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Harold Bloom, The Art of Criticism No. 1
The world's preeminent literary critic talks about his life and work in this entertaining and enlightening interview in The Paris Review

Recently, Harold Bloom has been under attack not just in scholarly journals and colloquia, but also in newspapers, on the op-ed page, on television and radio. The barrage is due to the best-seller The Book of J, in which Bloom argues that the J-Writer, the putative first author of the Hebrew Bible, not only existed (a matter under debate among Bible historians for the last century) but, quite specifically, was a woman who belonged to the Solomonic elite and wrote during the reign of Rehoboam of Judah in competition with the Court Historian. The attacks have come from Bible scholars, rabbis, and journalists, as well as from the usual academic sources, and Bloom has never been more isolated in his views or more secure in them. He has become, by his own description, “a tired, sad, humane old creature,” who greets his many friends and detractors with an endearing, melancholy exuberance.

He is happy to talk about most anything—politics, romance, sports—although he admits he is “too used to” some topics to get into them. One sets out to disagree with him, and the response is, “Oh, no, no, my dear . . .” In a class on Shakespeare, a mod-dressed graduate student suggests that Iago may be sexually jealous of Othello; Bloom tilts his furry eyebrows, his stockinged feet crossed underneath him, his hand tucked in his shirt, and cries out, “That will not do, my dear. I must protest!” Not surprisingly, it is by now a commonplace of former students’ articles and lectures to start off with a quarrel with Bloom, and in his view, this is only as it should be. He likes to quote the Emersonian adage: “That which I can gain from another is never tuition but only provocation.”

The interview was conducted at the homes he shares with his wife, Jeanne, in New Haven and New York—the one filled with four decades’ accrual of furniture and books, the other nearly bare, although stacks of works in progress and students’ papers are strewn about in both. If the conversation is not too heavy, Bloom likes to have music on, sometimes Baroque, sometimes jazz. (His New York apartment, which is in Greenwich Village, allows him to take in more live jazz.) The phone rings nonstop. Friends, former students, colleagues drop by. Talk is punctuated by strange exclamatories: Zoombah, for one—Swahili for “libido”—is an all-purpose flavoring particle, with the accompanying, adjectival zoombinatious and the verb to zoombinate. Bloom speaks as if the sentences came to him off a printed page, grammatically complex, at times tangled. But they are delivered with great animation, whether ponderous or joyful—if also with finality. Because he learned English by reading it, his accent is very much his own, with some New York inflections: “You try and learn English in an all Yiddish household in the East Bronx by sounding out the words of Blake’s Prophecies,” he explains. Often, he will start a conversation with a direct, at times personal question, or a sigh: “Oh, how the Bloomian feet ache today!”

 

INTERVIEWER

What are your memories of growing up?

HAROLD BLOOM

That was such a long time ago. I’m sixty years old. I can’t remember much of my childhood that well. I was raised in an Orthodox East European Jewish household where Yiddish was the everyday language. My mother was very pious, my father less so. I still read Yiddish poetry. I have a great interest and pleasure in it. 

INTERVIEWER

What are your recollections of the neighborhood in which you grew up? 

BLOOM

Almost none. One of my principal memories is that I and my friends, just to survive, had constantly to fight street battles with neighborhood Irish toughs, some of whom were very much under the influence of a sort of Irish-American Nazi organization called the Silver Shirts. This was back in the 1930s. We were on the verge of an Irish neighborhood over there in the East Bronx. We lived in a Jewish neighborhood. On our border, somewhere around Southern Boulevard, an Irish neighborhood began, and they would raid us, and we would fight back. They were terrible street fights, involving broken bottles and baseball bats. They were very nasty times. I say this even though I’ve now grown up and find that many of my best friends are Irish.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think your background helped in any way to shape your career? 

BLOOM

Obviously it predisposed me toward a great deal of systematic reading. It exposed me to the Bible as a sort of definitive text early on. And obviously too, I became obsessed with interpretation as such. Judaic tradition necessarily acquaints one with interpretation as a mode. Exegesis becomes wholly natural. But I did not have very orthodox religious beliefs. Even when I was quite a young child I was very skeptical indeed about orthodox notions of spirituality. Of course, I now regard normative Judaism as being, as I’ve often said, a very strong misreading of the Hebrew Bible undertaken in the second century in order to meet the needs of the Jewish people in a Palestine under Roman occupation. And that is not very relevant to matters eighteen centuries later. But otherwise, I think the crucial experiences for me as a reader, as a child, did not come reading the Hebrew Bible. It came in reading poetry written in English, which can still work on me with the force of a Bible conversion. It was the aesthetic experience of first reading Hart Crane and William Blake—those two poets in particular. 

INTERVIEWER

How old were you at this point? 

BLOOM

I was preadolescent, ten or eleven years old. I still remember the extraordinary delight, the extraordinary force that Crane and Blake brought to me—in particular Blake’s rhetoric in the longer poems—though I had no notion what they were about. I picked up a copy of the Collected Poems of Hart Crane in the Bronx Library. I still remember when I lit upon the page with the extraordinary trope, “O Thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits / The agile precincts of the lark’s return.” I was just swept away by it, by the Marlovian rhetoric. I still have the flavor of that book in me. Indeed it’s the first book I ever owned. I begged my oldest sister to give it to me, and I still have the old black and gold edition she gave me for my birthday back in 1942. It’s up on the third floor. Why is it you can have that extraordinary experience (preadolescent in my case, as in so many other cases) of falling violently in love with great poetry . . . where you are moved by its power before you comprehend it? In some, a version of the poetical character is incarnated and in some like myself the answering voice is from the beginning that of the critic. I suppose the only poet of the twentieth century that I could secretly set above Yeats and Stevens would be Hart Crane. Crane was dead at the age of thirty-two, so one doesn’t really know what he would have been able to do. An immense loss. As large a loss as the death of Shelley at twenty-nine or Keats at twenty-five. Crane had to do it all in only seven or eight years.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read children’s stories, fairy tales?

BLOOM

I don’t think so. I read the Bible, which is, after all, a long fairy tale. I didn’t read children’s literature until I was an undergraduate.

INTERVIEWER

Did you write verse as a child?

BLOOM

In spite of my interest, that never occurred to me. It must have had something to do with the enormous reverence and rapture I felt about poetry, the incantatory strength that Crane and Blake had for me from the beginning. To be a poet did not occur to me. It was indeed a threshold guarded by demons. To try to write in verse would have been a kind of trespass. That’s something that I still feel very strongly.

INTERVIEWER

How was your chosen career viewed by your family?

BLOOM

I don’t think they had any idea what I would be. I think they were disappointed. They were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe with necessarily narrow views. They had hoped that I would be a doctor or a lawyer or a dentist. They did not know what a professor of poetry was. They would have understood, I suppose, had I chosen to be a rabbi or a Talmudic scholar. But finally, I don’t think they cared one way or the other.

When I was a small boy already addicted to doing nothing but reading poems in English, I was asked by an uncle who kept a candy store in Brooklyn what I intended to do to earn a living when I grew up. I said, I want to read poetry. He told me that there were professors of poetry at Harvard and Yale. That’s the first time I’d ever heard of those places or that there was such a thing as a professor of poetry. In my five- or six-year-old way I replied, I’m going to be a professor of poetry at Harvard or Yale. Of course, the joke is that three years ago I was simultaneously Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard and Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale! So in that sense I was prematurely overdetermined in profession. Sometimes I think that is the principal difference between my own work and the work of many other critics. I came to it very early, and I’ve been utterly unswerving. 

INTERVIEWER

You are known as someone who has had a prodigious memory since childhood. Do you find that your power of recall was triggered by the words themselves, or were there other factors?

BLOOM

Oh no, it was immediate and it was always triggered by text, and indeed always had an aesthetic element. I learned early that a test for a poem for me was whether it seemed so inevitable that I could remember it perfectly from the start. I think the only change in me in that regard has come mainly under the influence of Nietzsche. It is the single way he has influenced me aesthetically. I’ve come to understand that the quality of memorability and inevitability that I assumed came from intense pleasure may actually have come from a kind of pain. That is to say that one learns from Nietzsche that there is something painful about meaning. Sometimes it is the pain of difficulty, sometimes the pain of being set a standard that one cannot attain.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever feel that reading so much was an avoidance of experience? 

BLOOM

No. It was for me a terrible rage or passion that was a drive. It was fiery. It was an absolute obsession. I do not think that speculation on my own part would ever convince me that it was an attempt to substitute a more ideal existence for the life that I had to live. It was love. I fell desperately in love with reading poems. I don’t think that one should idealize such a passion. I certainly no longer do. I mean, I still love reading a poem when I can find a really good one to read. Just recently, I was sitting down, alas for the first time in several years, reading through Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida at one sitting. I found it to be an astonishing experience, powerful and superb. That hasn’t dimmed or diminished. But surely it is a value in itself, a reality in its own right; surely it cannot be reduced or subsumed under some other name. Freud, doubtless, would wish to reduce it to the sexual thought, or rather, the sexual past. But increasingly it seems to me that literature, and particularly Shakespeare, who is literature, is a much more comprehensive mode of cognition than psychoanalysis can be.

INTERVIEWER

Who are the teachers who were important to you? Did you study with the New Critics at Yale? 

BLOOM

I did not study with any of the New Critics, with the single exception being William K. Wimsatt. Bill was a formalist and a very shrewd one, and from the moment I landed in the first course that I took with him, which was in theories of poetry, he sized me up. His comment on my first essay for him was, This is Longinian criticism. You’re an instance of exactly what I don’t like or want. He was quite right. He was an Aristotelian; as far as I was concerned, Aristotle had ruined Western literary criticism almost from the beginning. What I thought of as literary criticism really did begin with the pseudo-Longinus. So we had very strong disagreements about that kind of stuff. But he was a remarkable teacher. We became very close friends later on. I miss him very much. He was a splendid, huge, fascinating man, almost seven feet tall, a fierce, dogmatic Roman Catholic, very intense. But very fair-minded. We shared a passion for Dr. Samuel Johnson. I reacted so violently against him that antithetically he was a great influence on me. I think that’s what I meant by dedicating The Anxiety of Influence to Bill. I still treasure the note he wrote me after I gave him one of the early copies of the book. I find the dedication extremely surprising, he said, and then added mournfully, I suppose it entitles you to be Plotinus to Emerson’s Plato in regard to American neoromanticism, a doctrine that I despise. Oh, yes, we had serious differences in our feelings about poetry.

INTERVIEWER

What were your earliest essays like?

BLOOM

I don’t think I wrote any essays until I was an undergraduate at Cornell. But then a few years ago Bob Elias, one of my teachers there, sent me an essay I had written on Hart Crane (which I had completely forgotten about) when I was a Cornell freshman of sixteen or seventeen. I couldn’t get myself to read it. I even destroyed it. I shouldn’t have. I should have waited until I could bear to look at it. I’m very curious as to what kind of thing it was. 

INTERVIEWER

Are there other literary figures who were important to you early on?

BLOOM

A real favorite among modern critics, and the one I think influenced me considerably, though no one ever wants to talk about him, was George Wilson Knight. He was an old friend. Utterly mad. He made Kenneth Burke and Harold Bloom look placid and mild. George died quite old. He was very interested in spiritualism, and in survival after death. He told me a couple of times that he believed it quite literally. There is a moment in The Christian Renaissance that I think is the finest moment in modern criticism, because it is the craziest. He is citing a spiritualist, F. W. H. Myers, and he quotes something that Myers wrote and published, and then he quotes something from a séance at which Myers “came back” and said something through a medium, this astonishing sentence, which I give to you verbatim: “These quotations from F. W. H. Myers, so similar in style, composed before and after his own earthly ‘death,’ contain together a wisdom which our era may find it hard to assimilate.” I mean, perfectly straight about it! But the early books of Wilson Knight are very fine indeed—certainly one of the most considerable figures of twentieth-century criticism, though he’s mostly forgotten now.

At this point we wander into the kitchen, where Mrs. Bloom is watching the evening news

BLOOM

Now let’s wait for the news about this comeback for the wretched Yankees. I’ve been denouncing them. They haven’t won since 1979. That’s ten years and they’re not going to win this year. They’re terrible . . . What’s this? 

[TV: The Yankees with their most dramatic win of the year this afternoon . . . And the Tigers lost again.]

BLOOM

Oh my God! That means we’re just four games out. How very up-cheering. 

MRS. BLOOM

Jessica Hahn.

BLOOM

Jessica Hahn is back!

[TV: . . . hired on as an on-air personality at a Top 40 radio station in Phoenix.

BLOOM

How marvelous! 

[TV: Playboy magazine had counted on Hahn to come through. She appeared nude in a recent issue.

BLOOM

Splendid . . . Let us start again, Antonio. What were we talking about?

We return to the living room.


For the rest of the interview

The Paris Review


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