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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

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Still Life With Fish & Orange Slices from the series Vanitas. (Justine Reyes)

Bloom’s literary training explains at least some of his extremism. Given his grounding in English and then American Romanticism, given his lifelong wanderings through some of the more glimmering corridors of Jewish mystical thought, and—not least—given his lifelong passion for Shakespearean tragedy, it is natural he should have offered a theory of poetic achievement rife with titanic clashes, with sundry struggles to the death and magnificent wrestling matches. Jacob and Yahweh! Sophocles and Freud! In this corner, the biblical author, J; in that corner, the Elohist! Is Stevens strong as Emerson? Will Blake vanquish Milton? Such were the questions settled on Bloom’s dynamic, glorious battlefield of literary inheritance.

All the more interesting, then, that Bloom’s most recently issued version of his theory not only excises the “anxiety” from his own earlier title and also the “melancholy” from Burton’s (whose Anatomy of Melancholy he names an inspiration), but in this late work Bloom clearly lets the more equable and latitudinarian influence of his own teacher Northrop Frye (author of The Anatomy of Criticism) influence him. The process of poetic transmission that once resembled gladiatorial combat works in Bloom’s writing, as it once worked in Frye’s, by a much more forgiving and even golden set of rules.

Frye had allowed that the highest, the deepest, the biggest forms might have been tragic drama and Christian allegory: forms in which death called the shots. But one could have been forgiven for not thinking of these too much, distracted by the vast and idiosyncratic literary history Frye elaborated: his great garrulous city of themes and types and modes and myths, of genres and theories and legends and lore, of comedies and tragedies, of biology and teleology and anthropology and of mimesis high and mimesis low and every flavor of mimesis between. Every chapter of Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism was dotted with new coinages in italics, and, in theory anyway (and this was Theory, after all, that Frye ushered in), the pieces were all interlockable, assemblable and reassemblable, like Lego. One never knew whether Frye was right, but he was very fun to play.

Harold Bloom was not fun to play, and now he is, despite the fact that it’s still the same “death, fear and loneliness” on the board. Under Frye’s influence, in the Anatomy of Influence, the once ferocious scene of Agon, or intense intellectual and psychic struggle, now has much more the feel of a meet-and-greet, a great big party with an open bar, more alumni mixer or Reform bar mitzvah than cosmic contest. Imagine, say, that the once severe and exclusive canon had been thrown open to the full list of 761 (and counting) writers Bloom has, over the last 25 years, treated in the Chelsea House Modern Critical Views and Modern Critical Interpretations series he edits. And thrown open too—why not?—to their wives and partners, old students and old friends, dead poets and living poets and to the strangers too. Everyone is there milling around with their drinks, winning friends and—well, we might say, influencing people.

What a scene! Subtract Agon, make mortality your E-ZPass and not your punishment, and something magical happens. Artists once extolled for being fiercely singular and individual can show their softer side, exposing affinities and swapping resemblances no one ever recognized. Yes, Hart Crane, that poet of “memorable pain,” may once have contended mightily with Shelley, “a Lucretian poet of pleasures so difficult they seem painful to most humans.” And yes, D.H. Lawrence may at this late date look to be “fighting free” of Whitman. But in the same way that Gershom Scholem had handily settled the latter contretemps by pronouncing Whitman a “Lawrentian kabbalist” (freeing Bloom himself to pronounce Lawrence’s “New Heaven and Earth” the “best Whitman Walt never composed”); and in the same way that Isaac Babel, and Kafka, have shown us how much better off we’d have been with a “Yiddisher Satan”: In just this fashion, why shouldn’t Shelley and Browning, and, for that matter, the “fiercely extreme” Emerson and Coleridge, split their differences too? Not only Bloom, but his great friend David Bromwich, and even Bart Giammatti (“late friend, president of Yale and commissioner of baseball”), think Emerson and Coleridge should, at this point, take one for the team. After all, no one, not even Shakespeare, is above learning something new from a strong precursor.

In the end, the atmosphere of the Anatomy of Influence is so chill that you’ll find Amy Clampitt angling to get a few words in with Shakespeare. No reason to think she wouldn’t succeed but for how the Bard’s a bit busy, having been tapped to help Harold with retirement planning, a matter that, broached in the introduction to the Anatomy sets the book on a warm, life-affirming course. One might want to ask whether strong poets, agonists, really do retirement planning? The answer is, it turns out, that when given the chance, yes they do. And as for rigor: whatever. One has to like it when talents monumental and less monumental, James Joyce and Anthony Burgess, for instance, join forces in one volume to weigh in on the implicit question of what they’d have done with lifetime tenure at Yale (great students, great dental).

To all such questions let us say: Ad Meah V’Esrim! May you prove, Harold Bloom, like Bucky on his diving board, like Tony in his column, deathless, encore after encore. May your last act last and last.

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Avi Bernstein says:

What a time for our literary prophet of doom and gloom to become infused with irrepressible American optimism. Global economic catastrophe looms; hopes for peace in the Middle East are dim; Obama has shown that even an Ivy League liberal will quickly become captive to the belt-way world; But at least our prophet of sobriety is finally happy! I’m not sure whether this is the enlargement of a perspective or its collapse. In any case, thanks Lisa. You seem as happy as him!

Verificationist says:

It’s Elisa, Vi.

Such a well written piece. And serendipitous for me — I read Bloom’s Paris Review interview from 1991 this very morning.

It’s striking that so many writers pass from the fire and brimstone and solipsism of obsessing about formal innovation, or outdoing their masters, or sex, or… or… to settled plain-spokenness, storytelling, unabashed transmissions from the heart. Roth, Bloom, Franzen. Finally, they have only their readers to impress. How generous, at last. Would the rest of American novelism catch up, because the people are waiting, and it’s kind of an important time. As Avi so eloquently pointed out.

OMG, yawn. Big and fat and full of himself galore, and an expert of everything. Give it a rest, a long one.

a bracing, witty, and thoroughly enjoyable romp. let death be your ezpass! bravo.

This is the right blog for anyone who desires to find out about this topic. You understand a lot its nearly laborious to argue with you (not that I actually would need…HaHa). You undoubtedly put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Great stuff, simply great!

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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

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