At Home with Harold Bloom: (2) on the Humanities

By his own account, Harold Bloom has lost a step or two at age 77, after major heart surgery. His reading rate is not what it used to be, he says. In his early thirties, the basic Bloomian reading speed with a serious text was 1000 pages an hour; it might be less than half that today. Meaning that nowadays it could take an afternoon, not just the lunch hour, to consume War and Peace.

harold bloom

But Bloom’s mode of reading fast, writing fast, and memorizing almost everything still verges on the freakish, and his zest for the text is undimmed, as are his combativeness, his mockery, self-mockery, and his delight in seeing himself as both king and bad-boy of his literary profession. In our long conversation this past Fall, Professor Bloom gave us a short course in memorization, in effect: “How to Memorize… and What,” starting with Tennyson’s Ulysses He reviewed what he calls the “ghastly condition,” the “sellout” and “suicide” of the “Humanities” in American universities before “the School of Resentment.” Judge for yourself the mix of passion and put-on in Bloom’s voice. And then when I insisted he give us his constructive doctine on teaching teachers — he is, after all, the Art Blakey of literature scholars, in that so many of the great ones took his training — he gave an incisive guide, naming names and first principles.

The great Hillel says: do three things. Be deliberate in judgment. Raise up many disciples. And build a hedge around the Torah.

My version of that is to say: Be deliberate in judgment. Teach many students, but make sure that they are never going to resemble one another or resemble you yourself in the slightest. That is to say, remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us in Self-Reliance: “that which I can gain from another is never tuition but only provocation.” So even with my doctoral students, every class I’ve ever taught is pure provocation. It is an attempt to make them arrive at self-tuition. This was not true of my contemporaries. This was not true of the school of Deconstruction, or of the Marxists, or the Semioticians, or of the New Historicists, the Foucault-eyites which is what they are (they all follow Foucault). This is not true of the Lacanians. They all teach a method, and people do not become themselves, but they become Paul de Man, my old friend, but not someone of whom I could approve because as I told him: “you clone endlessly.” I have never cloned, I would never try to clone… Ah, the hedge around the Torah. The Torah is for me the Western Canon, and to some extent the Eastern one as well. And the hedge doesn’t mean a fence, or a high barrier such as the Israelis now in their desperation at living in a very bad neighborhood may yet have to put up around the whole state. It means an open sort of a thing. With a hedge it can always grow. It is a natural kind of a thing. Hillel is a very good guide…

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

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

There’s more to come in Part 3.

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