Last Acts: The Swan Songs of Harold Bloom and Philip Roth
In the final phase of his literary life, Harold Bloom, like Philip Roth, refuses to relinquish his vitality
The great Jewish thinkers, poets, novelists, and critics of the second half of the 20th century are—at least they tell us so—dying, and if we are loath to believe them, it must have something to do with how many last rounds these guys manage to put on the Reaper’s tab. Turning last last acts into marathons, they write as though, by drawing it all out, one might, in the end, foil the End.
When Tony Judt—NYU eminence, mordant historian of 20th-century Europe, essayist, polemicist, and bête noire of Bibi-lovers—died earlier this year, and died young at only 62, those readers anticipating the next installment of Judt’s swan song in the New York Review of Books had a right to feel a correction was in order. The Lou Gehrig’s disease that was so terribly locking Judt’s body down had also loosed from his pen the tender story of an East End Augie March, a young south London teenager whose travels though socialist Zionism and Oxbridge anti-Semitism kept unearthing ever newer and fresher troves of insight until, suddenly, they, stopped. It was an especially gutsy game of chicken with death Judt played, as he marshalled the power of his own writing to condense and sustain his life. By immersing himself, and us, in this great river of final words, Judt the polemicist and sophisticate seemed to rinse himself down to his own immaculate soul, to present himself as he really was: boy, pupil, mensch, Jew, as if the urbane New York Review of Books was his own makeshift mikveh.
There is a pattern in the way our 20th-century lions are doing their last acts, some getting a jump on death, beginning early; some doing it often, replaying death again and again. Who ever imagined when Philip Roth began killing off his alter egos around 25 years ago that he’d still be at it today? Who’d have thought Nathan Zuckerman and his compeers would still be dying in so many interesting works, and not just dying but emerging from each death refreshed and more classic of mien?
This spring at YIVO, at the Center for Jewish History in New York, I heard Roth read what he described as his favorite section from his last book, Nemesis. This is the section in which Bucky Cantor, playground cynosure and diving-board god, teaches his young admiring charges to throw the javelin. In this passage, and in the book overall, the narrative voice is cleaned of all experience, all knowingness, all irony. Bucky’s beautiful quintessentially American vitality is instead delivered through the voice of one who—even though he’s actually seen the hero brought down, shamed, crippled, and embittered—still tells Bucky’s story as if it might come out differently. In his muscled youthful beauty, in his earnestness, in his civic probity and sweet, gentlemanly sexuality, Bucky stands for that American innocence and pluck that thinks—and for no good reason—that it can beat its nemesis. The gee-whiz 1950s ingenuousness of the narrator’s voice is only, Roth demonstrates, a more extreme version of every reader’s own. An author may begin, as Roth did, as far back as the 1980s, to drop the curtain on our striving, horny, earnest Buckys and Zuckys; he may tell us in titles, in book jackets, 10 miles high and in primary colors, year after year, of the nemesis that visits every man. We are dying animals, Roth shouts: All our complaints, all our indignations are, in the end, so much diddling puppetry. Yet no matter how many times it happens, death is always a surprise ending. Whether that nemesis comes on a Korea battlefield or in a pool swimming with polio, whether it comes via heart disease or long-gone Mr. Portnoy’s crash on the New Jersey Turnpike, the only thing more immortal than death is our denial of it. Which also happens to be the grounding of all art.
Whatever one thinks of Harold Bloom’s latest book as a work of literary criticism, it is one of our most robust examples of the swan song as victory lap, high fives all around. Bloom may call The Anatomy of Influence his summa, may regard this book as his capstone address to the “loneliness, fear and dying” that comprise our human condition. But in fact, Bloom’s final address to the abyss is, like Roth’s many Zuckerman tales, the very same one he began in 1973. The Anatomy of Influence is the Anxiety of Influence—minus the anxiety part, and with all the edge filed off the old fear. Not even Bloom could be expected to muster much mortal angst amid so teeming a visionary company as his Anatomy convenes.
Back in the day, of course, the fire-eating critic of the Yale School’s heyday had been finality’s champion. Never one to settle for Keats’ easeful death, Bloom had preferred his deaths more dialectical and their results more zero sum. Bloom’s heroes were Oedipally girded literati who scorched earth, superseding forebears with their great originality and proving themselves in feats of Agon. In Bloom’s earlier work, a poet really had to fall upon the thorns of life and bleed for his immortality. And his critic too, had better come armed for bear.
Albert Camus, who died an atheist at 46, had surprisingly deep ties to Judaism in his life, his political activity, and his philosophical thought