Wednesday, October 30, 2019

In the case of Harold Bloom [overrated/underrated]

I haven’t really followed reactions to the death of Harold Bloom, who was for the last few decades, after all, perhaps the most widely known literary critic outside the academy. But I’ve read a few things, all of them admiring and even adulatory. That’s what I’d expect from, say, a NYTimes obit. But I’ve also read such reactions from critics who, I thought, would have known better. I am thinking, for example, of this piece by William Flesch in n+1, who had studied with Bloom.

And THAT explains something. I have little doubt that he was a charismatic teacher, in his own style. He had a prodigious memory. He seems to have read damn near everything, or at any rate, quite a bit, and could and did quote it all. That is impressive – I saw, and admired, a somewhat different version of it in Dick Macksey. Macksey, however, published relatively little, though that little includes being co-editor of The Structuralist Controversy (1970), one of the most important books in academic literary criticism in the last half century. Bloom published a lot, I mean a whole freakin’ lot. Some of it academic, most of it not.

I don’t know how that will shake-out over the next few decades. I suppose The Anxiety of Influence (1973) is his best known academic book, known, of course, within the academy. I read it not so long after it came about and, though it certainly wasn’t my cup of tea, I found it rather interesting. I even mentioned it in a letter to Dick Macksey, saying I thought we needed more or this kind of criticism. But I’ve now all but forgotten the book and have scarcely an idea whether or not Bloom himself, much less anyone else, has written more of that. And, oh yes, the arcane terminology! Did any of those terms catch on? But I don’t think that book and its sequels and companions will support much of an enduring reputation within the academy. The world is changing.

Many years later I read, more or less on a whim, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (1992), where he talked about camp meetings attended by both blacks and whites  who would, on the last day, join together in song and praise. I found that very interesting indeed and cited it in an article I wrote on the enduring influence of African-American music in American culture, Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues (1997). That book, for what it’s worth, struck me as riding the fence between academic and general audience – a good fence to ride. Beyond that, I’m sure I read a review or two of his book on the Western canon, perhaps even leafed through it in the library, the same for his Shakespeare book (read pages here and there while standing in a bookstore), and this and that here and there. But I made no attempt to follow his work.

Has he made an important contribution to public discussions of literature? Perhaps he has, but I’m not the one to ask. Will that contribution endure? As I said, I’m not the one to ask, but, really, can anyone say at this point? Perhaps his most enduring legacy will be through his students, and their students, even when the name “Harold Bloom” has been forgotten.

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Addendum: 11.31.19:  In going through my notes I found a remark that one Lenard Davis made in an article, "Edward Said's Battle for Humanism", published in The Minnesota Review (though I didn’t retain the citation):
His model of knowledge was not the Deleuzian notion of impersonalized rhizomatic knowledge, nor so much Foucault's anonymous discursity, but a pantheon of great human minds, each replete with a colorful and engaging personality. As Said put it, “the relationship between reader-critic and the text is transformed from a one-way interrogation of the historical text by an altogether alien mind at a much later time, into a sympathetic dialogue of two spirits across ages and cultures who are able to communicate with each other as friendly, respectful spirits trying to understand each other” (16). Humanism is a long conversation between reader and author about the fate of the world.
That sounds like how Bloom conceived of himself and his role. Such a view is an outcome of a critical culture that places great emphasis and pressure on the encounter between the critic and the text, as though the library were the critic’s personal preserve to be used for his purposes, whatever they might be. The encounter may be taken as an opportunity for brilliant intellectual display, personal soul searching, or reflecting on the possibilities of human liberation from oppression, but however taken, it’s a very personal and individualistic modus operandi.

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Note: Overrated/underrated is an intellectual game invented, so far as I know, by Tyler Cowen. It shows up in the second half of his many "Conversations with Tyler."

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