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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  • Jesse Merle

    1000 pages an hour, uphill, both ways, in the snow…

  • I am apparently a member of the school of resentment.

    I recognize that the academy requires people to occupy the role of gatekeeper. However, I am less than comfortable with the idea of a rigid cannon. And I am downright uncomfortable with the idea of a rigid cannon with a solitary gatekeeper–especially when this one person has so little cultural connection to the populace at large. The literature of a society is reflective of the shared experiences of the people therein, as we become a more culturally diverse society the cannon must reflect that.

    I have had a copy of the Western Cannon as compiled by Bloom (the 1994 edition) on my shelf since I was in high school and as a teacher I have frequently referenced it. However, as I have grown older and read more and more of my intellectual heroes: Orwell, Emerson, Dubois, Roth, Hitchens, and Baldwin it has become apparent that the cannon as visioned by Mr. Bloom does not represent me, nor does it include many people who resemble the kids I teach.

    There is value in what Mr. Bloom dismisses scornfully as “multiculturalism”; there is value in exposing students from all walks of life to Cisneros and Hurston. Students from working class environments need to read the poetry of Dickinson and the transcendentalism of Emerson and the elite benefit from experiencing “Black Boy” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God”.

    When Bloom writes in the Western Cannon of the “Chaotic Age” it sets off a certain tingle in my skin. The disruption of the status quo to those whom have had the position of rulemaker often appears to be chaotic. Yet to those struggling below it feels more like democracy.

    Oh, and before anyone asks. No, I don’t read People Magazine.

    • Informed Thinker

      The “multiculturalism” Bloom dismisses is not one that encourages the readership of “Black Boy” or “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (both of which are listed in his Western Canon and lauded in his other writings), but one that canonizes and teaches literature on merits not aesthetic, weak compositions that can be easily molded to indulge the professor’s own tendentiousness. Furthermore, in the “Western Canon”, though he deems the Canon the crucial cultural center for the West, the catalogue Bloom wrote–and later dismissed–is prefaced with words staving off the perception of his list as a life-long reading guide.

    • Palooka

      A rigid cannon is the only kind of cannon one should fire. Otherwise the shell will not exit properly.

  • I’m not sure I could even turn 1000 pages in 1 hour much less read them. But to pore over a loved work of literature with the realization that the precious hours of one’s life are being paid for this relationship is akin to hugging one’s daughter for as much of eternity as she and the gods will grant.

  • Potter

    This interview stops oddly mid sentence. I wonder if that is intended.

    I understand nbowling’s above and well said. Bloom has a view few have though. All in all I am glad that there is someone standing there firmly saying that this does not measure up. I don’t have to agree.

    At the end when he figures out what to say for the article about Giovanni- he comes up with something perfect. He said “I am not yet competent to judge…” ( he was thinking “that garbage”)- but one can interpret that differently.

  • dud

    Who’s afraid of Harold Bloom? I am. He may not have saught clones but I aspired to such. Not de facto, since I was never a student of his although removed by one generation from two. I read most of his works (took me a few years) and even wrote an essay about him and a satire on his theories–all unpublished– although I sent him the latter which he said he enjoyed. That bucked me up no end. Oh, yes–Why afraid? Because one always kills one’s influencer, an act of parricide I would never wish to commit.

  • Riohacha

    I agree with Bloom. The school of resentment is a total part of English Lit studies. I have graduated from a school where that is all they teach. Sure Whitman was a possible racist pedophile and I do believe Bloom only supports Whitman because he knows what Whitman embodies. Aesthetically Whitman is actually pretty weak. I think Bloom only supports Whitman because of Whitman’s quintessential americanism and Bloom wants to secure his place as “America’s Samuel Johnson.” He knows by supporting Whitman’s sheer novelty free-verse and watered-down transcendentalism will win him points in the History of American Lit. Really, where is Whitman’s strong verse? It is political speeches, democratic apologetics.

    But back to my original point: to get a degree in English is to say whatever PC statement your professor wants to hear. Using post-structuralist catch-phrases will earn you points too (also see “affect,” “abject,” etc.). There is no value on intellect, on critical thinking (unless you are being “politically” critical), and general intuition. There is little emphasis on learning. My American Lit class only consisted of one TS Eliot poem, a book by Jean Toomer, about 5 essays by WEB Dubois, and then a weak book by Tim O’Brien. Can you believe that?!? No Faulkner, no Hemingway, no Beats. Everybody in the class complained. It is pure politics: people advancing because of their ideologies and who have no real excitement when it comes to actual language arts. There is no art, just political statements (aka platitudes). Most of us are already liberal and Leftist enough. Give us a break Professors. We get it.

    • O

      I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
      And you must not be abased to the other.
      Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
      Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not
      even the best,
      Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
      I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
      How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
      And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue
      to my bare-stript heart,
      And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
      Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass
      all the argument of the earth,
      And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
      And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
      And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women
      my sisters and lovers,
      And that a kelson of the creation is love,
      And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
      And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
      And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and

  • I am reading THE WESTERN CANON right now and like most intelligent lit crit I find it immensely stimulating. In particular I want to find Goethe’s FAUST PART TWO (I only own part one) and dig up my paperback copy of PEER GYNT and give them both a whirl. My own novels-in-progress (available for perusal on my blog) are sure to be enriched by these two works, both of which I have long been aware of but never seriously considered before. As for multiculturalism, I see it as a necessary step in the opening up of the world to genuine civilization, but I agree with Bloom that aesthetics matter the most in deciding which works are canonical, and not politics (politics in the real world are so little influenced by literature these days anyway).

  • It is sad what has happened to our universities. Everybody seems impatient to destroy themselves with much eagerness. I blame this Time and even though I know I am loved, I still go on reading hoping to make more aquaintences through books. Why the moralists have taken over our Universities I have no answer for. It is an unsolvable puzzle. The pieces are all different sizes and some do not fit. The hunting for a way to make them connect will not be of any profit. The teachers who teach without standards will vanish away. It is too complicated a story to follow. I do not need a sinking star to guide me drooping in the South to have hope in what Harold Bloom’s practice results in. He gives hope in place of that quest which we sometimes seek in our belated efforts to find friends.

  • Donatello Morretti

    How do you read 1000 pages an hour? That’s 16 pages a minute, or 1 page ever 4 seconds? It seems unreasonable to me. 🙁