Harold Bloom’s Moby-Dick

Harold Bloom is giving us a one-man performance of a one-act play. He invited us months ago to his class at Yale on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and finally here it is and here we are. Because this is Harold Bloom on stage, himself the “living labyrinth” of literature, his jazz-like solo improvisation is endlessly allusive — to Lear (“81 years old, my age”), to Macbeth and other Shakespeareans; to Yahweh, Job and Prometheus; to the canonical American writers from Emerson, Hawthorne and Henry James to Dickinson and Frost, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane; to the 20th Century novelists Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner. But only Walt Whitman sits at the pinnacle with the author of Moby-Dick. “These are the two great American books,” Professor Bloom is remarking on our way into Harkness Hall, “Leaves of Grass in its various editions, side by side with this miracle of a book Moby-Dick, almost flawless, I think. What else is of that eminence?”

How strange, he adds, that Whitman and Melville, exact contemporaries in the ambience of 19th Century New York, never acknowledged each other. “I don’t know what to call them. They’re not ships. Whales maybe, leviathans — passing in the night and never taking note of the other. And yet I can no longer read one without reading the other.”

Moby-Dick is not a novel,” Professor Bloom remarks. “It is a giant Shakespearean prose poem, quite deliberately.” And Captain Ahab of the Pequod is no more villain than hero. He is an Emersonian figure, “self-reliance gone mad.” He is a dark hero on the Greek scale, our American Prometheus. It’s not the least of Melville’s genius that Moby-Dick is new on every reading. Not the least of Harold Bloom’s genius is that, having read the book hundreds of times, he never teaches it quite the same way. He is speaking here, with barely a written note, in a classroom with about a score of Yale undergraduates. He reminds me of Sonny Rollins playing his tenor horn, drawing on a lifetime of memory and imagination, devotion and practice.

To have these ferocious killers of the natural world, these great hunters of whales, who, after all, in relation to these harpoons, are at a terrible disadvantage — except for this great monolithic vast Leviathan, straight out of Job — it’s very unfair. And you can feel, at times, submerged in the book, Melville’s own horror at what is happening. And of course we know what the ultimate consequence of this is, the decimation now of these great beasts, who are, by the way, mammals: warm-blooded breathing creatures like ourselves, almost destroyed now, for all our “Save the Whales” campaigns… There has to be, though I don’t understand it myself, some peculiar inverse ratio between the trope of whiteness in this book and the horrible paradox that these killers — including the gentle Starbuck, still the best lance out of Nantucket, the bravest man in a boat, and the fearful Ahab — are Quakers: opposed to war, to this day, opposed to conscription. Although I always remember President Richard Nixon was a Quaker. Heaven help them all, and us. What should we do with the paradox of a hunt in which we cannot possibly be on the side of the human hunters, Quaker or not, and have to be on the side of Moby-Dick, even though that goes against the deep Biblical symbolism which is involved? And Melville is all too aware of this…

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon at Yale University, October, 2011.

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  • nother

    Ahh, to bloom in the fall! Thank you for the great reading and recording. I especially liked Professor Bloom’s take on “whiteness.” For one it fits nicely with what I feel is the overriding them of this book, mortality. It is often said that one sees a white light in their near death experience?

    “’Aye, aye, men!’ Cried Ahab. ‘Look up at it; mark it well; the white flame but lights the way to the white whale! Hand me those mainmast links there; I would fain feel this pulse, and let mine beat against it; blood against fire! So.’”

    Moby Dick is mortality and Ahab is Narcissus (also a hunter) who died in sorrow when he could not obtain the object of his desire, his own reflection.

    And the men of the Pequod wanted to believe in immortality as well, only they would have to see it out till the end to know if it would be realized in Ahab or Moby?

    “…it cannot be much matter of surprise that some whalemen should go still further in their superstitions; declaring Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal…”

    How many men in history have led countless souls to slaughter because of some self-destructive delusion of immortality? We all play that game and our family and friends pay a price, yet too often we collectively enable despotic men down that path.

    But then again does it matter? “To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed.”

    Knowing that the sea will soon roll over all of us “as it rolled five thousand years ago,” maybe (just maybe) it’s Ahab who has it right. We grin at the notion of Ahab striking at the sun, but at least he goes down swinging.

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  • Thank you for bringing to us more of Harold Bloom and his blessings. I remember getting for a gift my second volume of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in September of 2001. It was the 150th year edition and my second attempt at making my way through the prose epic. I have read since Billy Budd, Barltely Scrivner, Typee, and some other ones when I went back to school a few years later. I like to think about Gnosticism when Melville is mentioned. Bentley Layton’s Gnostic Scriptures is where I first encountered Gnosticism as with The Gnostic Religion. I like the part of the lecture especially about the companions devouring the Leviathan from the Kabbalistic text. When I read the parts that matter of Melville from Moby Dick, his best work, I am reminded of the glory of Ahab. I want to see Ahab’s name to be meaningfully revealed. It does sound like Arab but as Harold Bloom reminds us it comes from the Hebrew Bible. I would like possibly to venture an answer to what his name might mean. Walt Whitman’s quote from the Leaves of Grass “Dazzling and tremendous how quickly the sun’s beams would kill me if not now and always I could send them from myself..” and Ahab’s name come close to an answer. Starbuck, Ishmael, Queequeg, Elijah, the Reverend, and the Captain need to be understood better, I say, because of Gnosticism and the rebirth makes us free. Take Walt and Ahab side by side like Bloom suggests we do. “I would strike the sun if he insulted me” is one of the most outrageous things I have ever heard. However, take Walt and Ahab and solmnize the secretive syllables. Wallace Stevens in the Auroreas of Autumn is one of my poems I read on Youtube under “billybrachiosaurus” as my name. I have also been reading aloud Milton and Wordsworth with synthesizer music of my own composition in the background, and in addition to that I have my some of my Eight symphonies up on Youtube. I also have written quite a number of books about Angels and poems so Walt, Milton, Bloom, Shakespeare and Stevens are very close to me. I live in Hilo, Hawaii after a twenty year or so vacation from the islands and I will never forget what Harold Bloom says about Prospero. Ariel, Caliban, Gonzalo, Miranda, and Ferdinand are also important to me. Do you know what the ratio of Nature to Deep Awareness to Concern for Other Beings in Walt’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is? Whatever it is, it is interesting that by loving the Others as Walt does, and by being a Visionary, and a Great Thinker, this all gives Walt a brilliant ability to get the Blank which Harold Bloom talks of about American writers. That the congregation will feast on Leviathan seems to me an act that is great for literature. Moby Dick is not the easiest novel I used to believe, but I was mistaken back then. As I listened to Bloom speak, I realized my own reading has also changed so that it is deeper almost as the sea in that book. Hawaii is a great place to study the sea and its life.

  • Potter

    This “production” was suburb. a work of art in itself. You allowed Harold Bloom to shine in his whiteness. He always refers back to his own humanness. I thought the music was Coltrane- but it turned out ” Coltranish” and perfect. I was just tickled by Blooms ramblings this time.

    Congratulations! ( And of course thanks. ) Do we get more?

  • Carl

    Just listened to Prof. Bloom on Melville. I am in a trance and wonder if we will ever see a literary guide, philosopher poet of such depth and beauty again. All I can wish for is, please, more of Prof Bloom on this great book.

    Chris…another masterful piece from you and the Quartet perfect also. My deepest thanks… Do you know which edition of Moby Dick was used?


  • jim


    After listening several times to this podcast, I wonder if there would ever be a place to download the edited clippings of some of your interviews. I recall a guest you had that made a book that consisted of all of the chapters edited out of a particular edition of Moby Dick. What gold would we find in the edits of Chris Lydon’s wondering wanderings caught on tape?

  • Ben

    After listening to Bloom ramble through Melville, I find myself wondering if there are tapes available of his lectures. Anyone know of any?

  • Why the biblical names conflict: the novel takes place in a Godless world!

    Almost impossible to listen to with all the extant references, long winded attributions, diversionary
    metaphors. But that is a matter of delivery.

    Bloom ends by saying he is “an old burned-out case.”

    Not quite…