Harold Bloom Is God
A conversation about literature, Judaism, and the Almighty with the great Yale literary critic
Bloom went on from Cornell to graduate school at Yale, which at the time was home to a thread of anti-Semitism. “They were all down on their knees blessing the vicar of neo-Christianity, T.S. Eliot,” Bloom shuddered, as he recalled the Yale professors, “a sort of Eliotic nightmare. But you know, a young fellow, still a rough yiddishe boy from the Bronx, and a proletarian too, arriving at the Yale English Department in the autumn of 1951, was not exactly what they wanted, and I certainly didn’t want them.” But Bloom found a few outstanding teachers, especially Frederick Pottle, the brilliant Shelley scholar, who proved instrumental in Bloom’s hiring at Yale. “Pottle forced my appointment as a faculty instructor on his colleagues who didn’t want me, and they tried to get rid of me constantly, for the next seven years,” Bloom remembered. Bloom was finally tenured, in a reportedly very close vote; it was rumored that, during the deliberations, the charge of anti-Semitism was leveled against certain committee members.
In the mid-1960s, Bloom lived through a cataclysmic midlife crisis. For months, he was stricken with insomnia and unable to read. What saved him, when he could read again, was Emerson, the inescapable American Romantic thinker. Emerson is the apostle of the self that, no matter how severe the blows of fate it suffers, returns to its own light and recovers its strength. The pessimistic angel with whom Emerson competes for Bloom’s soul is Sigmund Freud, the 20th century’s far darker believer in fundamentally ironic lives: We do not—we cannot—know the truth about what we’re doing, Freud insists. Whether we are daring or cautious in our loves, these loves cannot sufficiently transform us. Every bout of eros leads us back to the parents whom we first struggled with, and who always win the battle. From this point on, Bloom became locked between Freud and Emerson in agonized, fruitful tension.
Bloom’s midlife crisis was followed by his most famous book, The Anxiety of Influence, which he wrote in a few days in the summer of 1967. The book is dense, dark, and rather infested with homemade jargon, but it shines with Bloom’s new discovery: that writers, when they create new work, always misread their precursors. In order to be original, to become who they are, they find themselves compelled to deny their literary ancestors’ true significance. The insight is a Freudian one, as Bloom knew: Earlier authors are like the parents that their children must falsify and rebel against.
The original parent, of course, is the Jewish God, who for Bloom is the strangest and most absolute literary character of them all. This God—turbulent, impatient, demanding—comes too close to the self, and such intimacy is dangerous. God nearly murders Moses and asks for the life of Abraham’s beloved Isaac as well. Later Jewish tradition retreated from the sublimely unpredictable God of Genesis and Exodus when it invented a law-abiding, compassionate deity, but the earlier vision, in its unrivaled potency, remains more memorable. The earliest strand of the Bible has at its center a God of uncanny strength, an astounding, and potentially lethal, personality, and Bloom remains magnetically drawn to this provoking, more-than-human figure.
In The Book of J, Bloom’s first foray into biblical criticism, published in 1990, he dropped a bombshell. He speculated—no, he asserted—that the first author of the Hebrew Bible, known by scholars as the J writer, was a learned woman at the court of King Solomon. It was a spectacular, and utterly ungrounded, fantasy, but it propelled Bloom’s Book of J onto the best-seller list.
Behind the strict superego that Moses called down on his stiff-necked Israelites is a far weirder deity, Bloom suggested, less a reality principle than a fantastic imaginative power. In The Book of J, the biblical scholar and critic Herbert Marks told me, Bloom sees the Jewish God as “a willful urchin,” in a way that is “at once demystified and magically compelling. No previous interpreter, religious or secular, ever caught that note. It took Bloom’s unique combination of sensitivity and chutzpah,” Marks concluded, to remake our sense of the Bible in this daring, cheeky manner. Bloom may not be the most scholarly reader of the Tanakh, but he is one of the most deeply, even shockingly, intuitive.
Bloom approaches all books the way he approaches the Bible: He likes to burrow rapidly through the words on the page, because he needs to find the stance of the soul that speaks the words. David Bromwich, who studied with Bloom in the 1970s and is now a vital critic in his own right, remembered that when Bloom taught a poem, he liked to get inside it the way an actor gets inside a role. (I remembered him this way, too.) Bloom would arrive to class 10 or 20 minutes early and then sit chatting with students and feverishly turning the pages of whatever book they were to discuss that day, Ruskin or Ashbery or Oscar Wilde. He reminded one friend of Paddington Bear; others noticed a resemblance to Zero Mostel or Alastair Sim. When Bloom taught, he rhapsodized; when we interrupted his touching and often funny monologues, he always knew right away what we meant and never broke his verbal stride. In his well-worn longshoreman’s sweater, clutching his chest with one hand, sparse hair flying, he found hidden places in the text, imaginative secrets he had been brooding over, it seemed, for years. Emerson instructs us to “read for the lustres,” and Bloom did just that.
Bloom has taught in Israel, though not for many years. He told me that, when he lectured in Jerusalem in 1960, he kicked a 44-year-old Moshe Dayan out of his class. (Dayan, instead of paying attention, was flirting with a girl.) He esteems Israeli writers, especially David Grossman. But his truer love is for Yiddish rather than Hebrew literature. “The first literature I really appreciated was Yiddish literature,” Bloom said. “The first secular poets I really cared for were Moishe Leib Halpern, Yankev Glatshteyn, Mani Leib, H. Leivick.” Halpern, he said, was “the best of them; the Yiddish Baudelaire, as he was called.” As Yiddish culture waned, Bloom came to praise the works of Jews writing in English, especially Philip Roth, whom he has called our greatest living novelist. He seems particularly moved by Roth’s rebellious creativity, so passionate in its scorn for all that is wholesome and acceptable, including mainstream Judaism. Yet Roth, too, is unalterably Jewish. Being a Jew, a fact so hard to describe, so hidden and so crucial, becomes for Bloom an emblem of the lone self, brooding powerfully over its status as wanderer and outcast—and warring against all conventions, all the false promises that society makes.
Some of Bloom’s finest reflections have been on the loneliness of literary heroes, who he believes have something to tell us about our own loneliness. It is solitary reading alone that can save us; so Bloom announces. Solitude isolates us, but it also opens us up. In a recent book, The Anatomy of Influence, Bloom turns to a series of texts about remarkable loners: the gospel of Mark (with its Jewish hero); Don Quixote; Hamlet. Bloom invokes “Mark’s amazingly enigmatic Jesus, who is unsure who he is and keeps asking his thick-headed disciples, ‘But who or what do people say I am?’ Don Quixote in contrast says he knows exactly who and what he is and who he may be if he chooses.” Bloom adds that Hamlet doesn’t want to know who he is (does he fear he might be Claudius’ son?) and knows what he doesn’t want to be (a stage avenger drenched in blood).
So the mind races: We suddenly compare Mark’s Jesus to Quixote to Hamlet. Bloom’s rapid-fire illuminations take us from Romanticism to religion and back again. The critic has rescued us from drab, conventional existence. The fame- and money-centered dreams we think will satisfy us; the complacent trust in worldly status; the institutional solidarity of trend-spotting professors: All this finds its antidote in Bloom’s restless, abundant habits of reading. Bloom’s continued relevance is that he is still our most inspirational critic, still the man who can enlighten us by telling us to read as if our lives depended on it: Because, he insists, they do.
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