Armed with a photographic memory, Professor Bloom could recite acres of poetry by heart â€” by his account, the whole of Shakespeare, Miltonâ€™s â€œParadise Lost,â€ all of William Blake, the Hebraic Bible and Edmund Spenserâ€™s monumental â€œThe Fairie Queen.â€
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.
Harold Bloom was once asked why he was writing a multi-volume history of literary theory. “I can’t sleep anyway,” he said.
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, weâ€™ve taken more after Iago than Othelloâ€™weâ€™ve learned more from Iago. And I wanted to ask you if you thought that was Shakespeareâ€™s fault or if it was our fault.
HB. That questionâ€™s unanswerable because we have been so formed by Shakespeare. That I think is the irony of [the Tenure Action Coalition]â€™the words they use are frequently words that he invented, that werenâ€™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 Shakespeareâ€™s thoughts. Shakespeare is the Canon because Shakespeare is ourselves, and the answer therefore to the question of, Is the way in which weâ€™ve imitated Iago our fault or Shakespeareâ€™s fault, is both. Iâ€™m not sure that until you have the representation you call Hamlet, that you have anywhere, (in any language Iâ€™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 canâ€™t find before Shakespeare. But if youâ€™re really going to talk about Shakespeareâ€™s culpabilityâ€™so far as I can tell, Shakespeare invented what Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky, and others afterwards started to call nihilism. Itâ€™s a pure Shakespearean invention.
YFP. [I wondered] whether you think the people who say that Shakespeare has nothing to say to themâ€™whether itâ€™s just a question of their being unwilling to listen, or if itâ€™s actually possible that they canâ€™t hear.
HB. Let me tell you an anecdote. As part of the early manifestation of [the Cornell Revolution of â€˜68-â€˜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, â€˜These books are irrelevant to me as a black student.â€™ 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, â€˜These books are irrelevant to me as a black student.â€™ And one slid over to meâ€™it was the Oxford edition of the Collected Poems of John Keats. And I said to the young lady, who scowled at me, â€˜Are you quite sure that the poetry of John Keats is irrelevant to you? Have you read any of the poems of Keats?â€™ And she looked at me angrily and repeated, â€˜These books are irrelevant to me as a black student,â€™ and off she marched. So. But what can I possibly say to that? Thatâ€™s ideological, isnâ€™t it? To arrive here and say that itâ€™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 enthusiastâ€¦I assume that reading Shakespeare with the whole intensity of your being and with your awakened mind, with all of you, itâ€™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] doesnâ€™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 Shakespeareâ€™s Hamlet isâ€¦ You can teach peopleâ€™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.
Adam Schembri, a professor at the University of Birmingham, makes the case for the weirdness of English.
English probably sounds a little â€œweirdâ€ to many speakers of other languages. According to the WALS, the average number of distinctive speech sounds in the worldâ€™s languages is about 25-30 â€“ known as â€œphonemesâ€. …
English has more phonemes than many languages, with around 44, depending on which variety of English you speak. It has an unusually large set of vowel sounds â€“ there are around 11.
According to WALS, most spoken languages only have between five to six vowel sounds. This is part of the reason that English spelling is fiendishly complicated, because it has inherited five letters for vowels from the Roman alphabet and speakers have to make them work for more than twice that number of sounds.
English has some comparatively unusual consonant sounds as well. Two sounds, those represented by the â€œthâ€ in â€œbathâ€ and â€œbatheâ€ respectively, are found in fewer than 10% of the languages surveyed in WALS. In fact, these two sounds are generally among the last sounds acquired by children, with some adult varieties of English not using them at all.
English grammar is also â€œweirdâ€. English uses varying word orders to distinguish between questions and statements â€“ meaning that the subject of the sentence precedes the verb in statements. Take the phrase â€œlife is a box of chocolatesâ€ for example. Here, the order is subject (â€œlifeâ€) followed by the verb (â€œisâ€). In the question, â€œis life a box of chocolates?â€, the order of these elements is reversed.
In a WALS survey of 955 languages, fewer than 2% of languages in the sample used English-like differences in sentence structure for questions.
The College Fix has some more bad news for Yale alumni:
A year and a half after a petition circulated calling for Yale to â€œdecolonize the English department,â€ the first students are enrolled in a new course created by the department to increase the breadth of the curriculum and combat claims of departmental racism.
Whatâ€™s more, new requirements are in place to ensure a more â€œdiversifiedâ€ slate of courses.
Previous requirements for the major included two courses in â€œMajor English Poets,â€ including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton and Eliot, among others. But that two-course series petitioners had deemed actively harmful due to its focus on white male poets. The series is no longer a graduation requirement for Yaleâ€™s English majors.
The petition, a Google document which has since been made private, critiqued the perceived whiteness of the English department requirements: â€œA year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity.â€
â€œItâ€™s time for the English major to decolonize â€” not diversify â€” its course offerings,â€ the petition added. â€œA 21st century education is a diverse education: we write to you today inspired by student activism across the university, and to make sure that you know that the English department is not immune from the collective call to action.â€
Nearly a year after the petition, around seven months ago, Yaleâ€™s English faculty voted to â€œdiversityâ€ the curriculum. At the time of the vote, the director of the departmentâ€™s undergraduate studies, Jessica Brantley, told The Yale Daily News: â€œWeâ€™ve constructed a curriculum that has inclusion as its goal, embedded in the structures of its requirements, and Iâ€™m very excited to implement and develop that curriculum further.â€
The reconfiguring of the English departmentâ€™s required courses did not directly address the demands of the petition to do away with the Major English Poets sequences altogether; the courses still exist. The reconfiguration also did not refocus the programâ€™s pre-1800 and pre-1900 literature requirement to address issues of race, gender, and sexuality as demanded by the petition.
Instead, the English department now allows students to fill three required prerequisites from a choice of four different courses: Readings in English Poetry 1, Readings in English Poetry 2, Readings in American Literature, and a newly created course, Readings in Comparative World English Literature.
Because Chaucer and Shakespeare are both studied in English Poetry 1, these expanded options mean that a student could graduate from the program without ever reading either of these authors.
Mark Edmundson (who teaches English at UVA) has a very amusing, slightly rueful memoir in the Chronicle of Higher Education recalling his youthful animosity to tweeds, Bones, the American reactionary establishment and his enthusiastic embrace of the theoretical tools of deconstruction as a means of sticking it to the Man.
You couldnâ€™t see Skull and Bones from the seminar room in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, though it was directly across the street. But the building was much on my mind the afternoon of the reception and had been from the day I got to New Haven. To my 26-year-old self, it seemed nearly impossible that literatureâ€”Keats, Shelley, Shakespeare, Whitmanâ€”was sharing space with Skull and Bones. I did not know much about Bones, but I took it to be a bastion of reactionary America. The society reached out its withered hand to tap future Wall Street pirates, CIA agents, and the sort of State Department operatives who had leveraged us into Vietnam, where a number of my high-school buddies had gone to be maimed and worse.
At least the Skull and Bones building looked its part. They called it the Cryptâ€”and it did look like it was designed by Edgar Allan Poe. It was all stone and metal, with no real windows, and doors of enormous weight. Those doors must have closed with the grimmest finality, though never in my five New Haven years did I see them open or shut.
The Crypt was a monument to the dark. It looked like the temple of a demonâ€”Moloch or Beelzebubâ€”one of the devils we discussed in our Milton seminar in the elegantly decomposing room of the Munchkin party.
One day I saw that the Cryptâ€™s front door and the wall next to it were blotched with red: the red of the anarchist flag, the red of rage and retribution. Someone had taken a couple of cans of yowling crimson paint and thrown them at the facade of Skull and Bones. I loved it. Perhaps that night people would mass in front of the building, carrying rakes, scythes, and wrenches. A strike force would arrive armed with five-pound sledgehammers and the requisite silver stakes to take care of the nightwalkers inside.
All right, I got a little carried away. I knew that wasnâ€™t really going to happen. But something might. The university and the community were finally showing distaste for the monument to plutocracy and (why not say it?) death.
This was not what I associated with American education. Iâ€™d come from Bennington College, a small liberal-arts school in Vermont, where people worshiped Martha Graham and poetry. After I graduated, I taught at the Woodstock school, a Bennington for high-school students. Woodstock was about playing music and smoking weed, writing spontaneous bop poetry and reading Marx and Kerouac. When they completed the curriculum, the kids applied to college, and things being what they were in America circa 1977, they tended to get inâ€”though not to Yale.
Iâ€™d been deluded. I thought that university education entailed reading Whitman during the week and listening to the Grateful Dead on weekends. (â€œI never cared about money,â€ the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once wrote. â€œIt was not what Country Joe and the Fish taught me to value.â€) It seemed that here at Yale, education might be about William Howard Taft and Averill Harriman, all the time. I knew that Yale was renowned for Wall Street connections; I knew that it sent recruits to the CIA; but I thoughtâ€”what did I think? I thought that the English department, in conjunction with the spirits of Emerson and Whitman, would be at war with what was dark and outdated about Yale. I thought that the English department would win, hands down. But there was the Crypt across the street, and no one was doing anything about it. No one even talked about it.
Then I discovered the opposition at Yaleâ€”or at least I thought I did. When I arrived, I was devoted to literature straight out, and my goal was to become learned enough to pass my affection on to students. That was about it. (Though I also liked the hours that professors were rumored to workâ€”I was an expert at engaging in prolonged bouts of doing nothing.) â€œWhat we have loved,â€ Wordsworth says to his friend Coleridge in The Prelude, â€œothers will love, and we will teach them how.â€ I could teach others how to love Whitman and Ginsberg and be paid for it, if only a pittance. Sign me up.
To my 26-year-old self, it seemed nearly impossible that literatureâ€”Keats, Shelley, Shakespeare, Whitmanâ€”was sharing space with Skull and Bones.
But the stuff that had the aura of subversion about it wasnâ€™t literature, it was theory. Maybe that was the true alternative to Bonesmanship. After a while, I dropped any illusions I might have had about running the Bones gang out of town. Still, there had to be some kind of alternative culture to Bones culture, to succor the grad students and maybe even save an undergraduate or two from being swallowed alive by Moloch. Maybe theory was 1968 by other means.
Jameson, Hartman, Bloom, Derrida, de Man: All seemed rebellious, and all were right here at Yale.
Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how itâ€™s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciationâ€™s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Fe0ffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Wonâ€™t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
Itâ€™s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!
A short two months after getting my Chinese driver’s license, I was about to lose it again. I drove the Jetta into a garage with this insane Chinglish (Chinese-English) sign warning me about crafty slipperies: “TO TAKE NOTICE OF SAFE. THE SLIPPERY ARE VERY CRAFTY.” As I remarked, I nearly dented the car (and the sign), having nearly spontaneously combusted in the worst laughing fit ever.
And he has been on a crusade since to memorialize, and rebuke, public signs in Beijing featuring unsatisfactory English translations of Chinese idioms.