Friday, April 23, 2021

Harold Bloom on Shakespeare's greatness

The late Harold Bloom was a bardolator without peer, so some have claimed. Whether he was the best I do not know, but bardolator he surely was. He devoted two books to Shakespeare, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and one on Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. I’ve not read them, though I once leafed through the Shakespeare book in a bookstore. But here is a passage from an interview that he gave to the Paris Review (“The Art of Criticism, No. 1”, interviewed by Antonio Weiss) where he talks of Shakespeare:

Western psychology is much more a Shakespearean invention than a Biblical invention, let alone, obviously, a Homeric, or Sophoclean, or even Platonic, never mind a Cartesian or Jungian invention. It’s not just that Shakespeare gives us most of our representations of cognition as such; I’m not so sure he doesn’t largely invent what we think of as cognition. I remember saying something like this to a seminar consisting of professional teachers of Shakespeare and one of them got very indignant and said, You are confusing Shakespeare with God. I don’t see why one shouldn’t, as it were. Most of what we know about how to represent cognition and personality in language was permanently altered by Shakespeare.

That seems to me rather overstated: Shakespeare inventing “what we think of as cognition.” Really.

Bloom goes on:

The principal insight that I’ve had in teaching and writing about Shakespeare is that there isn’t anyone before Shakespeare who actually gives you a representation of characters or human figures speaking out loud, whether to themselves or to others or both, and then brooding out loud, whether to themselves or to others or both, on what they themselves have said. And then, in the course of pondering, undergoing a serious or vital change, they become a different kind of character or personality and even a different kind of mind. We take that utterly for granted in representation. But it doesn’t exist before Shakespeare.

That’s more interesting, that Shakespeare as (perhaps) the first to show us how a person changes themselves. Bloom credits Chaucer as a predecessor, “But Chaucer does it only in fits and starts, and in small degree. Shakespeare does it all the time. It’s his common stock. The ability to do that and to persuade one that this is a natural mode of representation is purely Shakespearean and we are now so contained by it that we can’t see its originality anymore.”

Bloom goes on to tell how he came about this insight into Shakespeare’s originality:

I was teaching King Lear, and I’d reached a moment in the play that has always fascinated me. I suddenly saw what was going on. Edmund is the most remarkable villain in all Shakespeare, a manipulator so strong that he makes Iago seem minor in comparison. Edmund is a sophisticated and sardonic consciousness who can run rings around anyone else on the stage in King Lear. He is so foul that it takes Goneril and Regan, really, to match up to him . . . He’s received his death wound from his brother; he’s lying there on the battlefield. They bring in word that Goneril and Regan are dead—one slew the other and then committed suicide for his sake. Edmund broods out loud and says, quite extraordinarily (it’s all in four words), “Yet Edmund was belov’d.” One looks at those four words totally startled. As soon as he says it, he starts to ponder out loud. What are the implications that, though two monsters of the deep, the two loved me so much that one of them killed the other and then murdered herself. He reasons it out. He says, “The one the other poison’d for my sake / And after slew herself.” And then he suddenly says, “I pant for life,” and then amazingly he says, “Some good I mean to do / despite of mine own nature,” and he suddenly gasps out, having given the order for Lear and Cordelia to be killed, “Send in time,” to stop it. They don’t get there in time. Cordelia’s been murdered. And then Edmund dies. But that’s an astonishing change. It comes about as he hears himself say in real astonishment, “Yet Edmund was belov’d,” and on that basis, he starts to ponder. Had he not said that, he would not have changed. There’s nothing like that in literature before Shakespeare. It makes Freud unnecessary. The representation of inwardness is so absolute and large that we have no parallel to it before then.

I’m not sure in what sense it makes Freud unnecessary. To be sure, there are many who think that Freud was an unscientific fraud, but don’t think Bloom’s thought runs along those lines. He’s got something else in mind, something that seems to collapse the distinction between a theory about the mind and literary presentation of the mind in action. Literary criticism seems to do that sort of thing. Alas.

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