15 Oct 2019

Harold Bloom, 11 July 1930 — 14 October 2019

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Harold Bloom, Yale Sterling Professor of English, author of 40 books, and defender of the Western canon died yesterday at age 89.

Some Twitter comments on his death:

Michael Kimmerman:

Armed with a photographic memory, Professor Bloom could recite acres of poetry by heart — by his account, the whole of Shakespeare, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” all of William Blake, the Hebraic Bible and Edmund Spenser’s monumental “The Fairie Queen.”

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Alexandra Brodsky:

Never speak ill of the dead, like Harold Bloom, who told my American lit seminar that we should feel free to report his sexism and homophobia to the university president who, Bloom explained, would rather hide under his desk than fire him.

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Anne Applebaum:

Harold Bloom was once asked why he was writing a multi-volume history of literary theory. “I can’t sleep anyway,” he said.

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In 1999, Emmy Chang of the Yale Free Press interviewed Professor Bloom, and got a good sample of Bloom talk.

YFP. In the Shakespeare book you mention that since Shakespeare, we’ve taken more after Iago than Othello’we’ve learned more from Iago. And I wanted to ask you if you thought that was Shakespeare’s fault or if it was our fault.

HB. That question’s unanswerable because we have been so formed by Shakespeare. That I think is the irony of [the Tenure Action Coalition]’the words they use are frequently words that he invented, that weren’t in the language until he coined them. I think that it was Owen Barfield who said that it can be positively humiliating for us to realize that what we want to call our emotions, turn out to be Shakespeare’s thoughts. Shakespeare is the Canon because Shakespeare is ourselves, and the answer therefore to the question of, Is the way in which we’ve imitated Iago our fault or Shakespeare’s fault, is both. I’m not sure that until you have the representation you call Hamlet, that you have anywhere, (in any language I’m able to read anyway), someone who changes every time he or she speaks, and who does it by this weird thing of overhearing oneself, which I can’t find before Shakespeare. But if you’re really going to talk about Shakespeare’s culpability’so far as I can tell, Shakespeare invented what Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky, and others afterwards started to call nihilism. It’s a pure Shakespearean invention.

YFP. [I wondered] whether you think the people who say that Shakespeare has nothing to say to them’whether it’s just a question of their being unwilling to listen, or if it’s actually possible that they can’t hear.

HB. Let me tell you an anecdote. As part of the early manifestation of [the Cornell Revolution of ‘68-‘69], the black students of the university were instructed by their leadership to go into the library stacks and bring out as many books as they could carry and just dump them on the front circulation desk with the dramatic statement, ‘These books are irrelevant to me as a black student.’ And it so happened [that] I was trying to check out a book at just that moment, when a young lady dumped a huge armful of books right next to me and shouted, ‘These books are irrelevant to me as a black student.’ And one slid over to me’it was the Oxford edition of the Collected Poems of John Keats. And I said to the young lady, who scowled at me, ‘Are you quite sure that the poetry of John Keats is irrelevant to you? Have you read any of the poems of Keats?’ And she looked at me angrily and repeated, ‘These books are irrelevant to me as a black student,’ and off she marched. So. But what can I possibly say to that? That’s ideological, isn’t it? To arrive here and say that it’s your function to obliterate the best that has been read, the best that has been thought and said, in thirty centuries. They should go somewhere else. If they really think Shakespeare is irrelevant to them, why do they want to go to a university anyway? To get a union card of some kind?

YFP. You said before that we read to learn to talk to ourselves.

HB. I am not, as you know, a Shakespeare scholar, just an enthusiast…I assume that reading Shakespeare with the whole intensity of your being and with your awakened mind, with all of you, it’s bound to be a kind of training in consciousness. I assume that that is as good a way of awakening that [inner] spark, of lighting it up, or of making that pneuma, that breath, come faster, and stronger, than any other. [It] doesn’t necessarily make you a better person, [but it] certainly [makes] you a more capacious soul than you were already. I really feel that I can teach a more or less receptive and sensitive Yale undergraduate how enormous a work Shakespeare’s Hamlet is… You can teach people’you can open them to wonder. To more wonder. Which is what Shakespeare is for. I talked [in Shakespeare] about awe as being the proper response. Maybe the really proper response is wonder.

HT: John Brewer.

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One Feedback on "Harold Bloom, 11 July 1930 — 14 October 2019"

Frank Dobbs

I read Blooms book on the Romantic poets in high school before going to Yale. At that point he was a nihilist himself, all the great poets only wrote so that scholars could elucidate their visionary subjective nonsense. Byron was not even covered in a survey of English romantic poetry.

From that point on, I avoided him like the plague. I’m glad to see that he veered back to thinking he was subordinate to the tradition, and not vice versa. That might be good training for the after life. May the earth rest lightly on his bones.



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