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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)

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.

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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