Bloomin' Genius

By Epstein, Joseph | The Hudson Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Bloomin' Genius

Epstein, Joseph, The Hudson Review

Harold Bloom, the Yale professor and literary critic, has been on a helluva roll. His last two major books, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, have both been bestsellers-unusual in itself for works of such high intellectual pretension-and when the latter came out, in a thickish paperback edition, its publisher saw fit to send out a vast number of copies in its own special floor display, ii la John Grisham or Danielle Steel. Bloom has won a MacArthur Fellowship, better known as a genius grant or a Big Mac; been chosen to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard; been awarded the gold medal for criticism of the American Academy of Arts & Letters, of which he is himself a member. Michael Dirda, in the Washington Post, called Harold Bloom one of the three most important literary critics writing in English in the twentieth century: the other two being the Cambridge don F. R. Leavis and the American man-of-letters Edmund Wilson.

Harold Bloom's success is of a peculiarly American kind and yet not easily fathomed. As a critic, he is not all that accessible and is capable of producing sentences, paragraphs, lengthy stretches that are quite incomprehensible. ("Like Thoreau, Whitman has a touch of the Bhagavad-Gita, but the Hindu vision is mediated by Western hermeticism, with its Neoplatonic and Gnostic elements." Yeah, sure, as the kids say, right!) He claims to be of the school of aesthetic critics, remarking that, in an ideological age, "I feel quite alone these days in defending the autonomy of the aesthetic." Yet he himself doesn't seem to have a clue about how to produce anything approaching the aesthetically pleasing in his own writing. In an interview in the Paris Review, he declared that he never revises his prose, and nothing in his work refutes this impressive claim. Any critic ready to avail himself of such gargoylesque words as "psychokabbalistic" and "pneumognostic," who can refer to a passage in Montaigne as an "apotropaic talisman," and can write about the cosmos having been "reperspectivized by Tolstoy," may be many things, but he ain't no aesthete.

Nor does Bloom, in his writing, project an attractive, let alone a seductive, character. He is the type not of the charmingly nutty but of the exhaustingly garrulous professor. His writing displays all the symptoms of an advanced case of Professor's Disease-- dreaded PD-and to the highest power. Such is Bloom's loquacity that he discovered himself, in the midst of his own psychoanalysis, "paying him [his own analyst] to give him lectures several times a week on the proper way to read Freud."

Bloom writes like a man accustomed to speaking to his inferiors-to students, that is, a captive audience beholden to him for grades and promotion. To them he may lay down the law, brook no argument, take great pleasure in his own performance, be utterly unworried about someone coughing politely and saying, "Excuse me, pal, but what you just said seems to me a bunch of bullshit!" One has the sense that everything Bloom writes he has probably said before, scores, perhaps hundreds of times, to students; it all comes out of that great booming Bloombox, the academic equivalent of a great Boombox, but this one with no Off switch and no control whatsoever over the volume.

Harold Bloom resembles no one so much as Zero Mostel, with something of the same physique and verbal mania but none of the amusing punchlines. Such laughs as are to be found in Bloom are all unconsciously created on his part. In The Western Canon, he reports that whenever he re-reads Bleak House he cries whenever Esther Summerson does, "and I don't think I'm being sentimental." In the same book he also reports that he uses the poems of Walt Whitman to assuage grief. "I remember one summer, in crisis, being at Nantucket with a friend who was absorbed in fishing, while I read aloud to both of us from Whitman and recovered myself again. …

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