom. “He would do things like read a line from Shelley,” she told me, “then ask us, ‘What line from Milton is Shelley revising here?’ None of us knew, of course, so Bloom proceeded to recite the line from ‘Paradise Lost’ — and then voice the next 40+ lines from memory.”
He was a radical theorist in his early career, spinning interpretations of Romantic and Modernist poetry out of a Freudian model of the tyranny of the father and the rebellion of the son (that is, poets inspired by a precursor poet, but having to deny that influence in order to come into their own). When Camille Paglia, then a PhD student at Yale, couldn’t find a professor to direct her thesis on sexual deviance in ancient and modern art, she went to Bloom who immediately told her that he was the only faculty member in New Haven who could do so.
He was one of the four professors at Yale profiled by The New York Times Magazine, the author calling him “the most original literary critic in America” (“The Tyranny of the Yale Critics,” Feb. 9, 1986). Someone said that Bloom’s motto was, “The more people say that I am wrong, the more I am sure that I am right”— I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the adversarial temper fits. In the 1970s at Yale, Paul de Man formed a veritable sect of junior deconstructionists around him, but Bloom refused to join because he regarded deconstruction as a species of nihilism. De Man, in turn, regarded Bloom as his most brilliant colleague.
When, however, over the course of the 1980s a younger generation of professors aligned the humanities with identity politics (“No more Dead White Males!”), he couldn’t stand it. He called them the School of Resentment, a judgment derived from Nietzsche that attributed the values of the race-class-gender critics to the envy and anger of the mediocre when in the presence of greatness. They had replaced Emerson on the syllabus with a second-rate feminist novelist, he implied, because they couldn’t stand the fact of unequal talents in the world.
By the time Bloom wrote “The Western Canon” in 1994, he was the leading voice for Western Civilization in America (the other Bloom, Allan, had died in 1992). The professors considered him a dinosaur, but they dare not face off with him in debate. His erudition would show, and so would their thin learning. Besides, Bloom didn’t waste time waging battle with his woke colleagues. Why bother? They never say anything interesting or original — Shakespeare and the Book of Job do all the time.
The range of reference was extraordinary. He once wrote: “Hamlet, Kierkegaard, and Kafka are all ironists in the wake of Jesus.” The only way to carry a declaration like that off under questioning is to have spent many, many years reading books and absorbing them as if they pointed out your fate. He wasn’t a Christian (he called himself a “Gnostic”), but he couldn’t stop thinking about the Gospels. In an interview with Charlie Rose from the early 2000s, he said, “The Jesus of the Gospel of Mark is a man who is always in a hurry. He is moving through crowds, he cannot pause, he is driven, he does not know who he is, he is perpetually asking his disciples, ‘But who do people say I am?’” Most of all, Bloom says, Jesus is “uncertain” of his relationship to God, and that makes him strikingly fascinating. To a Catholic like me, that makes Bloom a heretic, but I could listen to him go on and on.
Everyone knows what has happened to the humanities, but the biased politics of the professors often obscures a worse condition: They aren’t all that well-read. They’ve got the identity talk down pat, but ask them about Gulliver in Laputa or “Because I could not stop for Death” and they stumble like sophomores (unless those works happen to be in their narrow specialization). The professor who ranges smoothly across the English canon from Chaucer to Joyce is increasingly rare, the academic who lives it as deeply as Bloom did even more so. He was one of the last of the American humanists. The literary sublime was active in him; it exhilarated and tasked him; he couldn’t stop thinking about it. With Bloom at the podium, you felt that English was a meaningful, momentous course of study, not the tiresome PC endeavor it has become.
There was always something mournful in Bloom’s demeanor. We have good reason to emulate him this week.
• Mark Bauerlein teaches English at Emory University.
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