Harold Bloom Is God
A conversation about literature, Judaism, and the Almighty with the great Yale literary critic
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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