Harold Bloom, the most notorious literary critic in America, joins his notorious precursor Oscar Wilde in the belief that "criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography."
"Ah! A brilliant sentence!" Bloom booms, "The divine Oscar."
The divine Harold. With his manner marked, at turns, by a scabrous wit and an endearing camaraderie, with his uncanny ability to talk in shimmering sentences decorated with Victorian furniture, plush nooks and serpentine hallways, Bloom is a Wilde intellect: playful, passionate and strange. In a world in which "serious" and "careful" are the highest virtues, Bloom says of his criticism, "I write jokes. I am a comic critic. Alas, all I get are solemn reviews."
One arrives at the home of Yale's literary majordomo to a find a rumpled gent in droopy corduroys, polo shirt and sneakers, slumped into a brown leather armchair, surrounded by a landscape of leafy legal pads and literature -- a hillock of Hazlitt, a mountain of Proust.
"Come in, my dear. As you can see I'm embarked on a huge project. I'm writing two or three essays a week on authors great and some not-so-great for Chelsea House. The publishers are planning on nearly 500 volumes and I'll have an essay for each. It's quite insane."
Bloom has a family: a wife and two grown sons. Bloom has a job: he left the Yale English department in 1973 to become the school's only "department of one, professor of nothing." And Bloom has a reputation: a recent winner of a MacArthur "genius award," a colossus in his particular nook of the universe. His articles for the New York Review of Books and controversial books on British and American poetry (especially his work on artistic influence) have earned him a legion of admirers and, he sighs, "an endless number of enemies. I am the pariah of my profession."
Above all, Bloom is a reader, a man whose fulminating mind and often infuriating work have been shaped for nearly all of his 55 years "by the phantasmagoria of reading." With each essay and book, Bloom writes his civilized autobiography, an epic story of one man's reading.
"I was a crazy reader, my dear, an obsessive reader as a child. And I picked up, no doubt from some mad Talmudic ancestor, an astonishing reading speed. When I am not too borne down by life and my sorrows, I can read up to 1,000 pages an hour.
"I discovered early on, too, that I had an astonishing memory for what I'd read. I might lose my memory for people's names and phone numbers, but to this day -- and it's no parlor trick -- I can recite all of 'Paradise Lost,' all of 'The Faerie Queene,' just about any poem in the English language of major importance. When I was a student I would get a bit drunk and recite Hart Crane's 'The Bridge' frontwards, then backwards, quite like a tape recorder running wild." Colleagues, such as J. Hillis Miller, say they have heard such performances: "I'll read a line from anywhere in Milton and Harold just runs with it. Forever."
Reading. Bloom shuts his hooded lids and, by dint of memory, he is suddenly deep into Milton's epic ("none ever wished it longer," said Dr. Johnson) or his beloved pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne and Rossetti. Reading: Bloom sees it "as an act of defensive warfare," anything but a passive process. His theory of "the anxiety of influence" -- the notion that poets write in an Oedipal rage against their poetic forerunners to create new, original work (a "divinating triumph over oblivion") -- is the result of a highly personal and imaginative reading of English and American literature. His conversation is decorated with great swatches of literary material.
"I have never met anyone who lives for literature as he does," says Princeton Prof. David Bromwich, one of Bloom's prized students a decade ago. "He lives in his vocation and his reading."
Bloom slouches further into the leather and kneads his fleshy face with his fist. His voice is breathy with fatigue, a river of sighs. The tone doesn't change much in the course of an afternoon. It matters little if the subject is his celebration of Dr. Johnson or William Hazlitt ("I am a pygmy next to them!") or more lancing estimations: of William Blake ("once a favorite, alas, these days I feel he was wrong about everything"); of the Harvard English department ("a complete disaster"); of Education Secretary William Bennett ("a sublime ass, you may quote me on that"); of critics and editors Hilton Kramer, Joseph Epstein and Norman Podhoretz ("more sublime asses"); of the late French critic Roland Barthes ("I've always called him Roland Frou-Frou"). Zero Mostel once played James Joyce's great comic hero Leopold Bloom in a stage version of "Ulysses in Nighttown." Were the Divine Zero alive today he'd have a wondrous role in Harold Bloom.
As the subject turns to another passion, Bloom's face is, like his fictional precursor Leopold, deeply melancholy:
"Ah, the New York Yankees. They lost last night, victims, I'm afraid, of Mr. George Brett. A beautiful ballplayer. The team is so full of differing personalities. I understand they have hired Mr. Willie Horton as a 'tranquility coach' so that when Mr. Don Baylor, who one hears is not greatly esteemed by his teammates, acts up, there will be peace. Mr. Billy Martin, ah!, he is a terribly abused man. I empathize with him."
Little surprise that Harold Bloom empathizes with the ever-embattled manager of the New York Yankees. "I have had a few thousand reviews in my time," he says, "and 90 or 95 percent of them have been unfavorable, violent and personally abusive."
John Updike has called Bloom's vision of poetic influence "torturous" and many fellow academics find his work wrong or overblown. Academia is still a world of obsessive discretion, and the private critiques, no doubt, are much harsher. Bloom refers to conservative academics as "moldy figs."
W. Jackson Bate, Harvard's best literary scholar (and no friend of Bloom's), says, "Oh, Lord. These are delicate things. Put it this way: He's an influential and provocative critic, but he seems fixed on this one theme of influence and has found it so attractive that he has pushed it to the exclusion of all others. It seems crazy to me."
And Cleanth Brooks, once a dominant figure and campus oracle at Yale, says, "Bloom's a very bright and able man but to build a theory of literature based on influence, well, that seems like stretching it a bit, doesn't it?"
Even admirers sometimes find the terminology of his books obscure. Bloom borrows from every lexicon -- from Greek ("Clinamen") to French psychoanalytic theory ("Tessera"). "What can I do?" Bloom says. "I've always had a marvelous capacity for giving offense. For a long time I hated it. Then I rather enjoyed it. Now, neither."
For all his stature, Bloom still seems easily wounded. Happily for him he is at no loss for admirers.
Says novelist Harold Brodkey, "The idea that Bloom is 'torturous'? Well, all great critics are, because they have actual ideas, not just counterfeit work . . . What makes Bloom difficult is not his terminology, it's that his ideas are new and make you ask yourself questions about how you read and think. That is never easy."
Poet and critic Richard Howard agrees: "Bloom has an idiosyncratic and encompassing view of poetry, but a critic does not have to be right. We read him to understand the way we read, why we read, what we read for. I think, in the end, he will be considered one of the great critics the way John Keats wanted to be considered one of the great poets."
Sometimes Bloom's relationship with poets and novelists is touchy. His favorite contemporary poet is John Ashbery, a difficult writer best known for longer poems such as "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror." Bloom insists that Ashbery's primary influence is the work of Wallace Stevens. He views Ashbery's best work as "strong misreadings" of Stevens, an "agonistic struggle" with Stevens for originality. Indeed, Bloom notes, "To write poetry, in the past, was to read Homer or Milton or Goethe or Tennyson or Pound, and to write poetry these days in the United States is to read Wallace Stevens." This is, he says, an "obvious" truth.
For his own part, Ashbery says his main influences are W.H. Auden, Frank O'Hara, French Surrealist poets and novelists and a number of painters, including Fairfield Porter and Vermeer. Ashbery says he reads Bloom's essays on himself "as a kind of poetic truth," not as hard-and-fast history.
Asked about Ashbery's explanation, Bloom smiles: "John, like many great poets, has to keep himself going by making up critical fables about himself. In his strongest work you can always hear the accent of Stevens. And like any major poet, John is, on some profound level, very nervous about this and doesn't understand himself."
Bloom contends that the weak poet is one who is unable to wrestle convincingly, creatively with his predecessors. None other than Wilde's Lord Henry of "Dorian Gray" speaks, belatedly, for Bloom on the subject: "To influence a person is to give him one's own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions . . . He becomes an echo of someone else's music." As a culture grows older, Bloom says, it becomes increasingly difficult to win a battle against tradition.
So it is no mystery to Bloom why Ashbery would "deny" his "true" influences. It would be admitting too much. "It's the magician's trick of being a poet in the social and personal sense," says Bloom. "As a critic, I'm charmed by it, but I don't have to honor it. It's my business to describe my experience as Ashbery's constant and devoted reader. I've urged John not to read me on him. I've told him it's none of his business. No poet ever tells the truth about influence. No poet should."
Another of Bloom's recent favorites is the late Elizabeth Bishop. When asked, Bishop would say that her primary influence was her friend, the poet Marianne Moore. Bloom, once more, saw Stevens hovering above Bishop's verse.
"I told her this," Bloom says. "And she just looked at me, smiled sweetly and said nothing."
Stevens, for his part, once insisted in a letter that his imagination was "entirely my own." Were Bloom to announce to Stevens a line of precursors stretching from Milton to Wordsworth to Whitman, Stevens, too, might have smiled sweetly.
Bloom's parents left Eastern Europe for the East Bronx. They spoke Yiddish and never learned much English. Bloom is the fifth of five children, "the youngest by many years." He taught himself English when he was 5 years old and soon found himself "living in books."
The first poet he loved "deeply" was William Blake. Year by year, his private canon exploded. Shelley, Keats, Whitman, Yeats -- Bloom kept reading. One day when he was 8 or 9, an uncle told him there were people who taught literature at places like Yale.
"I knew then that was what I wanted to be," Bloom says now. "I held on to that notion."
Bloom was shy and struggled at "that ghastly place," the Bronx High School of Science. He did not distinguish himself academically until he finished first in a state-wide regent exam. That honor led to a full scholarship at Cornell, where he studied English with M.H. Abrams, author of "Natural Supernaturalism" and an influential critic on the English Romantic poets.
Bloom arrived in New Haven for graduate school in 1951: "In those days Yale was an Anglo-Catholic nightmare, an Eliotic department dominated by Maynard Mack, Louis Martz, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, W.K. Wimsatt. It was the New Criticism of the T.S. Eliot persuasion with their crypto-religious neo-Christian ideology."
The New Criticism (which is fairly old by now but still predominant in many universities) saw the poem as a self-contained unit -- a "well-wrought urn" in Cleanth Brooks' phrase -- to be examined with minimal reference to history or personality. As a graduate student and junior faculty member at Yale, Bloom saw "the need in myself to overturn Eliot and reinstate the Romantic tradition in American poetry." His first books were studies of Shelley, Blake, Wordsworth and other Romantics.
The idea of criticism as a subjective, creative form was held in low esteem among the New Critics. They saw criticism as a kind of "handmaiden" to verse, an academic exegesis, preferably practiced by poets.
"But that was just ridiculous," Bloom says now. "Hazlitt was not a poet, neither was Ruskin or Pater. Oscar Wilde was a very bad poet.
"Criticism doesn't have to be creative, but obviously criticism is a genre or subgenre of literature. It is part of an art. To say, automatically, that a bad minor poet is part of literature and a great critic is not is obviously preposterous. Think of Hazlitt and Mrs. Felicia Hemans, who were contemporaries. Mrs. Hemans had the same reputation in her day, especially after her tragic early death, as the abominable Sylvia Plath has in ours. Mrs. Hemans could not write her way out of a paper bag, nor could Sylvia Plath. But Hazlitt! He was a genius."
As Whitman himself wrote, "Criticism, carried to the height worthy of it, is a majestic office, perhaps an art, perhaps even a church."
Bloom has had limited experience outside of the critical office. He wrote a novel called "The Flight to Lucifer" and now says, "It was a mistake. I'd get it out of the libraries if I could. It is like my great precursor Dr. Johnson who went to see his own play and left after the first act muttering, 'I thought it had been better.' " And as for poetry, Bloom says, "I have never written a line in my life. For me, poetry is a sacred threshold guarded by demons and one must not cross it."
Bloom looks at one of his earlier books on Romanticism, "The Visionary Company," as merely "a useful trot, nothing extraordinary." His leap into a highly personal, creative criticism came in the mid-'60s with the development of his theories of influence:
"I still remember how that happened. I was in the midst of a personal crisis, the middle of the journey, you might say, in 1965. I started reading Freud and Emerson almost daily, nonstop. Something under the door impacted. In the summer of 1967 I had a real nightmare, a vision of the sort described in the Book of Ezekiel. I wrote 70 or 80 pages in crazy dithyrambs, a rhapsodic manuscript, quite unpublishable. It became the first chapter of 'The Anxiety of Influence.' "
The book finally appeared in 1973. And, says Bloom, "the nastiness with which it was received was unprecedented."
Bloom may be the best-known critic in the country. Yale is certainly the most controversial department. New Haven is a center for a score of critical movements: feminists, Marxists, semioticians, zub, zub. "We have gangs and covens of all isms," Bloom says.
But the most visible of Yale's theorists are the practitioners of deconstruction, a philosophical way of looking at literature influenced by the work of German Idealism, Nietzsche and recent French philosophy. Geoffrey Hartmann, John Hollander, J. Hillis Miller, Jacques Derrida and the late Paul de Man, known as "the Deconstructionist mafia," have all published work that looks at the linguistic assumptions of a poem, asking questions about the fundamental meaning of everything in a text. Nothing is to be taken for granted. The allusiveness and elusiveness of their prose is often startling. Startling for its density. Sometimes, there are graphs.
Often journalists will tie Bloom in with his Deconstructionist confreres. "I've been called a Deconstructionist, you know, a member of a so-called Gang of Four or Five, but I have never been infected with any of the French diseases," Bloom insists. "It should be clear by now to younger Deconstructionists, to purple-haired semioticians and other receptionists, that I am purely an American and Emersonian phenomenon."
Bloom says, "I loved Paul de Man and honor his memory but the fact is that all his students became as alike as peas in a pod. He'd always say to me, in his great Belgian pronunciation, 'The trouble with you, Harold, is that you are not interested in the troot!' And I'd say, 'No, Paul, I am not interested in the troot! There is no troot! in literary matters.'"
Once more, Bloom feels the slings and arrows in the pages of the academic journals:
"The one thing that all critical fashions have in common is their ferocious attack on what they call the 'cult of the personality.' And it's always directed at one person -- my own sad self. But a critic is a personality, or he or she is nothing. How can you read criticism if it has not got personality? One reads Dr. Johnson and loves him because a powerful personality is at work."
Nowhere is Bloom's personality more evident and powerful than in the classroom. He is an affectionate and generous teacher, an easy grader, in fact. Whether he is teaching the Romantics or American poetry or Freud, says one former student, "you call the course 'Bloom.' " His seminars mainly consist of Bloom talking for hours at a time. And if his students are searching for what was so boldly called "relevance" in the '60s, he tells them, they will not find it in his class.
"I tell my students, following the Divine Oscar, that there is no relation between literature and society. No one can bear to hear that. I tell them that what we do as teachers and critics of literature has no immediate social relevance whatsoever.
"The social utility of literature and humanistic education is very long-range and an almost invisible affair. That's the way it should be. Any good that gets done, gets done to the single individual. He or she is not a better person for it, but perhaps more aware with a broader range of sensibility . . . The student or reader is to consider himself or herself the text, and all received texts are secondary. Poems matter only if we matter. The texts are there for us, not us for them."
Some students say they adore Bloom, some admit they cannot make head or tail of his lectures. Says a recent Yale graduate, Adam Liptak, "I remember people would talk about Bloom all the time, telling absolutely pointless anecdotes about him. He has a kind of personal power as a figure that's hard to escape."
Bloom was tempted to leave Yale two years ago for a lavishly endowed chair at the City University of New York. After a long walk on an ordinary evening in New Haven, he decided to stay. "The students at Yale are so good," he says. "I'd miss the arguments."
When the essays and introductions are finished and a long-awaited book on Freud is finally published in about two years, Bloom says he will turn to Judaism as his next subject. In recent years he has described himself as a "Jewish gnostic," preferring the mystical texts of the Kabbalah to what he calls the "fossilized forms of present-day normative Judaism," the standard practice and understanding of Judaism today.
What Bloom has to say about the present state of his own religion is likely to rattle the walls of academe even more than his readings of English and American poetry: "Normative Judaism, even its reformed or reconstructed versions, is irrelevant to the spiritual and cultural needs of American or western Jewry. No one dare say it, but it is culturally and spiritually moribund. And so is Christianity for that matter, though that's none of my concern."
Bloom recalls, with no great enthusiasm, a debate held at the Jewish Museum in New York between himself and Cynthia Ozick, a novelist and critic of literary and Jewish subjects.
"We showed up before it started at a very bad kosher fish restaurant and Cynthia looked very pale. She said, 'It's too bad you are so nice, but I'm going to do such terrible things to you.'
"I said, 'I beg your pardon?' She produced from an enormous handbag an enormous manuscript, a ghastly essay in which she called me an 'anti-Jewish critic.' She said, 'I've been reading all your books for a year and in this I denounce you for the Satan you are!' "
Ozick did, indeed, argue in an essay reprinted in "Art and Ardor" that Bloom's criticism, despite its Jewish allusions and interests, ultimately credits the poet with the power and "temerity to usurp the Throne of Heaven." And that, she says, is not a Jewish position. (Neither side took the term "anti-Jewish" to mean "anti-Semitic.")
Says Ozick, "Harold's version of the story is a certain heightening. The restaurant was not kosher and I can't believe I ever called him a Satan; if I did it must have been with gigantic marks of irony and play. The essay still stands -- I think he's working with a lack of Jewish information -- but I felt terrible that I had hurt a very great man. We've since exchanged letters and have made up.
"The truth is, I fell instantly in love with Harold Bloom. A condition in which I still remain. The intellect is often considered a cold thing, but his mind is like a furnace that gives warmth. He is learned and generous."
The modern Jewish thinker that Bloom considers a "Miltonic figure" is the late Gershom Scholem, whose "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism" is the seminal work on the subject. Ozick, in fact, once visited Scholem at his home in Israel a few years before his death in 1982. She says, "I thought it would be interesting to hear what this great Jerusalem genius had to say about an American genius. So I asked Scholem about Bloom.
" 'It's a free country,' was all he said."