Top signs that Bloomsday is upon us

A couple of weeks ago I linked to an interview with Harold Bloom and put up a quotation of his at the top of the page, but that should not be construed as an unconditional endorsement. In general I feel that he has had a salutary effect on literary teaching and criticism, at least in his ostensible aims if not in his style. He claims to be pushing against overt ideology and political correctness in the humanities, which is of course not true to the extent that everyone works out of and expresses an ideology in their work (the post-modernists have taught us that much). But at least Bloom’s brand of ideology seems more oriented towards addressing the elements of literature that are unique and special, or at least distinguish them from nakedly theoretical tracts. This is my main quarrel with applying gender, Marxist, post-colonial et al. theories to literature. It’s not so much that I disagree with their premises (though I often do), it’s that looking at works of literature as primarily economic or racial or genderal signifiars doesn’t yield insights that are basically any different than the conclusions to be found by studying an inheritance or the tax code, and it certainly doesn’t explain why works by Shakespeare or Cervantes are still considered central in a way that 16th century census records aren’t. Those even goes for new theoretical currents like the new trendy literary Darwinism. Generally speaking I find new-Darwinism and evolutionary psychology rather compelling, but again, not only are the things one finds by studying Pride and Prejudice through this lens not much different than the insights one gains by studying fruit flies, the exercise in facts seems generally consist of somewhat mindlessly applying the results of those behavioral studies to the literary work in question. I’m not saying the conclusions in either case are invalid, but from a scientific standpoint fruit flies are much more conducive to experimental research than 19th century novels, so what’s the point of literature?

Which brings us back to Bloom. He presents literature in a way that makes a pretty convincing case that what one can discover in Shakespeare or the other great authors is largely unique to them. Whether it is still of any use to us is another question, but literature stands a greater chance of surviving from this perspective than by providing auxiliary illustration of animal behavioral principles, much less discredited Freudian or Marxist nonsense. That said, Bloom projects the weird impression of not having a center, which is strange in a man who once wrote a book called The Western Canon. It’s very inspiring to hear him talk about the importance of gaining wisdom from the books one reads, or of least of remembering that it is the most important thing we can gain from literature (which it is from the eternal point of view, although like most academic critics he underestimates the value of entertainment for us down here on earth), but he doesn’t seem to have anything to say as to what he means by wisdom. Certainly not much in the way of ideas or approach unites all the authors he’s roped together other than being “classic,” and one almost gets the dispiriting impression that for him it is merely their acceptance as classics that ultimately guarantees their status as wise. Partly I suppose simply because it is hard for me to imagine someone believing Montaigne and Descartes, or Samuel Johnson and the writers of the Kabbalah, as all being wise, or at least in the same way. I’m not suggesting that there should be an explicit doctrine of wisdom, it couldn’t be further from the case, but even taking into account that freedom from doctrine or theory is at least partly what he seems to mean by wisdom, there doesn’t seem to be anything very directed in his criticism except loathing for those uncouth academic barbarians who he feels have desecrated pure aesthetic culture. He certainly doesn’t philosophize with a hammer. And speaking of Nietzsche, although Bloom quotes him a lot, you can bet that you won’t find him quoting this passage from On The Genealogy of Morals, which I can’t help but think of when reading Bloom:

“As for that other type of historian, an even more ‘modern’ type perhaps, a hedonist and voluptuary who flirts both with life and with the ascetic ideal, who employs the word ‘artist’ as a glove and has taken sole lease of the praise of contemplation: oh how these sweetish and clever fellows make one long even for ascetics and winter landscapes…I know of nothing that excites such disgust as this kind of ‘objective’ armchair scholar, this kind of scented voluptuary of history, half person, half satyr, perfume by Renan, who betrays immediately with the high falsetto of his applause what he lacks, where he lacks it, where in this case the Fates have applied their cruel shears with, alas, such surgical skill!…why did nature give me my foot?…for kicking to pieces these rotten armchairs, this cowardly contemplativeness, this lascivious historical eunuchism, this flirting with ascetic ideals, this justice-tartuffery of impotence!”

p.s. In classical post-modernist fashion, when pressed for clarity he tosses off some enigmatic quotes by Kafka, and it’s no surprise that he completely misreads Kafka as passing on to us a weary, resigned shrug rather than recognizing the energy of the introvertedly explosive comedian that he was. His gallows-humor was like Villon’s, although much more subtle.

p.p.s. It’s pretty broad irony, I know, but how about this: “Everyone is now much more concerned with gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, skin pigmentation, and twenty other irrelevancies, whereas I am talking about what I have never talked about before, and that is wisdom…I teach my clases at Yale and what cheers me up are my Asian American students – about half of the students who take my clases are Asian Americans…If this country has a future, it will be because of the new immigrants, the Asians, the Africans, the Hispanics.”

Leave a Reply

If your comment doesn't appear right away, it was probably eaten by our spam-killing bot. If your comment was not, in fact, spam (and if you're actually reading this, it probably wasn't), please send me an email and I'll try to extricate your comment from our electronic spam purgatory.