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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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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.

Being a Jew becomes for Bloom an emblem of the lone self, brooding powerfully over its status as wanderer and outcast.

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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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

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