STODDARD MARTIN remembers a dedicated litterateur’s late works
One can hardly think but with affection of Harold Bloom, addict of the Word, historic lover of literature, and coiner of the phrase “anxiety of influence” among other more recondite tags.
It would be invidious not to feel that affection when considering his final books, compendious and repetitive though they may be, composed or compiled as they were during bouts of convalescence between the illnesses that led to his corporeal silence in 2019, aged eighty-nine. It is likely that more words from the indefatigable commentator may be stored up yet to come, editing angels and publishing deities willing. The prospect is daunting, to some perhaps dismaying, for after seven decades of pronouncements, more Bloom may seem less.
Of the supreme enunciator of literary rankings in recent times – “probably the most famous literary critic in the English-speaking world” of his day – posterity might require for a tidy canon. But tidy Bloom is not. In his 2019 book Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism, the idealiser of Falstaff and his perceived form of “heroic vitalism” tacitly put faith in excess. Bloom’s object, insofar as it ever went beyond an exuberant autodidact’s self-revelations, was to provoke more than to instruct (Possessed, p12 – all subsequent page numbers refer to this book). “I am a Nietzschean,” he declares in the last of his provisional last words (p79) after a lifetime of enthusiasm for the philosopher’s kindred spirits, such as W. B. Yeats. Thus at the end, like the author of Ecce Homo when approaching fatal dispersion into madness, Bloom eerily claims: “Something in me speaks for multitudes around the globe.” (p11)
“Oh my brothers!” is Zarathustra’s refrain, and Bloom never tired of projecting that he was carrying on a dialogue with colleagues and students, whether at Cornell, Yale or Cambridge where a boy from a Yiddish-speaking immigrant family earned degrees, or at the same or similarly distinguished institutions where a publicity-loving adult would ultimately profess. First person plural is the mode. Bloom’s method as critic was conversational, sometimes ingratiating, especially in books where he might indulge in a lifetime’s penchant for having the last word. Why argue with him? Listen. Admire. Reflect. Then, perhaps, carry on a silent conversation of one’s own in the watches of night – those insomniac hours in which, as he tells us, Bloom had his most fertile ideas and, when not idealizing, lay awake reciting favourite works to the shades – incanting, as if a religious at prayer.
This is the milieu. And it determines content. Bloom’s canon finally includes, from the beginning, what he considers to be the great literary passages of “the Hebrew Bible” (Old Testament), for as he says, beyond having become Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale, Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard, recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism, etc., he is “a literary and religious critic” (emphasis mine), whose “tradition is dying” and whose dying wish is “to rally a saving remnant”(p11). Again, a note of Nietzschean messianism, if perhaps with a hint of the disingenuous tendency of that other heroic vitalist (“the Fat Knight”) to humour and guff, “nimble believing and disbelieving”.
The lifelong lover of Shakespeare ascribes these qualities to Hamlet, whom he sees as “his own Falstaff… a consciousness so enormous that it contains all of human self-otherseeing” (p112). It might be a description of what Bloom aspired to be himself; it is also what he finds lacking in the Hebrew God – Yahweh, a dislikable presence for him at almost every turn, despite his Jewish roots. Here the old Bloom, whose early literary critical self started with Shelley, returns to youthful insurgency. Something is wrong in the heavens, as it was for the renegade Romantic: Prometheus punished by Jupiter is dealing with a false God or at least a faulty one – there is better beyond, in the pleroma. Gnosticism is in the air, and Bloom inhales it, lauding the work of his late “mentor” Gershom Scholem and concentrating passing attention on Scholem’s special study, the Kabbalah. “I have spent part of a lifetime,” Bloom states, “trying to work out a pragmatic relationship between Kabbalah and literary criticism” (p20). The provisionality implied here is matched by an achievement that is opaque and fragmentary. Bloom links Kabbalah and poetry both to “heretical subversions of orthodoxy”, “salvation by transgression”, “the frontier between the sacred and the profane” and no requirement to complete the Great Work but no freedom to desist in the attempt (pps23-5).
From here it is small distance to Blake, Whitman and others of Bloom’s un-Leavisite “great tradition”, grounded in English literature fundamentally not only on Shakespeare but more portentously on Milton’s Satan. However – and here is an essential, perhaps under-recognised element in Bloom – heresy is only a pretext for a new/old orthodoxy and God. For Bloom’s ultimate standard is breadth and depth of vision, a vastness of sensibility and inclusion, reminding one perhaps of what a critic once complained of in the French symboliste Mallarmé: a sense that anything less than the all-embracing might be presumptuous.
Bloom, in short, disliking the Yahweh of tradition, sets out in effect to descry a truer God – humane, non-vindictive, invisible but glimpsed beyond Demogorgon up in starrier heavens. Like Shelley’s Prometheus being liberated from his bonds, the tireless yet mortally ill individual must rely on a bevy of maidens to help him complete the job – seven female assistants are named at the start of Possessed by Memory. This could be interpreted as Kabbalistic in the sense of Bloom’s contention that the proper mystical Yahweh can only function with aid from the Moon Queen or female spirit that resides in Malkuth, foundational pod of the Sefiroth [EDITOR’S NOTE: The Sefiroth are ten attributes of emotion, intellect or will in Kabbalistic esotericism]; it might also bring to mind accusations of “inappropriate” attention to female students that marked the professor’s later years.
Be that as it may, the inclusions in his excursion towards a summatory roundup of values betray composition by many hands: sketches, bits of lectures, notes from seminars are the basis, even in one case a funeral address. The authorial scholar gives way to the genial teacher, whose mission is foremost to enthuse. Possessed is designed to tell us why a dying man has recalled this passage or that poem and what is outstanding about it. It is a trawl, a last judgement on the canonical, as per a decent God’s instincts. And why not? Many an ailing scholar would love to engage in such a pastime, and Bloom’s range is such that he is almost always engaging at it – almost being the lively interlocutor’s operative word. In difference lies interest, in qualifications glided over or simply not made, in enthusiasms too grandly stated.
Falstaff, for instance, is not for this reader the exemplar that he is for Bloom, nor do the plays in which he appears seem the Bard’s best. Bloom has little time for the Marlovian in Shakespeare, speaks dismissively of Hotspur, and ignores the coruscating soliloquies of that supreme Machiavel, Richard. He is intriguing about the bastard Faulconbridge in the oft-neglected King John, but says little of comedies which now may strike the ear as warm-ups for Blackadder. As to Milton, he admits with Dr Johnson that few read him with pleasure (p176); re Johnson himself, he forgives eccentric pomposities. Bloom is of a generation of American Jewish scholars who began in awe of English literary tradition. He does not rate the deviations of Pound and Eliot towards Europe, attention to Dante excepted. The superior art of Baudelaire earns from him no more than an aside in a discussion of Swinburne (p301).
Much else is missing. Where for instance is Wilde, save in apt citation of a quote from ‘The Critic as Artist’ as the book’s epigraph? As for Wilde’s countryman Yeats: is he quite understood? In these summatory pages, how much space does old Bloom accord to a signal figure of his youth? His trajectory now, whatever it was in journeyman days and however much he may remain haunted by Shakespeare and Shelley, is towards fellow Americans – those who, unlike Eliot and Pound, did not “beat out [their] exile” but stayed home to “make [their] pact”, to borrow from the latter, Whitman-as-internationalist, as Bloom resolutely won’t. The god who stands at the head of American poetic tradition is for Bloom the seminal incantor – psalmic “transumptor” – of Leaves of Grass. Whitman the untidy, the vastly inclusive proto-Zarathustran – in him the professor finds a lodestone more congenial than in an Irishman whose attention to craft moved George Moore to depict him coming down to lunch at Coole Park to report to Lady Gregory that his morning’s work had consisted of removing a comma which he later restored. Whitman’s incontinence, like Falstaff’s, if wilder, exposes another facet of “heroic vitalist” genius chez dying Bloom. Might we conclude that, in the light of his disintegration, a coherence strained for in youth seems no longer essential – analogous to how for the late Turner a glimmer of sun through vague clouds became preferable as subject to the detail of ship and sail? One suspects it to be partly the case. Bloom alludes en passant to Yeats’ “Byzantium poems”, but the exactitude of “hammered gold and gold enamelling” is hardly seen as a destiny. Bloom may live on as critic or at least enthuser: penning fifty-odd books suggests aspiration to transcendence beyond mere bodily existence. But if he lives on, Bloom is liable to do so as the critic permissive rather than the critic precise.
Again, why not? The third of four parts of Possessed by Memory begins to judder and creak as it extends Anglo tradition to snippets from the canonical Browning and Meredith; but the fourth part, commencing with its long devotion to Whitman, moves to some eye-opening appreciations, not only of the predictable Stevens, Williams and Crane, but more appealingly of the less obvious Edward Arlington Robinson and Conrad Aiken among others. With Aiken, comparison to his Harvard classmate Eliot leads to a fuller understanding of why Bloom felt antipathy for the most celebrated Anglo-American voice of the past century. That said, Bloom’s account of Aiken’s work falls short of full praise, and his explanation for why Aikens failed to reach “the eminence” of “Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Thomas Stearns Eliot and Hart Crane” seems partly to tell against itself – “Associative rhetoric was both Aiken’s mode and, sadly, his weakness. He did not try to make it new but to augment the foundations by relying upon the major poets of the Romantic tradition.” (p393)
Might this not be a description of Bloom’s own approach as critic? Might one even go so far as to see it as either a veil drawn over a latent, counter-canonical preference for poets of Aikens’ pitch or a subconscious admission of Bloom’s own less than supreme rank as critic? These are not idle questions. Somerset Maugham once famously quipped that his status as writer was in the first rank of the second rate. The false modesty hardly strained to disguise a popular novelist’s healthy antipathy for experimental modernists whom a cognoscenti lionized, but the common reader found unreadable: Woolf, Joyce and so on. Bloom, when set alongside the Derrida-ists, Deconstructionists, Structuralists and such fashionable ‘critics’ of his epoch, might strike one analogously as among the first rank of the middle-brow.
Like Maugham in The Summing Up, Bloom laces his learned observations with recollection. His remarks on one of two women included in a 500-page book, May Swenson, pivot on their meetings at a café in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. His discussion of the original and vitalist ex-soldier Richard Eberhardt stems from a lecture tour at the University of Florida, where Eberhardt frightened him with the campus alligator. Bloom’s account of the master of negation, Weldon Kees, begins with an encounter at a jazz club in Harlem. Longer pieces on lesser-knowns such as Archie Randolph Ammons or Alvin Feinman are founded on yet closer association, as is the inclusion on John Ashbery, with whom Bloom’s “friendship has been continuous these sixty years… I have just phoned him at the Whittier Rehabilitation Center where he is recovering rather slowly from double pneumonia” (p431). Illness and age are constant companions in these last works, not notably cheerful ones, rather ones with whom Bloom struggles manfully to come to terms, never quite achieving reconciliation with, let alone joy in, observation of their processes – intrinsic to life, after all, thus a subset of the “heroic vital”. Bloom resists falling back into angry, non-accepting “rage, rage against the dying of the light”; rather he strives to win from these ultimate confrontations a revitalised urgency and heightened appreciation. He can still read, or be read to, and hear. He can still idealize and recite in the watches of night. Most of all he can remember. Which brings us to the ‘coda’ of the book, Proustianly entitled “In Search of Lost Time”.
Before one arrives there, one must be reconciled with Bloom’s subjectivity. One has to accept that his judgments have often to do with where he could most comfortably locate himself; that his “we” posits a community both transitory and presumptuous; that his lordly opinions, such as that Hart Crane is the great American poet after Whitman and Dickinson, may pass as gospel without being convincingly preached; that he gives himself grace to make errors and to speculate beyond what accords with known facts; that he settles scores on occasion – against Saul Bellow, for instance (p416) – and will not always refrain from resorting to guff.
What, say, is the sense of a sentence such as “His consciousness was a plenum that could have created a heterocosm, where space and sun might have made another world” (p430)? From here it is not far to complain of Bloom’s cherished inventions such as “self-othering” or “transumptive”. But let it pass. Bloom is a character in his literary universe. He is too Shakespearean not to put a high, perhaps excessive, value on personality. That he has a big one has been part of his “body of fate”, to use a Yeats term; Bloom has embraced and cultivated it, and created a space for it to exist in and flourish and suffer. Irritating this may be, but one can also be glad for it. Bloom himself becomes a standard, not just what he says: a brand, an embodiment of forces to reckon with, if not revere – something of a god. Apotheosis may not be a fate he has worked for entirely nakedly, but he has certainly flirted with it often, notwithstanding the trademark baggy garb of being “human, all-too-human”.
God incarnate in Bloom? Will He live on as Holy Ghost? Close to his physical end, Bloom muses: “When we die, our own survival will be the extent to which we have changed the lives of those who come after us… I have to consider how little I know of time to come. Doubtless it is better that way. Foretelling can be destructive.” (p507) His coda to Possessed begins in this way to evince a becoming humility. Before sojourning with Proust, he recalls Saint Augustine’s conversations with his mother about God’s eternal light. The aptness is to what Bloom characterises as Proust’s “sublime lucidity”, which transcends Jewish and Christian roots to be “closer to Hindu philosophy”. While admitting that Proust probably never read the Bhagavad-Gita, Bloom invokes it.
Shortly afterwards, he qualifies a roving meditation by confessing, “I have the realisation or fantasy that simultaneously I know everything and nothing” (p481). This precedes recollection of moments of “sudden radiance” in early childhood, which “seem now to be heretical intimations of a lost gnosis” (p487). Proust’s similar epiphanies, Bloom muses, may stem from “worship of an unknown God who is yet knowable” (p492); in any case, the novelist’s truth “is compounded of perception, involuntary memory, impressionism, a search for spiritual meaning, and a kind of aesthetic mysticism” (p497). Is this not Bloom’s “truth” in a mirror? The presiding return of “childlike vision” is for him, as for Proust, “allied to phantasmagoria and to the world of dreams… modified delirium” (p501). Here one might end, or with association of “the survival of the inner self with a world founded upon benignity” (p503), or with a largeness that “could be at once atheist and mystic” (p505). But Bloom actually concludes by reverting to Dr Johnson, whose wisdom allows for ebb as well as a flow that chez Proust is continuous. Bloom has indeed already undercut his paean to In Search of Lost Time by stating that he would choose Richardson’s Clarissa in preference to it. Why? Because the heroine and her rapist lover are “more vital”.
One trusts this no more than one might accept Mozart’s sympathy to be with the survivors rather than with the deposed libertine at the end of Don Giovanni. Bloom’s coda, brave as it is in conveying what remains at the approach of his earthly dissolution, conveys one back towards his penultimate book, which occupies a more preliminary stage in the process and thus may constitute a more reliable summing-up of a career of concentrated literary contemplation.
The book is less given to reminiscence and enthusiasm, though some is ever present. There are no chapters devoted to lesser talents such as John Wheelwright, James Merrill, Jay Macpherson or Amy Clampit, with whom Bloom ends his pre-coda trawl in Possessed. Among those, notably Merrill, Bloom remains ready to deviate back to consideration of his traditional greats: he cites phone calls “in which we explored W. B. Yeats’s A Vision, the Gnostic religion, and the relation of Yeats to Shelley and to Blake” (p449). Reader, take note. Bloom subsumes the Irish poet here to two English Romantics whom he has consistently ranked as the foremost. He glides from A Vision to Scholem’s topic as if Yeats’s mystico-historic text were self-evidently Gnostic. He considers the matter no further except to say “I suspect that Yeats would not have taken to James Merrill’s poetry” (p453), then somewhat conversely he postulates that in Merrrill’s poetry “the Byzantium of William Butler Yeats hovers and is deftly evaded” (p456). Deftly seems a loaded adverb, not least in a context where the Irish poet’s full name is iterated, as it is in most other scattered allusions to him throughout this book. Why? Shelley almost never requires “Percy Bysshe”. Is there some other Yeats that Bloom fears we may think of, or is there some more telling nuance at play??
Looking at this penultimate work, so boldly entitled Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: the Power of the Reader’s Mind over a Universe of Death, and among chapters Bloom devotes to the usual titans – Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Browning, Tennyson, Whitman, Frost, Stevens, Crane, Freud (eccentrically) and Dante (again, lone continental) – we find “William Butler Yeats and D. H. Lawrence: Start with the Shadow”. The title seems tricksy – it matters little: tags chez Bloom and others of his generation of academics often do. What does matter is the shadow of doubt that pervades. Bloom invokes an American favourite to contrast “three modes of mastery. In Lawrence it is chthonic. In Yeats it is occult. In Stevens it is massive acceptance of things as they are.” (p474) Proceeding to quote from one of the American’s poems, Bloom wonders if it is not “a critique by Stevens of the endless series of questing wanderers in Yeats” (p476). Endless series? “William Butler Yeats,” we are told (entire name again) “had the good fortune and the vital temperament to refuse any despair of his own quest” (p479). Are we to infer that a less “occult” sensibility should have despaired? Later, in parsing “All Souls” Night”, Bloom informs us that “the magnificence of gesture, metric, diction overcomes what could be judged sheer silliness” (p483); later still, in relation to Yeats’s alleged “pagan purpose”, we are told that “The force of his diction and metric brushes argument aside” (p485). “Devoted readers of Yeats learn that for him God and Death are one,” Bloom states, “a Gnostic formulation” (p486). This is of course arguable and reflects what Bloom is finally obliged to confess: “More than ever I have a mixed response.” (p490). He lauds “Adam’s Curse” in part to question the quality of what comes after; and when he reaches “Under Ben Bulben”, he decries a “farrago… much of it of a badness not to believed” (p497).
Old Bloom clearly had a problem with old Yeats. From a concluding phrase one might take it that he continued to rate or anyway grapple with the Irish master mainly out of an older loyalty: “The daemon in Yeats, as he acknowledged, was Shelley” (p499). This is arguable too and, at best, partial. But then, as I have indicated, partiality is characteristic of critic Bloom, in age as in youth. He is, to repeat his claim, a Nietzschean, as he fancies it: a “provoker”. A windbag like his beloved “Fat Knight”, he is more than a touch averse to fine concision. He is also no dedicated traveller in realms of magic and dream, however insomniac his nights may have been. Baudelaire comments somewhere that it would be impossible for a poet not to contain a critic but it would be prodigious for a critic to contain a poet. Harold Bloom adored poetry: of that there is no doubt. What may be lacking in him – one leaves it to weigh up – is a thoroughgoing sense of the poetic.
Harold Bloom bibliography (partial)
- Shelley’s Mythmaking, 1959
- The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, 1961
- Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument, 1963
- Yeats, 1970
- The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition, 1971
- The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry 1997
- A Map of Misreading, 1975
- Kabbalah and Criticism. 1975
- Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens, 1976
- Figures of Capable Imagination, 1976
- Wallace Stevens: The Poems of our Climate, 1977
- Deconstruction and Criticism, 1980
- The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy, 1980
- Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, 1982
- The Breaking of the Vessels, 1982
- The Poetics of Influence: New and Selected Criticism, 1988
- Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present, 1989
- The Book of J: Translated from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg; Interpreted by Harold Bloom, 1990
- The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, 1992
- The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, 1994
- Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
- Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 1998
- How to Read and Why, 2000
- Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages, 2001
- El futur de la imaginació (The Future of the Imagination), 2002
- Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, 2003
- Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, 2003
- The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost, 2004
- Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, 2004
- Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, 2005
- American Religious Poems: An Anthology By Harold Bloom, 2006
- Fallen Angels, 2007
- Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems, 2010
- The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, 2011
- The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of The King James Bible, 2011
- The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, 2015
- Falstaff: Give Me Life, 2017
- Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air, 2017
- Lear: The Great Image of Authority, 2018
- Iago: The Strategies of Evil, 2018
- Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind, 2019
- Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism, 2019
- Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: The Power of the Reader’s Mind Over a Universe of Death, 2020
- The Bright Book of Life: Novels to Read and Re-read, 2020
 Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism (Vintage, 2019), p. 101. Further references by page number.
 See my Wagner to the Waste Land (Macmillan, 1982), 122.
 Moore notoriously settled a number of old scores in his memoir, Hail and Farewell.
STODDARD MARTIN is the American-born owner of the London-based publisher Starhaven, a cultural critic who has taught at Harvard, Oxford, Lodz and Warsaw universities, and the author of books including From Wagner to the Wasteland and Monstrous Century