I am beginning to get a little pissed off with Harold Bloom's ideas.
Perhaps it would help if I had his astrology chart -- then I could interpret him from a purely pagan and nonverbal perspective and place him outside the veritable cloud of interpretations he surrounds himself with
Bloom as an invoker of haunted figures of rhetoric seems himself haunted with his own figure. He is easy to overdefine or underdefine, hard to evade, subtle to prefigure and alone on the field of a battle of his own imagining.
I have been reading his work for 15 years and I just now seem to be finally arriving at a clear impression of Harold Bloom's ideas. I feel strongly and negatively about his ideas. Specifically, I feel negatively impressed by his faith, negatively amused by his taste, and negatively entertained by his criticism. And I feel the need to put these three aspects back into perspective.
1. Harold Bloom's Atheism.
Mister Bloom calls himself a gnostic. What this means is that he finds athiesm unaesthetic and prefers to pretend to believe that God is absent from reality. In other words, he is an athiest who likes to pretend God exists.
I am negatively impressed by the high spirits of this enterprise. I mean, who gives a shit about the ironic delicacies of Jahweh as they relate to King Lear. But Harold says he is haunted by them, and I suppose it's as good a pastime as any while you wait for death.
2. Harold Bloom's Aesthetics.
The Big Haitch sez in his Western Canon that Joyce memorised a passage of Beckett's Murphy which is so miserably over the top that it is funny.
What I suppose he is aiming at here is the proper sense of the camp aesthetic - the outrageous as the real. The long string of outrageous books Bloom has had published testify to his own preference for the camp aesthetic over the merely sublime or beautiful. But he consistently mixed the camp with the terrible, the unbearable, the monstrous. There is no relief. He persistently appreciates a book or poem's uncanniness.
He says otherwhere ('The Best Poems in the English Language') that poetry is marked by wisdom, aesthetic power, and cognitive strength. Falstaff and Joyce's Bloom are examples of this expansive power. So where is the joyful campery in Harold Bloom? As with Freud, his camp is grimly embedded in his understanding of the reality principle and his reality testing. Never in Bloom does a flight of pure fantasy end well. Never in Freud does a joke end up funny.
I guess what I am trying to say is the Harold Bloom is just not gay enough. I prefer my bad taste to be lovely and sublime, Bloom prefers his bad taste terrifying.
3. Harold Bloom's Hermeneutics.
Let's look at Harold Bloom's hermeneutics in pieces:
The Big H-Bloom compels attention with his refined and superb treatment of the Kaballah of his ancestors in 'Kaballah and Criticism'. 'Kaballah and Criticism' has the advantage of being at once usefully dispassionate for the discerning esotericist, and overwhelmingly left-of-center to the normal run of literary criticism.
I suspect 'Kaballah and Criticism' is Bloom's own stab at canonical strangeness. It reads like the dude's channelling Borges, like a light piece of fantasy metaphysics. It's good fun.
On the darker side, Bloom's Freudian reading of literary criticism in 'The Anxiety of Influence' is enough to induce anxiety just trying to understand it. But there's a punchline to 'Anxiety of Influence': the family drama of writers through time turns out to be just good clean competition. What a relief: literature is really actually sport! Whew. But the lack of laughter in Bloom's literary criticism is revealing: in this literary Olympics we are not dealing for the most part with good sports. And in the process a lot of fun literature loses its joyful humor.
Next, throughout his books on Romantic poets and 'The Western Canon', the H-Bloom delivers for the first time I have seen a full-blooded Yankee approach to literary criticism, with his Emerson-inspired reliance on his own views and experiences as a reader. It's fun and lively writing, full of his fascinating personality and views.
Finally, 'The Western Canon'. Like Henry James and other astute modern American intellectuals, he situates himself between Europe and the United States as a complex, shadow-haunted figure of rejection and acceptance -- he puts himself between the Old and New World like a filtering mechanism, saying (in his imagination) Yea or Nay to which texts cross the Atlantic west into the promised land -- and by standing between the two Worlds, implicitly buys into the idealist and utopian notions of America that fuel the daydreams of political extremists of both the left and right.
'The Western Canon' reads like a season of Big Brother with great writers as housemates. One by one the writers are evicted until only Shakespeare is left winner. And I have to wonder, not that the voting process has been hijinked (I do not doubt that Shakespeare rocks) but whether it is really Willy S. or just the Bloom in sly Shakespearean drag.
We have four approaches to interpretation, the Kaballistic approach, the sport-based pagan approach, the individualistic Yankee approach, and the Canonical reality-tv style. What are we to make of this mess?
Tracing out the H-Bloom's hermeneutics are like doing a study of who has had sex with whom in a gay ghetto in a large American city -- not only it is salaciously personal and intricate, but it is also substantially frivolous.
Investigating H-Bloom's frightening and frightful sense of the camp aesthetic, which he uses to interpret the highest kinds of literary excellence, we discover at the essence a mordant sense of horror such as might excite Stephen King's complete indifference. We can interpret this through Borges or through Freud or through Jahweh Herself should we fancy - but any interpretation suffers from belatedness - that is, the subject of Harold Bloom is already sufficiently fogged up with interpretation, even to the level of becoming useless for the actual work of literary criticism.
Yes, art does relate to politics and gender and class and elites. No, in my opinion we have not clarified precisely what this relation is. But I can draw three major distinctions from things so far:
- Bloom is a pagan, not a Jew (or Christian or Muslim). He cannot be expected to treat non-pagan topics with the same brilliance as he treats pagan matters of aesthetics and competitive poetic excellence.
- Bloom likes the frightening form of the camp aesthetic, not the joyful forms. He cannot be expected to blossom with a life-giving camp, and he can be admired for his gothic charms without wishing he were different.
- Bloom is an American first and foremost, not a European. He cannot be expected to accept the interpretative traditions of Europe and their corresponding European-specific biases. That said, however, Bloom seems to have made significant progress towards an expressly American literary criticism. Harold Bloom's sense of bad taste may be a bit Emily Dickinson, a tad Gothic in his love of the uncanny, but his interpretations are of an all-American individuality, delivered with such a sunny Yankee disposition -- I reckon even Mister Emerson might've approved!
Labels: Great books Harold Bloom Ages Western Canon