Sunday, May 01, 2005

Harold Bloom as literary criticism's 800-lb. gorilla

I've just begun teaching Hamlet in my Intro. to Lit. class, so when I ran across Harold Bloom's Hamlet: Poem Unlimited (2003) in the Barnes & Noble bargain stacks, I thought, Why not? It's not at all a bad reading of the play, but it's a bit . . . well . . . Well, why don't you just read on a bit, if you care to?
If there's a critic that people outside academe have possibly heard of, it'd have to be Bloom. In the (at least) late autumn of a career that began in the 50's, Bloom is everywhere, it seems, especially since his The Western Canon (1994). And if there's a critic that people IN academe envy, it'd have to be Bloom. You name the sort of critic there is to be/have been, and Bloom is/has been it. That fact is the official reason that those people in the academy who dislike him do so. And when The Western Canon appeared, it must have seemed to many that this champion of deconstructionism, itself a rebuttal of New Criticism, had finally come full circle and begun channelling T. S. Eliot but also going him one better by getting around to actually establishing the Tradition that Eliot seemed to think we'd just sort of "know." No anxiety of influence THERE.
Anyway. Bloom's rep is such that he can do, literally, whatever the hell he pleases as regards his work. Must be nice. But I think that that's the chief problem with his book on Hamlet: he just doesn't have to WORK any more.
In his preface, Bloom says that this book exists because in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human he had gotten so wrapped up with the question of this Hamlet's relation to the famous-but-lost "ur-Hamlet" that Shakespeare is said to have based his play on that he ended up not getting a chance to give us a thorough reading of the play. Fine, I say; Hamlet is certainly worth a close, lengthy study, especially by someone who really DOES seem to have read everything and taught most of it. I should say here that I own his book Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, and I have to say that I can't think of any single book of criticism that I've learned more from--not just about Stevens himself but about the practice of reading itself, so I was very much looking forward to experiencing something similar with this book.
Well. Even setting aside the fact that Bloom is writing for a general audience, this book seems awfully breezy. He does say, interestingly, that Hamlet (the character) is a sort of meta-conscience, that his problem isn't indecision but, rather, he is TOO detached from Elsinore. That makes sense to me; so, I say, let's see some closer discussion of the text. Sadly, though, Bloom seems too detached from the work of a critic here: too often, he quotes a passage (point A) and then leaps ahead to conclusion C without B's hard work of patiently mucking about in the text. His book, in other words, feels more like a lecture than a piece of scholarship.
Again: my complaint is not with his arguments. I'm no Shakespeare scholar, but I've taught Hamlet my fair share of times, so I feel as though I am pretty good at pointing out the heart of its mystery, if not actually plucking it out. Aside from Bloom's idea of Hamlet as a meta-conscience, nothing in his book struck me as being terribly surprising. And THAT's not bad, either. It's just that I was looking forward to seeing a first-rate critic actually do his thing there on the page, and I feel let down when I see that that's not going to happen.
Bloom has earned the right to coast, Lord knows. I was just hoping that he wouldn't do so in this book about this play. He himself says that Hamlet is a demanding text, but he makes his reading of it look as though it had come easily. Personally, I'd have preferred a more hard-won appearance.

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sutrix said...

I remember picking up an annotated version of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass with additional critical essays by a few blokes.

It was an experience perhaps on par with yours regarding Hamlet.

They (those essays) aren't neccessarily bad, but they do the same thing Bloom does: they make the book look too easy. Perhaps it might work well, because those essays are directed at, say, ages 12-16, but they would also leave a very wrong impression of Carroll's book as a whole; diminish it. A bit like Backstreet Boys doing a cover version of a Pink Floyd song.

I can't believe I just said that!

John B. said...

Yes: Bloom makes the play seem easy and--though he doesn't SAY this--what's the matter with us if we don't also see what he sees. So, I don't get the sense of having been taught, of having discovered something about the text right along with the critic. Bloom does have, I think, a pretty high estimation of his audience--allusions (and not just from Shakespeare, or even just from literature) fly by pretty frequently--and/but it may be that precisely because of that high regard, he feels he doesn't have to show us more closely how he's reading the play. If we know the play, in other words, we can connect the dots for ourselves (and, indeed, I found myself doing just that; I never felt as though he was just making stuff up). Again, though, I just felt a bit cheated: when Bloom really engages with a text, he's hard to beat. I (selfishly) hoped he'd do some more of that there on the page.

Anonymous said...

Last Thursday (10/27) I watched Harold Bloom of Yale University being interviewed on the Charlie Rose show on our local PBS station. He was there to promote his new book "Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine".

They were talking rather fast but I tried to take as close to verbatim
notes as possible. My commentary is enclosed in brackets("[ ]") in the text.

[Following some introductory remarks Bloom says he is a self-described agnostic Jew and a gnostic. He talks with a very arrogant demeanor and has a curious tone which seems particular to aging literary academics.]

Bloom: There is a true god very deep within the true rock of the self and the other god is lost within the outer recesses of space somewhere. Yahweh, God, these are names which we give to something which has abdicated and left our universe.

Rose: What's the central thesis?

Bloom: There is a more or less no historical personage Jesus of Nazareth. I say historical because we have no verifiable fact about Him. All quests for the historical Jesus have failed. There is a theological or Hellenistic mystery in a divine God called Jesus Christ
and there is a fundamental augment, it's not possible to make a coherent statement which links these three highly distinct figures: Yahweh, Jehovah, & Jesus. And religion has got it all wrong. We have 7 version of Jesus in the canonical Greek NT. Not one if then is written I believe by someone who could have encountered him, heard him. Not one of them I can give any credence. They could not have known first hand about Him. And I have been reading the accounts first hand
in the Greek for many years.

Rose: Jesus Christ never said, "I am the Son of God?"

Bloom: No, no, that is said by St. Paul and other theologians; that is implied by the Gospel of John. But he never says I am the Son of God. He is a faithful Jew and dies observant to the laws of Moses. As for Yahweh He is a story completely unto Himself.

[Bloom is taking a typical Jesus Seminar position. Using modern historical standards they can't make an irrefutable case for Christ's existence but using the same standard you must throw out most of what we know about antiquity! So they are selective in whom they deem as unhistorical and this is intellectually and historically dishonest. In Bloom's mind there is the world of the OT with the mysterious Yahweh and the world of Christ and the NT and never the twain shall meet except in an artificial sense imposed by man. What rubbish.]

Bloom: Roman emperor Constantine enforced Christianity by the sword. It was useful to him. However I cant deny that the notion that a single individual who has died for ones sins has not made a very great appeal to many. We have an American Jesus and an American, pentecostal, Holy Spirit which has not much to do with European Christians and their view of Jesus.

[Certainly there are cultural, regional, historical and even regional/nationalistic factors which color how a given country will on the majority interpret Scripture and what theology they follow but to compare America and Europe which both have a great diversity of belief in terms of Christian thought, faith and practice is rather simplistic. Further he is trying to assert there exists some sort of fundamental disconnect between our two views of Scripture. For all of his degrees he is showing an alarming ignorance of Church history and theology. While we have our differences a European Protesant or Catholic is not that different from an American Protestant or Catholic in terms of their core theological beliefs and even in terms of practices.]

Bloom: There is a distinct American religion and we would not have the tyranny of George W. Bush without it.

[Ad hominem attack on Bush. This had nothing to do with the discussion. Bloom can't contain his animoisty for President Bush. If he wants to see true tyrrany let him live in North Korea or Iran as someone whose beliefs are at odds with the dictatorships in power.]

Bloom. I'm an increasingly frightened mad, at 75 I find myself living in a theocracy. The state of Texas just announced it's a Christian state in a Christian country. The governor announced he wants the state to declare this.

[Rose politely objects to this and seems a bit surprised at Bloom's bold assertion. Again if he wants to experience a true theocracy let him live in Iran, Saudi Arabia or pre-liberation Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled.]

Bloom: Think of how far we've come in the last 5 years, and what might come. I have a nightmare it's January 2009 and Geb Bush is standing on the platform.

[A rather silly statement. I suppose if it was Hillary Clinton Bloom would not be in such a state of panic and apoplexy!]

Rose: A lot of people share your concerns about violations of the separation between church and state; that the line is being blurred.

Bloom: Blurred is putting it lightly.

[Again Bloom over states and distorts the reality. The Constitution as written by the Founders does not establish nor did the Founders in their private and public works articulate they desired an absolute divorce of faith from the public life of the republic. Many had escaped religious persecution in Europe and they did not want to trade in the tyrrany of an English king for that of an American theocrat.]

Bloom: American Christianity, I repeat, has very little in common with European or traditional Christianity. In the last few centuries it has exfoliated. Hamlet, Kirkegaard and Kafka are all deeply influenced by the Jesus of the gospel of Mark.

[More wild assertion by Bloom. He is really out of touch with reality.]

Rose: You find Jesus fascinating?

Bloom: The Jesus of the Gospel of Mark is a man always in a hurry. He's always in a crowd. He's driven. He doesn't know who He is, He alway asks His apostles, "Who do people say I am?" He is an immensely moving figure. Then on the last day He is swept away by what happens to Him.

[A rather weak attempt to portray Christ as a one with an identity crisis. Bloom views Christ as a tragic literary figure who espouses a philosophy that gets him killed. In Bloom's view Christ had no knowledge of what was to happen to Him.]

Bloom: He's an enigma of enigmas. He's only in dark sayings, He speaks in riddles and parables. He's uncertain as to His own identity and what His relationship is to God. He's isolated. John clearly sees him as a supernatural figure, a violently combative figure, someone sure of His relationship to God. He's someone totally unfamiliar to the Gospel of Mark, and as a literary figure one much more unappealing I must say.

Bloom: All relationships between secular and sacred state are ultimately political. They are all literary figures.

[What arrogance! To make such an absolute generalization reveals much of Bloom's mind.]

Rose: You mean Jesus, Mohammed?

Bloom: We encounter them in written texts, as a Hamlet for example.

[So Christ is no different from Hamlet or Ebeneezer Scrooge in Bloom's view. It should be noted that Bloom is regarded as an expert on Shakespeare.]

Rose: As historical figures?

Bloom: No.

Rose: As theological figures?

Bloom: No, we have very little historical information. So we can define them only as literary. It has conversionary power, it gives a great deal in return for very little.

[Bloom has just thrown out most of recorded history. The NT source manuscripts have a greater number than for any other document in antiquity. Further there are archaeological sites and even non-Biblical writings of antiquity which affirm the events of Scripture.]

Bloom: Ultimately Yahweh is a more fascinating literary figure than Jesus. Just as King Lear is more fascinating to me than even Hamlet. Because of the significant range of human emotion seems to point to the outer limits of human imagination. Yahweh is greatly diminished into something called God the Father. Christianity tells us that God the Father by making Himself in some complex way one with His Son, sacrifices Himself and commits suicide. This is inconceivable to me
and also to Muslims. And it goes against traditional monotheistic belief such as Judaism and Islam. As Christianity is practiced today it is essentially polytheistic. We have the Son of God, we have God the Father and that fascinating figure the Holy Spirit for which there
is very little NT evidence. But in the US [it] has gained prominence, pentecostalism is the fastest growing faith, the Christian Right has so compromised traditional Christianity.

[Sigh. This is such a mess. So many ridiculous unsubstantiated assertions. The hubris is overwhelming.]

Bloom: When bush says Christ is his favorite philosopher it is an affront to me.

[Bloom's obsession with Bush surfaces again. I don't know why Bloom would take such offence to this since he is not a Christian nor even a philosopher though I'm sure he fancies himself as a preeminent expert on both domains judging from his earlier statements.]

Rose: You've said that Shakespeare is more important than Jesus haven't you?

[Bloom does not answer the question.]

Bloom: Charlie I think that it's positively astonishing that what we like to think our are own deepest emotions were initially Shakespeare's thoughts and there is no other writer who can say that about.

[Hmm. Talk about going off on a tangent!]

Bloom said that Walt Whitman, though not a believer, had much in common with the Jesus of Mark: "forlorn, solitary, splendidly isolated in his own thoughts."

To close the interview he talked about in his view the theories being put forth that Shakespeare did not write his works is rubbish. And he said every year he gets writings from some British Shakespeare society which try to convince him that anyone except Shakespeare is the true author. Bloom said some even have suggested that all of Lewis Carroll's works were written by Queen Victoria.

Bloom's disgust for Christianity in particular, and regligion in genral is so palpable and visceral he can't disguise it. For all of his elocution and vast education he is a pompous fool. For a fool says in his heart that there is no God. It is the glib arrogance and condescending disdain he heaps upon Christians and President Bush which is the most offensive. I suppose Bloom can be Exhibit A to highlight the decline of our universities. Yale and Harvard were founded as Christian institutions and now unless one is an atheist, politically liberal, who affirms evolution they are ridiculed and laughed off campus. Bloom shows vast ignorance and everything he sees in the Bible is colored by a humanistic anti-supernatural set of presuppositions. I was not impressed at all by him.

Soli Deo Gloria

Anonymous said...

You're comments in brackets are ridiculously bad.