At Home with Harold Bloom: (1) on Walt Whitman

What was new at Yale this Fall was that for the first time in 53 years, the great pole star of our literary-critical firmament, Harold Bloom, did not give any of his famous courses — on Shakespeare, or on “how to read a poem.” He did, however, indulge Open Source in a long conversation that confirms a major recovery of health and the steady fire of heart and mind as Bloom writes a grand revision of his masterwork on The Anxiety of Influence.

Professor Bloom asked me to ask him about what is coming to feel like an “obsession” with Walt Whitman. I asked him also to cross over into music, politics and sports. And then we agreed to keep digressing as the spirit moved us. I asked him at the outset: could Whitman actually be displacing Shakespeare in the center-ring of the Bloomian circus?

Not quite… I say specifically at the opening of this work in progress — my equivalent of Joyce’s Wake, Blooms Wake as it were — that the two figures who are threads in this labyrinth are William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman. And though I don’t quite grant them equal status, I would be prepared to say that what Shakespeare was for the Renaissance, Whitman was for the 19th Century and after: sombody who “breaks the new road,” which is what D. H. Lawrence wonderfully said of him. He breaks the new road for the New World, and for better and for worse…

The reason why English is now the lingua franca, replacing French, is because it’s American English, and it’s American commercial dominance everywhere. Even though in the age of Benito Bush, as I like to call him and insist upon calling him, that dominance may soon be called into question. He has done everything he can to ruin our economy, to ruin our international standing, to ruin our armed forces. In fact, he is the Decline and Fall of the American Empire all of himself, our Caligula, Our Nero, you name it. But he’s not as colorful as those splendid rascals…

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

And so Bloom digresses… to the marks of Shakespeare, Shelley and the King James Bible on Whitman, and Whitman’s mark on “the American religion,” neither Judaic nor Christian, but something indigenous and very new in the world. Would that Whitman’s Democratic Vistas had left as deep a mark on American politics, which Professor Bloom segments today as follows: “one-third plutocracy, one-third oligarchy, one-third theocracy… There’s not much Whitmania left in the public sphere.”

Thanks to Chelsea Merz for recording this interview, and to Paul McCarthy for editing it.

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  • nother

    Sorry that’s Bloom not bloom.

    A wish for the new year – if only to see the U.S. through Whitman’s crystal eye.

    A Christmas Greeting

    By Walt Whitman

    1819-1892

    “Welcome, Brazilian brother–thy ample place is ready;

    A loving hand–a smile from the north–a sunny instant hall!

    (Let the future care for itself, where it reveals its troubles,

    impedimentas,

    Ours, ours the present throe, the democratic aim, the acceptance and

    the faith;)

    To thee to-day our reaching arm, our turning neck–to thee from us

    the expectant eye,

    Thou cluster free! thou brilliant lustrous one! thou, learning well,

    The true lesson of a nation’s light in the sky,

    (More shining than the Cross, more than the Crown,)

    The height to be superb humanity.”

  • nother

    Something that cannot be denied about Harold Bloom: he is enthusiastic in his intellectual convictions.

    Of course Emerson was of the opinion that “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

    Which enthusiastically leads me to my favorite Whitman excerpt from Songs of Myself:

    “Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams,

    Now I wash the gum from your eyes,

    You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of

    every moment of your life.

    Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,

    Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,

    To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me,

    shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.”

  • Thank you Chris, Harold, and Walt. I have a show idea. If what Bloom calls “The American Religion,” is a pragmatic one, and one that includes a spiritual explanation for sublime experience, then I think Sam Harris is a guest that might share some insight. Certainly Dan Dennett has been fine guest more than once, but I find that if Dawkins is to the right of Dennett, Harris is to the left. The debates archived on his website (http://www.samharris.org/site/media_video/), where he appears on several television shows, indicate his humble patient wisdom. I would really like to listen to the sort of healthy dialogue that Open Source affords, as opposed to these useless sound byte wars on television. What I think Sam Harris would do well to discuss, is a constructive perspectve on contemplative life. Emerson says:

    “In liberated moments we know that a new picture of life and duty is already possible; the elements already exist in many minds around you of a doctrine of life which shall transcend any written record we have. The new statement will comprise the scepticisms as well as the faiths of society, and out of unbeliefs a creed shall be formed. For scepticisms are not gratuitous or lawless, but are limitations of the affirmative statement, and the new philosophy must take them in and make affirmations outside of them, just as much as it must include the oldest beliefs.”

    The work that some of the “athiests” have been involved in has been very insightful. Yet, I find much of it annoying in that it often relies on an extreme right. Harris, although from a distance often gets lumped in here, has a different agenda. He has made statements in the presence of Dennett that I feel have begun to move in a constructive direction that Dennett hasn’t. I have recently posted some comments about these topics on my blog which might further illustrate the elating connections. http://magisterludi.blogspot.com/

  • davispeter

    Someone once said,

    More wine, less truth.

    Why not, more wine,

    More truth–

    Keep ’em coming.

  • Potter

    I am glad that Bloom is feeling better.

    It’s takes me awhile to get past the delivery and the pronouncements and to settle into Bloom as a framer. And that he does so well. For me, Whitman does deserve that high place. I bought “Leaves of Grass” when I was 12 years old and gave it to my mother. She still has it.

    What I did not get and what I wished Bloom delved into more was the passage about American Religion. I wanted more about the Biblical parallelism… examples.

    I don’t understand Bloom’s interpretation of Whitman’s (as prophet of a “very new” religion) redefinition of the self, the soul and the “real me” ( if I have that correctly) as three separate parts and how they could not come together or be fused.

  • I believe, and this is so very speculative, that Bloom’s use of the phrase “American Religion” has to do with the notion of the way in which big spritual truth is treated. It seems to me that what Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau have in common is a hightened appreciation for nature as a spiritual teacher. Whitman found this nature in cities, and identified himself as part of the larger community of participants. This participation can be found in his utterings of lists, specifically in “Song of Myself.”

  • Potter

    Well said aaron- this is what draws me to all of them.

  • Zeke

    Adding to aaron’s point, in addition to finding nature in communities, Whitman also celebrated nature in the human body. Jonah Lehrer makes this point in his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist citing passages from The Body Electric.

  • Potter

    I’m listening to this again and loving it again… actually the whole series with Bloom is wonderful.

    • rosmedia

      Approce