“We read to find ourselves,” Harold Bloom once wrote, “more fully and more strange than otherwise we could hope to find.”
Bloom, who died Monday, was a man of letters—a literary critic, lover of literature, and a long-time professor at Yale University. He was born in 1930 in New York City, and grew up in the Bronx. His parents were Eastern European Jews and only spoke Yiddish at home, which had a great impact on Bloom’s formative years. Bloom went on to earn a B.A. in classics from Cornell University in 1951, and a Ph.D. from Yale in 1955.
He was a prolific writer, whose intellectual output resulted in more than 40 books. He wrote so fast, the story goes, that a student once called Bloom at home and was told by Bloom’s wife he couldn’t take the call. “I’m sorry,” she explained, “he’s writing a book.” The student responded, “That’s alright. I’ll wait.”
There are many aspects to Bloom’s literary criticism but one of the most powerful was his defense of the Western canon of literature, particularly Shakespeare. As his career in academia unfolded, he saw very clearly what was happening in many humanities departments across the United States. This was especially true in English departments where great works of literature regularly were assaulted and twisted in order to strengthen various political ideologies, most notably, the leftist ones.
In Defense of the Excellence
Even before he openly defended a list of novelists, poets, and playwrights in The Western Canon (1994), Bloom saw the dangers of ideology in institutions of higher learning. In an early book, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Bloom argued that poets are burdened by the influence of poets that came before them. The past is always looming and no poet creates alone, as much as writing itself is a solitary activity. Bloom didn’t necessarily consider the burden and hindrance to be a negative. By explicating the theory of poetic anxiety, Bloom claimed that only the great poets (one would assume those who are part of the literary canon) will move beyond the influence of others’ works and create a wholly original poetry. In other words, even in his early years as a literary critic, Bloom was concerned with excellence in creative output, which meant that there would have to be delineations between “good” and “bad” literature.
Bloom took this theory of anxiety and excellence even further when he elaborated on ideologies du jour in English departments. Suddenly, this poetic problem became far bigger than a mere textual problem. “The invention of the human, as we know it, is a mode of influence far surpassing anything literary,” Bloom wrote in the preface to the second edition of The Anxiety of Influence. He worried that everything deeply and authentically human was being eradicated from the very university department that was meant to preserve these perennial ideas.
Bloom dubbed leftist ideologists (Marxists and feminists) the “School of Resentment.” According to Bloom, what they resent is “the power of invention”—the uniqueness and singularity of one writer’s voice. Focusing once again on Shakespeare, whom he considered the pinnacle of literature, Bloom wrote that the “Real multiculturalists, all over the globe, accept Shakespeare as the indispensable author, different from all others in degree, and by so much that he becomes different in kind.” Shakespeare’s work has much to say about the human condition—something every human being can connect to, despite the historical, cultural, and social particularities that Shakespeare and his times embodied.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, because Shakespeare’s plays are alive and well (in spite of efforts to take them down), and clearly have stood the test of time. Human beings interested in human questions are drawn to the existential crises of Hamlet, Prospero’s wisdom, Lady Macbeth’s cold calculations, or the silly romantic follies of Benedick and Beatrice.
Given this, the idea of “Western” canon can actually be called the “world” or “human” canon because it is, indeed, Western literature that most clearly defines and sublimely creates a place where human wrestling with consciousness and God are not only possible but necessary for the survival of culture and civilization.
Ideologues Against Humanity
This is why Bloom was not wrong when he connected the “School of Resentment” to their obsession with political power, or in his insistence that the major ethical and aesthetical weakness of the “resenters” lies in their “assumption . . . that state power is everything and individual subjectivity is nothing, even if that subjectivity belonged to William Shakespeare.” By ideologizing the literary texts, by calling Shakespeare a racist or a misogynist, they have not only dehumanized Shakespeare but the text itself.
Bloom rightly diagnosed their illness as an inability to be human, which then leads to envy and anger. They appear to have no souls, and “unable to be Nietzsche, who has made them all belated, our resenters do not wish merely to re-proclaim the Death of God, so they turn instead to proclaiming what only can be called the death of Shakespeare.”
And there lies what Bloom calls the “irresistible anxiety”—the ideologists cannot escape the towering presence of Shakespeare, no matter how hard they try.
We can see how we have reached the point in which victimhood in academia reigns supreme coupled with Stasi-like behavior that aims to eradicate the order of things and any individual and singular voice of an earnest intellectual endeavor.
Harold Bloom was clearly a highly intelligent and learned man, but perhaps there is a deeper influence if we truly understand how he thought. His upbringing in which the Yiddish language was part of his early years (and what, in many ways, shapes a child into a full human being) penetrated and seeped into his approach to literary criticism. In many instances, language can open doors into courtyards of metaphysical uniqueness, and Bloom has acknowledged that hearing and learning came from the constant exposure to Yiddish language and culture.
The first time he saw a Shakespeare, it turns out, the play was in Yiddish! Bloom recalls this happened in 1938, when he was eight years old. “The magnificent Maurice Schwartz is Shylock. But this has all been marvelously rewritten, in Yiddish—as they said, ‘farbesert’—improved.”
If we want to know why Bloom had no patience for nonsense, especially the academic variety, and why he didn’t waste time addressing ridiculous and ideologically charged theories, perhaps we should look here. It is hardly a surprise because the Yiddish culture and language have no patience for most strange or circular logic. Rather, it is a language with a great sense of humor, tied to family, personal and collective histories, even complaint. More than anything, it is a language and culture of reality and truth telling, which cuts through the nonsense. Harold Bloom certainly did all of these things and his influence (with or without anxiety) remains.