Harold Bloom, the giant of American literary criticism, has just published his 41st book The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime. At 85, Bloom, who lives with his wife in New Haven, Connecticut, still provokes with his brilliant, yet highly subjective views on literature; his Anxiety of Influence and The Western Canon are among the most influential books of 20th century criticism. In this conversation, Bloom speaks with Michael Skafidas about his devotion to teaching and his influence as a critic, why he does not need to Google and how he regrets not having met yet Sophia Loren.
Michael Skafidas: You have written over 40 books and you are often referred to as an academic superstar. A reviewer noted recently, "Bloom is no Whitman or Melville ... yet he seems at times almost as large as any of these, so vital and particularized is his presence." Can poet and critic indeed be equal seers?
Harold Bloom: I am not in competition with Whitman or Melville or any of the figures I write about. Despite of my old age, in early September, I will start my sixty-first consecutive year of full-time teaching at Yale. For me, teaching, reading and writing are simply three words for the same phenomenon. I am primarily a teacher and proud of it because it is one of the most honorable things one can be. My function is to teach my students or my reader how to appreciate really great writers in every sense of appreciation, meaning to evaluate; meaning once you've established for yourself and by the criteria of all the great works of the past from Homer and the Bible, considered as literature, through Dante and Shakespeare and Milton and up to the present day, with Proust and with Joyce. Once it is perfectly clear that one is dealing with really great and profound literature that is marked by cognitive power, aesthetic beauty, originality and above all, of the deepest human relevance, then appreciate it in the sense of not only enjoying it and communicating the enjoyment of it but apprehending it, deepening your understanding of it.
MS: As a professor of comparative literature myself, I find it increasingly difficult to convey the power of literature to most undergraduate students nowadays.
HB: I am very aware of that challenge. Because of my physical disabilities, I now teach two groups of students in my own living room. One group is always on Shakespeare and the other on the reading of poetry. I select my students from sixty or seventy applicants, and they are the cream of the cream; they are remarkable students. But if I was still a younger man like you and was trying to communicate the power of a proper reading of the comparative literature to undergraduates, I would find it very difficult. We are in a digital age, and this is to say a visual age where young people grow up with the television screen and, above all, the computer screen. It is very, very difficult for them to learn how to read properly. I always tell my own students, as I am sure you tell the very best of yours -- one must try and set an example: go by yourself, whether in your own room or outdoors somewhere in good weather and start by reading aloud, and listen carefully to what you are overhearing, and read it again and again. If it's Wallace Stevens or if it is Hart Crane, Faulkner or Emerson, Whitman or Dickinson, or Proust or Kafka or Beckett, or Tolstoy, or any of the great thinkers of the past, you need to hear them, you need to live inside them.
But generally, it is quite true what you are saying, our burden as teachers now, even someone as old as I am, is in a sense something beyond our ability to teach; there is a vast change in the cultural climate, which has devalued the very difficult act of solitary deep reading. I admire your eloquence stating your dilemma as a teacher. It was certainly mine in earlier years, when I taught larger number of students.
MS: You have always been an advocate of the primacy of the aesthetic: "To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all," you have argued. Is it still possible in our post modern age to prioritize the aesthetic values of a work over the considerations of race, class and gender?
HB: In my view, all these ideologies have destroyed literary study in the graduate schools and in the academies. Whether you call it feminism, which is not really feminism, has nothing to do with equal rights for women, or whether you call it transgenderism, or ethnicity, or Marxism, or any of these French manifestations, be it deconstruction or one mode of differential linguistics or another, or whether you call it -- what I think is mislabeled -- the new historicism, because it's neither new nor historicism, but simply a dilution of Foucault, a man whom I knew and liked personally, but whose influence I think has been pernicious, just as Derida's, with whom I also shared a friendship until eventually we broke with each other. All these "isms" are preposterous of course; they have nothing to do with the study of literature or with its originality. As I've said before, the esthetic is an individual and not a social concern.
MS: In your new book, you examine 12 iconic writers, from Walt Whitman to Hart Crane, whose work and spirit epitomize the American Sublime. Their inner spirit, or the "daemon" as you put it, stands for "the creative forces in an individual, which are deeper and more pervasive than what you might want to call the mere conscious. ... The daemon is the creative spirit." It seems that The Demon Knows is an offspring of the Western Canon, in which 21 years ago you spoke of "the astonishing mystery of creative genius."
HB: Yes, it is quite right. But after all there is nothing mysterious about the daemon. The great inspiration behind my study is a book by my late good acquaintance E. R Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, a profound and permanent influence upon me and upon my book. There is a peculiarly American sense of the demonic. My book is about twelve writers, I do not say they are the best American writers, though I myself believe they are, but I am not presenting them as such. They are certainly among our best. And I don't think their contribution to American literature has been matched by anybody born in the twentieth century. I think our two greatest figures are Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, so I give a more fullscale account of Whitman's poetry and then provide with a pretty close reading of that magnificent book called Moby Dick by Melville. I proceed from there to Emerson and to Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest poets and probably a poet with more originality than anyone in the language except William Shakespeare himself, all the way to Crane, a poet I have a special passion for who unfortunately committed suicide at 32 and who remains an extraordinary figure in lyric poetry.
MS: Your immensely ambitious Western Canon attempted to fit works of western literature into a list that some of your peers complained was too subjective and incomplete. Two decades later, would you say that your book has had the impact you hoped for? Has it helped the case of the Canon and has it influenced people how to choose what they read in the little time they have left?
HB: I would have to give a qualified answer to that. As professors of literature, you and I are both fighting on the same side. We are fighting a rear guard action, my dear fellow. We lost the war. And when you have lost the war, all you can do is rally the remnants and put up a stand in which you and I and the remaining handful of us fight, people who believe in humanistic values and ultimately in the civilizing effect of the greatest literature. If the list helps people then I am all for it.
But as you and I know the list is highly contingent, and I now regret some omissions, I had to work very quickly, and I worked to the top of my head. There are some books they don't belong there, much more important I was shocked to see I had not included (Guido) Cavalcanti, one of the greatest of Italian lyric poets -- absolutely crucial for Dante. But they don't let you reset these things under the rules of modern publishing. Nevertheless, within limits, I think the list has done more good than harm. It is under attack these days, I see this occasionally in the New York Times and elsewhere because it doesn't properly recognize ethnicity and all these other nonsense.
MS: Consistently in your work, you draw connections between sexuality and literary creativity. "Three out of four poets in America are gay or bisexual," you wrote. "More than half of all the great poets are... Shakespeare writes bisexually because he writes universally." It seems that you are in accord with Whitman's sense of sexuality as an antidote to oblivion; a prime force worth pursuing and dying for because beauty and truth, in Dickinson's words, "themselves are one."
HB: Yes, that's right. Walt Whitman perhaps did not have overt homoerotic experience but his poetry is of course profoundly homoerotic in orientation. Melville was a complex instance; he was married and had children, but there were indications that in his early years he had sexual experience with both genders and indeed in the heart of that more than magnificent book Moby Dick, there is a marriage which is clearly homosexual between Ishmael and Queequeg. Emerson is wholly heterosexual and in spite of what feminist critics have said, all the evidence points to the fact that so was Emily Dickinson.
Then when you get down to Hawthorne; he was probably the happiest married man in the history of American literature, but Henry James as we now know was an extremely active homoerotic lover with many partners. And that's how it goes. Why does anybody make a fuss about it, one way or the other? People do not write different kinds of poems because their sexual orientation is different, or because their gender is this or the other, or their race, or their ethnicity. They write because it comes from within. But sexuality is certainly a driving force behind their creative genius.
MS: You've said that, "At 84, I lie awake at night, after a first sleep, and murmur Crane, Whitman and Shakespeare to myself, seeking comfort through continuity, as grand voices somehow hold off the permanent darkness that gathers though it does not fall." Is poetry your elixir for longevity?
HB: Absolutely! Poetry is my medicine. At 85, one is a very bad sleeper. Last night in fact, I could not fall asleep again because of my health's failures, and I found myself reciting poetry. Since I was a little one, I have a remarkable memory in terms of recalling poetic texts. So last night, I found myself chanting not Whitman directly, but Wallace Stevens' magnificent complex vision of Whitman. I think I know it by heart so if you don't mind, I'll put it in the picture right now [Bloom recites by heart Stevens' "Tea at the Palace of Hoon," in which the speaker is Walt Whitman himself.] So, poetry is a cure.
MS: How do you cope with the digital environment? Do you ever read online? Do you Google?
HB: Oh no, no, no! I read. And I remember. I remember everything I have ever read. I don't need to go to Google. I have it all in my brain!
MS: Through your long life, you've met and formed friendships with some of the greatest literary figures of your time. Yet, you've been quoted saying that if there's anyone in the world you'd like to meet, it is Sophia Loren. Is it true?
HB: Indeed I have. But I must tell you a story about that. After I said that in an interview, my wife and I received a phone call inviting us to dinner with Sophia Loren, conveyed by the great woman herself. But the dinner would have been out in Hollywood, and I could not do it. I can't travel anymore because of my frail health. But yes, if I could meet anyone, even though I permanently miss such beloved figures for me as Anthony Burgess and Jimmy Merrill and Elizabeth Bishop and so many other great figures, my greatest regret is not at the end having dinner with the beautiful Sophia.