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Harold Bloom Is God

A conversation about literature, Judaism, and the Almighty with the great Yale literary critic

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Harold Bloom, 1994. (Ted Thai/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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In the summer of 2002, the agile Dominican superstar Alfonso Soriano became the first New York Yankee in history to notch 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in a single season. Soriano broke another record that year: He was the first Yankee to strike out 157 times in a season. Asked to explain his habitual wild swings, Soriano produced a great line: “You don’t get out of the Dominica by taking pitches.” In New Haven, the world’s most famous literary critic, Harold Bloom, murmured his approval of Soriano’s statement to friends. Bloom has been a Yankees fan since he was a kid growing up in the impoverished, heavily Jewish East Bronx of the 1930s, and so he applied Soriano’s adage to himself: “You don’t get out of the East Bronx by taking pitches.”

Indeed, Bloom has had his share of furious swings; at 82, he’s as much a firebrand as he ever was. A year ago, he attacked Mitt Romney in the New York Times as the standard-bearer of a money-hungry oligarchy known as the Mormon Church. Twenty years before, Bloom made many Mormon friends by praising Mormon founder Joseph Smith as a “religious genius” in his lively, remarkable book The American Religion—and Bloom had come now to defend the man against an institution that he believed had betrayed him. Romney, Bloom wrote, hoped to preside over his own planet after death, “separate from the earth and nation where he now dwells”: His faith promised him “a final ascension to godhead.”

Bloom was born in 1930, son of a Yiddish-speaking family that would lose dozens of relatives in the Holocaust. Yiddish was Bloom’s first language, and he had the usual Jewish education at the prompting of his observant mother, but he resisted traditional study from the beginning. “I haven’t got a Talmud at all,” he told me. “If there were such a thing as a Talmudic Orpheus, I might qualify as that, but otherwise, no; Kabbalah, rather.” Normative Judaism, Bloom continued, is “a peculiarly strong misreading of the Tanakh done in order to meet the needs of a Jewish people in Palestine under occupation by the Romans. What it has to do with 2012, search me … it’s a fossil.” Yet Bloom also disagrees with Irving Howe’s famous assessment that, with Yiddish largely dead, Jewishness now means either religion or Israel. “I didn’t believe that and I still don’t, not that I can tell you what [Jewishness] is—it’s undefinable.”

Though Bloom has always stressed the central fact of his Jewishness, it has always been blended with his deep sense of Romantic imagination. By the age of 10, Bloom says, he was already deserting the Talmud for Hart Crane. Since then, he has followed the radical leanings of British Romantics like Blake and Shelley, poets Bloom, more than anyone, helped return to the literary pantheon. Behind Blake and Shelley are the Hebrew prophets, who are determined to explode rotten conventions and pious hypocrisies. In his 40s, Bloom discovered Kabbalah and become close friends with Gershom Scholem; later on, he professed his belief in the ancient sect of Gnosticism, which has attracted many Jews. His love for the intimacy that occurs between a serious reader and a life-giving book comes from Romanticism but also, as he knows, from the Jewish insistence on clinging to every word, every nuance, of the Torah.

This summer, I had lunch with Bloom in his comfortable, book-cluttered New Haven home so we could talk about his long career as America’s most ardent reader of literature, the man who takes books more personally than anyone else. (I was Bloom’s student when I was in graduate school at Yale in the mid-1980s, for a course in post-Romantic Victorian prose.) We were soon interrupted by a phone call from a polite, slightly befuddled BBC reporter. The reporter asked Bloom for an on-air interview about Gore Vidal, who had died that day. Bloom swiftly agreed; Vidal was a dear friend. The voice of the BBC interviewer echoed on the other end of the line. “Something so sepulchral for such a lively fellow—a forked tongue,” Bloom muttered. Then Jonathan Spence, the eminent scholar of China and another longtime friend, called to thank Bloom for a birthday gift, a volume by the poet Keith Douglas, who was tragically killed in World War II. Spence agreed that Douglas’ poetry is just as affecting as Bloom had told him it was. (“I’m absolutely lost in these poems,” Spence told him.) Then a former student, the poet Martha Serpas, called from Oregon. Bloom had put in a request for Copper River salmon, but, Serpas said, it was “not available fresh in our area.” All around, the voices of friends enfolded Bloom.

***

The whirlwind character of Bloom’s everyday existence is the first thing a visitor notices; it’s hard to imagine how he produces his mountain of written prose, given the constant stream of visitors and phone calls. This is even more true in New York, where Bloom and his wife keep an apartment that they visit every month or so. Afternoons in New York are lively affairs, with friends constantly dropping in: writers, artists, musicians, old students. Bloom’s curiosity about everyone he meets, his sheer openness, testifies to the enormous value he places on personality. “You should hear him talk to a cabdriver,” one of Bloom’s ex-students told me. Bloom thrives on personal contact, and his conversation is full of affectionate verbal squeezes: His Yale colleague Geoffrey Hartman, like Bloom a pioneering critic of Romanticism, is the “Ayatollah Hartmeini”; John Ashbery, the poet, is always “the noble Ashbery.” Every male under 60 is addressed as “young man”; every woman, of whatever age, as “my dear.” “Kinderlach,” Bloom will say to a group of middle-aged friends, with genuine, surprised tenderness, “you astonish me always.”

As he warmed up for our interview, Bloom asked to try my frappuccino. “Give me a taste,” he asked playfully. “Perhaps it will do the old Bloom good.” Then he wanted a sip—just a sip—of Amontillado. Opera played in the background. (Bloom’s wife Jeanne is an opera buff.) Jeanne, at the other end of the table, scanning the news on her laptop, gruffly reported, “Republican compares birth control to Pearl Harbor.” (Bloom, a lifelong man of the left, said he voted for Norman Thomas.)

I asked Bloom whether the tussles of the Talmudic rabbis had any influence on him: whether their mazelike discussions presaged his idea of literary history as a fierce argument among authors. The answer was an unequivocal no. “I was a natural-born Gnostic and early on identified with a figure who is reviled in the Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya—the acher, the stranger.” Gnosticism, the age-old heresy that Bloom has embraced as his personal religion, takes to an extreme the prophetic protest against the injustice of the world. The Gnostic sees the divine as a spark within the self: a radiant imagination buried under the rock of everyday existence. This secret power rebels against the pitiless realm of fact that seems to rule our lives, the world of “schizophrenia and death camps,” as Bloom put it in Omens of Millennium. In it, he shows that Gnosticism doesn’t have to be a turning away from humanity; Bloom’s appetite for friendship certainly testifies to that.

In his youth, Bloom remembers, he felt out of place, the clumsy outsider. At the Bronx High School of Science, which he disliked (“horrible place”), Bloom finished near the bottom of his class. Then came Cornell, and his encounter with M.H. Abrams, the Romantics scholar who recently turned 100. “I was a freshman of 17. Mike was 35,” Bloom remembered. “I was very shy and awkward and tongue-tied; he made me feel at home, sweet man.” Abrams was one of the rare Jewish English professors in the Ivy League; he immediately recognized flashes of genius in Bloom. In a tribute written for Bloom’s 80th birthday, Abrams remembered that, “As a student, Harold was diffident, low-voiced … and prodigious. He read a book almost as fast as he could turn its pages, and seemed to have read everything.” Since that time, Abrams continued, Bloom has become not only “an endlessly exciting scholar and critic, but also a personage on the intellectual stage of the world,” with a resounding public voice.

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William Schwartz says:

Your article states that Bloom was born in 1930 and then goes on to assert that he “voted for Norman Thomas every time he ran for president.” Thomas ran for president in 1928, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944 and 1948, thus making it highly unlikely that Bloom ever voted for him. Had you done even the most minimal fact checking — say by following your own link to the Wikipedia article about Thomas — instead of indulging Bloom in his self mythologizing, your profile would have been much more interesting.

Fair enough, Mr. Schwartz. The article has been updated.

I appreciate anyone who values his or her teachers and professors, but do we really have to fawn over a self-indulgent literary critic and Yale prof. in such a way that we call him a GOD? My gawd!

William Schwartz says:

Mr. Fishbane, you have indeed updated the article.
However, its new assertion that “Mr. Bloom, a lifelong man of the Left,
said he voted for Norman Thomas,” fails to point out the impossibility of that
claim, a not unimportant fact given the article’s characterization of its subject
as God.

MarkBeyer says:

I’ve always appreciated Mr Bloom’s opinion and candor. He is one critic who’s brought literature back into the mainstream, against a river of bad books and poor readers.

Robert Starkand says:

Harold Bloom is not God. He’s a man and is flawed. When someone is able to have a career doing what he or she loves, that person is very fortunate indeed. But not only does Professor Bloom have the good fortune to have a successful career doing what he loves, because he adopted gnosticism, doing what he loves leads to his salvation. His life’s work is elevated to the divine with worshipful students such as the writer of this article reaffirming his beliefs. Not many people get to do that.

I read his op-ed piece in the Times written a year before the election on Mitt Romney and the Mormons. Its ironic that a Jew would demonize a minority religion, writing about their beliefs in a disparaging fashion, implying nefarious intentions because they wish to keep their finances and practices private. They are part of a private institution. They can spend their money and practice their religion as they wish, and they have freedom of association. There is nothing nefarious in this. Mitt Romney has had a public life since he was born because of who his father was. He has led an exemplary life and he has given his money, time and effort to people outside his religion. He is not a currency or stock manipulator, but a venture capitalist with a 78% success rate who was responsible for the creation of thousands of jobs. Although not my ideal candidate, Romney is a good man who would have been a good president who would have led our country away from financial ruin. Professor Bloom also woefully mischaracterizes the Tea Party. Instead of investigating who we are and what we stand for, he merely uses the main stream media’s characterization of us. If he looked at who we are directly, he would have seen that we first defined ourselves by our economic interests. It was the Obamacare bill of 2009 that activated tea party protests across the country. not social issues. Instead Bloom made a scurrilous attack without much thought that was ultimately senseless because it was based on a falsehood. Its his emotions that animated his opinion piece. In it we did not see a divine search of knowledge, but the demiurge at work.

He is not a currency or stock manipulator, but a venture capitalist with a 78% success rate who was responsible for the creation of thousands of jobs.
Yes, he was responsible for the creation of “thousands of jobs,” but what kinds of jobs? He was also responsible for the destruction of thousands of others. And what kinds of jobs were those? Romeny actually IS a “financial manipulator,” and the ultimate result of most of his “financial manipulations” has been the impoverishment of the American working classes. His brand of “conservatism” does absolutely nothing to preserve traditional values, traditional morality or traditional family structures. Instead, it destroys them, in the interests of ever-changing, ever-mutating consumption. Romney is the type of capitalist whom Marx celebrated, because Marx recognized in him and in his ilk the “transvaluator of all values,” who would overturn EVERY SINGLE established or traditonal order to keep the cancer of unregulated neo-liberal capitalism alive, even as it “revolutionized” and “commodified” life everywhere on the planet. (In his declining days, the peculiarly prophetic late Roman pontiff correctly indentified neo-liberal capitalism to be as much the “culture of death” as communism had been.) Romney (and probably you) are the type of “conservative” who has Edmund Burke spinning in his grave.

“A year ago, he attacked Mitt Romney in the New York Times as the standard-bearer of a money-hungry oligarchy known as the Mormon Church.”

hahaha. A Jew finds the Mormons money-obsessed? That’s prime kosher chutzpah.

Imagine if a Christian scholar spoke of Jews this way. He’d be blacklisted and fired.

Damn Jews get away with everything since they control Wall Street and media.

“Bloom was born in 1930, son of a Yiddish-speaking family that would lose dozens of relatives in the Holocaust.”

Every time you hear of Jews, it’s in relation to the holocaust. Many Russian, Polish, Chinese, and etc people in America know of relatives killed in wars, but they are not associated with historical tragedies.
Btw, why doesn’t Tablet mention that many American Jews have relatives who took part in communist mass murder of Christian Slavs and in the massive ethnic cleansing of Palestinians?

Thomas Morgan says:

No one cares, teabagger. Do you have anything useful to say about Harold Bloom? Or do you just want to cherry pick one small part of the article so that you can use it to spout off about your conservative “beliefs”?

Robert Starkand says:

Ah. Going from Harold Bloom to smearing Romney and Capitalism. Let’s see. Romney is a living embodiment of family, charity and community values, self-reliance and hard work. What values exactly is he destroying? And Marx? What established order would Romney and his ilk overturn in 19th century Europe? Monarchy? Good. Remember the agreement of the Congress of Vienna in 1815? The rulers of Europe divided Europe up amongst themselves after the fall of Napoleon and the agreement fell apart within fifty years of revolution and unrest, followed by WWI and WWII. The globalists of today remind me of that. Marxism is just another variation of tyranny. I’m not going to use a post to defend capitalism, especially when you yourself can just google Milton Friedman and get an education. In a free enterprise system, the economic order is dynamic and fluid. A worker today can be a business owner tomorrow. In a vibrant free market system one business may close but others open. Workers who don’t become business owners are better off because competition increases the value of a worker and his or her salary goes up. This promise of a better life provided by government just guarantees a stagnant economy and a reduction of quality of life for all except those connected with the government. This isn’t new, its ancient. Man must live by the sweat of his brow, and the system that best allows him to enjoy the fruit of his labor is free enterprise.

Mickis may know Bloom and Bloom may indeed be a significant force in American letters, but neither one of them knows any of the Jewish texts they have quoted with any sort of rational clarity. These woefully crass interpretations ignore more than 2000 years of Jewish scholarship of which neither seems to be aware. Bloom may know literature and Mickis may know Bloom, but neither would tolerate the kind of shoddy Biblical and Jewish scholarship exhibited, were it in the world of literature.

Jacob Arnon says:

I like the early Bloom who wrote on Romanticism. That’s
where he is at his best. His notion of an “anxiety of influence” that all
writers have is like Freud’s Oedipal Complex: pure speculation.

Jis reading of the Hebrew bible are equally speculative and
not very convincing.

His preference for Yiddish over Modern Hebrew literature is
based solely on subjective considerations. He likes Yiddish because he grew up speaking it while he never learned Modern Hebrew. I suspect that he reads that

literature in translation. He also judges modern Hebrew writers against
classical Hebrew writers who lived in Spain. He doesn’t judge Yiddish
literature in America he merely says that he likes it.

Hence us judgment on modern Hebrew writers is worthless.

frankgado says:

Bloom and I often drink from the same spring, and yet I cannot overcome the nagging judgment that he is at bottom a magnificent fraud. Peraps the fault lies not with Bloom, whose speculations are gainfully provocative, with with the reverence in which he is held by his admirers. To credit Bloom with being the pioneer in articulating the evangel of Romanticism, as Mikics does, betrays a monstrous ignorance. (Has either Bloom or Mikics ever brushed against the writings of Washington Allston or Richard Henry Dana, the first American intellectual to champion the genius of Shakespeare and rate the bard greater than Pope?) I remember reading The Anxiety of Influence with puzzlement: beneath the gaud in which it is dressed, the thesis is a commonplace, and Bloom makes far too much of it.

And yet … and yet. I am not a Jew, although I am often perceived as one. And like Bloom, I have experienced the evanescence of my first language. I, too, have emerged from an enclave in the environs of NYC. And like Bloom, I have found in literature a sacredness that has served to illuminate my life. If only the man could step out of his vatic pretensions.

Robert Starkand says:

You cared enough to respond. I think I made my overall point that Harold Bloom is not God, but a man with biases, limitations and faults. His “Book of J” is self indulgent but it can lead the reader to read up on the sources of the Bible. It did for me. I highly recommend his “Shakespeare the Invention of the Human”. Bloom’s analyses of the canon are very insightful. I must admit that Bloom’s view of Shakespeare”s genius conforms with mine. But I disagree that watching productions of Shakespeare’s plays have no value. Shakespeare is meant to be performed by flesh and blood people before an audience. It was a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” that hooked me when I was a teenager. It was the Joseph Papp production that was performed by American actors with American accents. I thought the guy was funnier than Neil Simon. But just as important if not more so, the production taught me how to read Shakespeare and led me to a lifetime of entertainment and enlightenment. You can learn a lot by reading Bloom, but do so with a healthy skepticism. His philosophy supports the notion of a superior intellectual ruling class, with a disrespect for the belief of others. Right up there with Plato. Its no surprise that the people of Yale would love that. Its not intellectual inquiry that I object to, I’m all for it. Its the sense of superiority and entitlement that I find so offensive. Intellectual inquiry is useful work, as is farming, building a house or selling a refrigerator, but no more than that. The most brilliant of us cannot do for people what people can do for themselves. All of us should be free to self govern without the heavy hand of a ruling class basing its actions on the theories from the academy. The people of Yale would not appreciate this philosophy. Harold Bloom wouldn’t because there would be no one to worship him. Read Bloom. Learn from Bloom. But see the man in full. I hope you find this post useful about Harold Bloom. If not, its the best I can do.

Jean Bullard says:

Not being one of the literati, I can neither criticize anything in this delightful article, nor anything in the published comments. However, I do teach Bible Study, and it is my conviction that the punishments God wreaked against Adam and Eve, and also against everyone alive but Noah, were meted out when God was still a child, furious when his Lego characters refused to act out the roles he assigned them.

I was NOT writing in support of Marx; I was simply pointing out how much he adulated the capitalist economic systems and society. Marx agreed with you that capitalism was wonderful, but he thought it was the penultimate stage toward human liberation. I most definitely do not, and think that it eats itself and its practicioners alive. Come to India, where I live, and see what a living hell “venture capitalists” like Bain et. al. are creating. Neither the planet nor the traditional and indigenous cultures and religions can stand this constant expansion of material “development.” Man was not meant by his Creator to live for Mammon, nor to spend every single second of his waking life expending the “sweat of his brow.” He was meant for spiritual development, more than anything else, and your neo-liberal economic system is creating a world in which there is literally NO time for such development–only for the material kind, only for concentrating, day in and day out, on making ends meet in the constantly widening, yawning divide between the rich and the poor that your kind of “development” is creating here.

Robert Starkand says:

Oh you want to blame Bain for the poverty in India. Before Bain, there was no poverty in India, but when Bain came to India, took over its political system, its military, its currency, made and enforced Indian law, replaced Indian culture and custom and its wonderful caste system, where a man or woman had time for a spiritual life, then the Indian people suffered. Just wow man. Bain has no power to bring the 40 hour work week to India or any other country. Neither can the US government. You say man is meant for spiritual development. What makes you say that? Just think if you were the only human being in the world. Just you. What would you do? You would have to seek water, food, shelter, protection against the weather, pestilence, predators. Chances are you would get an infection or disease that would kill you before your 18th birthday if not killed by a predator and die a slow and painful death. I just described early pre-historic man. We have evolved societies since then, but the basic needs are still there, and a person is not an adult if he or she does not take care of his or her own needs. That’s a responsibility of the person, and people are not automatically entitled to have their needs satisfied by others. If you wish to reform India, work with the indigenous population to bring change. Start a Tea Party. Demand a homestead act. The subjugation of people existed well before the free market system so you can’t pin suffering on capitalism. However terrible it is where you are in India, because of capitalism, the quality of life around the world has risen over the decades. That’s undeniable. Isn’t it kind of a stretch to blame Romney or any business man for the ills of the world? You really expect businessmen to stop cruelty in other countries? I think that is asking too much. But this is far afield from Harold Bloom so I’m going to stop now.

And Mayor Bloomberg is the Messiah, I suppose.

John says:

I believe they were both joking. Maybe you should holster your Wikiped Six-Shooter, Cowboy.

Jonathan Bragdon Leff says:

What a joke. It isn’t even a human being.

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Harold Bloom Is God

A conversation about literature, Judaism, and the Almighty with the great Yale literary critic