`If we know what knowing oneself means, we seek to feel inventive in the world,' says the scholar of Shakespeare and romantic poetry. `And we all want to be alive beyond belief.'
Harold Bloom is the most read, most controversial and, quite probably, most influential literary critic of the latter half of the 20th century. Born in 1930 in a Yiddish-speaking household in the east Bronx, he knew eight languages as an undergraduate at Cornell University. As a member of Yale's faculty, he built a fearsome reputation on controversial but nonetheless very well-respected and well-received studies of the great romantic poets.
Beginning with his seminal 1973 book The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Bloom formed the basis for an entirely new school of criticism based on his theory bearing the same name. With his 1991 publication of The Book of J (which posits, among other notions, that a woman wrote significant parts of the Bible), he landed on the New York Times best-seller list and secured for himself the title of the country's best-known literary critic.
Although the theory of the anxiety of influence is quite complex and nuanced in its full-throated form, it holds essentially that the development of Western literature is a process of borrowing and misreading. Bloom believes that writers find creative influence in other writers but feel an urge to make their own work as different as possible from that of their precursors. As a result, he argues, authors tend inevitably to misread other authors' works and incorporate these misreadings into their own as they try to create a piece of unprecedented creativity.
Although Bloom has taught mostly Shakespeare for nearly 20 years, he has not written a book entirely about Shakespeare until now. His just-published book Shakespeare: Invention of the Human, released in late October, consists of explanations of each of Shakespeare's 37 plays.
Insight: One component of your theory of the anxiety of influence is that the number of truly creative misreadings of any work become smaller in number as time goes on. Shakespeare has been the most written-about English-language author in history. Does this mean that a study of Shakespeare presents a special challenge for you?
Harold Bloom: No, not really. I've been preparing to do this all of my life. For a long time I wanted to spend most of my time teaching Shakespeare and writing about Shakespeare, but I didn't have the experience or wisdom for it. I didn't start teaching Shakespeare until nearly 20 years ago when I was going on 50.
I guess some of my recent books -- like The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages -- have pretended to be about something else but really were books on Shakespeare. Now three of my four courses are about Shakespeare. I just read Shakespeare day and night and day to prepare for this book. I feel a kind of sadness now that it is in the bookstores. It's over. Now the reviews will come. Some will be good and some will be bad. If reviewers have written about Shakespeare they feel they have to defend themselves against what I have to say and they will write defensive reviews.
Insight: You've said that even what you call the school of resentment, the post-structuralists, neohistoricists, feminists and other avant-garde literary critics, will not succeed in chasing Shakespeare out of the curriculum. Is Shakespeare safe?
HB: They don't get him out of the curriculum, but they try to destroy him -- they try to use the worst possible texts, the texts that have the least aesthetic value. Sure enough, my former student, [avant-garde theorist Stanley] Greenblat, has used the Oxford Edition as the text for the Norton Shakespeare. He and Larry Taylor go out of their way to present the worst possible text of Shakespeare. They care nothing for aesthetics. They really do want people to believe that Thomas Middleton is as good as Shakespeare. …