The Harold Bloom Tapes (Part 1)

The Sage of New Haven

The Sage of New Haven

In the summer of 2003, around the bicentennial of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s birth, I spent an afternoon with the Sage of New Haven, Professor Harold Bloom of Yale, in conversation around the Sage of Concord. Bloom had been a critical figure in the revival of interest in Emerson, the “father of the American Religion,” Bloom has called him. But what also emerges here, with some gentle prodding from your humble interviewer, is that Bloom’s attachment to Emerson is vitally and intimately personal. Bloom discovered the power of the bond in what he says was the most severe depression of his life — a period in his mid-late thirties in the mid-late Sixties, when he read and reread Emerson’s essays and especially his journals, with the avidity for which Bloom is famous. What he discovered was that Emerson spoke with Bloom’s own inner voice, as “the god within,” he said. These conversations are, among other things, a lesson in how to take a magisterial writer to heart, as a contemporary and something more than a best friend.

And carry on, by all means, to Part Part II:

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  • Potter

    Thank you so much!

  • hurley

    Every Emerson deserves his Bloom. I often disagree with him, but here he’s found his mark, also with Bush. Modern Emersonians: Wendell Berry? Edward Abbey? Murray Kempton? I imagine irony undermines the very possibility, but it has to be said, with no attempt at flattery, that Chris begins to inhabit the same mould. I would also mention someone I’ve often mentioned before, the great American poet and essayist, William Bronk, who wrote a very Emersonian book called The Brother in Elysium; Ideas of Friendship and Society in the United States. It’s a set of reflections on Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville, with Emerson conspicuous by his absence. It’s a rare book now, but you can find the essays reprinted in Vectors and Smoothable Curves.

  • hurley

    Either I’m hallucinating, or a troublesome but serious message from W.H. Palmer went missing without explanation.

  • mynocturama

    Yeah it did hurley. Frankly I’m skeptical of the accusation, though I was going to follow the link he provided. That is, till it disappeared.

    Explanation please?

  • hurley

    I suspect a temporary glitch. It is the silly season after all.

  • Zeke

    I enjoy listening to Bloom. His ideas about Shakespeare elude me sometimes, but I find him provocative and entertaining. The thing that bothered me about the interview was his vituperative antagonism to those for whom Emerson doesn’t resonate. How can he consider Emerson the epigone of American thinkers yet assert that southerners can’t “get him?”

  • Zeke

    NPR’s show On Point is hardly as nourishing as ROS, however it is not Wonder bread either. I caught an interview with Susan Cheever, who has also appeared on ROS, about her book American Bloomsbury. The show was particularly interesting for the way it brought the Concord women –Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller– into the picture. Those pursuing the Emerson essays might find it interesting. Here is a link:

  • I read the article, mynocturama. It’s by Naomi Wolfe. You have to read the entire thing to get to her very reasonable pursuit, though it can never be known if her accusation about Harold Bloom is true – she describes one incident 20 years ago – she didn’t set out to punish him or even publicize her claim. She simply wanted to push Yale for an open and accountable system of processing any claims of harassment. She describes in detail her attempts to get at what she wanted and how their fear response about being sued derailed her. This public statement is the end of a rather long process.

    She takes the time to note that she doesn’t think Harold Bloom is a monster or even that he damaged her. (she does refer to claims made by others that she is not the only one at the receiving end of the behavior she describes of him, though.) She does think that these kinds of behaviors “corrupt the system of meritocracy” and that, more often than not, it is women’s careers which suffer.

    Again, it’s hard to know what’s true. And Chris is a fan of Harold Bloom, so I can see that he doesn’t want Bloom defamed on a site that he hosts. As a woman, however, I find it sad that her voice would be suppressed out of loyalty. It only exemplifies the case she’s trying to make. And it saddens me that once again, women’s issues are not taken seriously enough to really have a considered conversation about it. I’ve felt hints – sometimes more than hints – that protecting men is more important than working towards the accountability which would create a safer world for women – and benefit us all in the end.

    Oh well…..

  • I feel I should clarify something in my previous post:

    I don’t support Wolf’s tactics in her article. I have a similar criticism of Michael Moore. The sensationalism used actually detracts from what might be an important point. Publicly defaming someone, – regardless of fame – twenty years later, with no evidence only supports attention-getting. If she wanted to focus on the bigger issue, she should have left her case anonymous. Clearly she had residual anger and a desire for a bit of revenge.

    As a woman, who has witnessed how our fraternal culture impacts women in profound ways, I am able to look past the tactics and see a bigger concern. It’s a reasonable desire to have a grievance system that actually serves women well, rather than protecting the offending men. To say so, doesn’t mean, in any way, that I defend her tactics.

  • geeze, Chris, thanks so much for being our white knight and defending our delicate, inadequate sensibilities. Lord knows we are incapable of forming our own opinions concerning the merit and appropriateness of such matters, better to nip it in the bud than allow such corruption. Personally, I have always favored a strong measure of censorship in such matters. Better to suppress than risk the reputation of a famous professor.

    In seriousness, I find your response to allison and the way you characterize the issue, and address her, utterly distasteful. Are you suggesting that you posses an intimate and accurate knowledge of the characters, motives and history concerned? Is so, please, enlighten us with the truth.

  • Wow, the thread with the disappearing comments. Either this thread lacks integrity or I’m having a bad day. I’d like to offer an apology to readers of this thread for replying to a message that never appeared here.

  • Potter

    Just back from a few days away from the cyberworld, I have to say I am disappointed reading complaints on this thread that posts have disappeared. Previously we have had a post’s byline remain and the post body deleted with explanation-ie, because it did not follow guidelines. We have never had posts disappear entirely. If it is a cover-up of something then this makes one reading this thread, such as myself, more curious.

  • bft


  • Potter, flow…

    I know what you mean. Its busy time where I live and I’ve only been able to quickly pop in for a peek of the threads now and then. I read Chris’s post that has since dissappeared – I’d been thinking it was uncharacteristically patronizing to Allison. I’d considered replying, “Well Allison dearie, take heart. The patriarchy WILL fall eventually” but I didn’t because I didn’t want to make fun of CL who I normally admire so much while he is under the strain of grieving. I missed Naomi Wolfe’s article and now I too am very curious to read it.

  • and guess what? it was very easy to find… doncha just love the internet!

  • I just now read Wolf’s article. I don’t see why it should be removed. She isn’t condemning Bloom so much as Yale and in general our societies way of dealing with sexual harassment. I think she has an excellent point.

    Now I want to listen to the rest of CLs interview with Bloom. Just when CL was getting to a good bit about Yale and the Labor movement Bloom cut him off.

  • I just listened to part 1 again. I’m sure Emerson was very influential and he certainly norished the creative thinking of his time (and beyond) but I wonder, would the other great minds of his time really not have even existed without his influence? That seems in a way to go against Emerson’s own ideas of universal mind and self reliance. If unversal mind exists these ideas would be bound to pop out somewhere. Isn’t universal mind going to act more like a rhizome that a Jack and the Beanstalk plant? I guess I’m making a case for the universal mind being more democratic. I’m not ruling out genius. I’m just saying it can pop up anywhere. Like at the women’s conference when Sojurner Truth spoke. Had she heard of Emerson? Was he possibly influenced by her? Isn’t Bloom perpetuating the “great man” theory by setting Emerson on a pedistal so high that he goes against Emerson’s own ideas? Or am I misreading Emerson? I noticed Bloom very “modestly” refused to be compared to Emerson himself even though it was not even suggested. That was like something Hogwarts Professor Gilderoy Lockhart would do.

  • Potter

    Peggy Sue- I read it too. I agree, I think I knew this but it faded from my mind. So Naomi Wolf’s article was really about how she was dealt with over a period of time and also about justice for herself and others and maybe about a measure of future deterrence. She said she wanted to make sure that women had a way to pursue their complaints, that they would be taken serioiusly. Trying to sweeping this issue away was going to harm the the institution. Still they took no warning. That article was written in 2004 but covered a long history. I wonder if it made a difference. I wonder where things are today.

    Regarding Harold Bloom I am grateful for this pre-ROS interview. I very much appreciate Bloom’s sensibilities, his thoughts on literature, what he has to offer. Agree with him or not on points, he is discerning. He’s got good, no, excellent taste and the scholarship to go with it. I had asked for this to be available for us here since it was no longer online except for those with Harvard addresses. So I thank CL and MM.

    Peggy Sue– you make a good point about the pedestal. Anyone up there is bound to be discovered as having feet of clay.

  • peggysue, you do not misread. You hit right at the heart of it. Emerson himself must have lived within that dichotomy. He had a regular job, putting on American Religion Performance Art Shows – Essays. He had deadlines, rides to catch, meals to eat, promotions, etc. He must have been superb.

    Why weren’t his writings good enough for a public whose connection to the wider world was primarily conducted through reading (and gossip?) Simply put, it was not enough for Emerson. He had to take the show on the road. In addition to pocketing a few gold eagles, he got to put his own caste on his work. He was “un”-reliant on a publishing industry then geared toward academia or gossip-mongering. The People had a chance to get the message in the first person.

    Next day, Emerson is taking a relaxing walk in the woods with his buddy, Hawthorne, who rarely speaks. How does one justify this downtime? There’s no God’s Purpose here.

    Or is there? Can the whole Purpose be to wander through life side-by-side in the belief that we all are at essence, the same? Were that true, there would be no need of essays or public speaking tours. You see the conflict here. Bloom is very canny to include Freud in the mix here.

    Which brings me to Bud Powell. Powell’s music rings with the same inner resonance that Emerson plucks at, much like Charlie Parker. It’s wonderful that Powell gets any mention at all because his life has none of the regal trappings associated with Emerson or Ellington for that matter. He died a drug-addicted, schizophrenic, wreck. Unlike Emerson, with a recalcitrant Walt Whitman to watch over him, Powell died in relative obscurity, his music long spurned by America.

    I have a copy of the Ellington/Mingus/Roach collaboration “The Money Jungle” and as enjoyable as it is, it is not Ellington at his best. “Black, Brown and Beige” might have been a better choice for Bloom to comment on. Jungle is great Mingus/Roach mind you.

    No, Bloom masterfully moves the discussion to the unstated “The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 1” which contains the three versions of “Un Poco Loco” of which he speaks lovingly. But the real essence, for me, of Bud and perhaps of Emerson, me and all of us “Americans”, is his rendition of the Harburg/Arlen “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on that same collection. It is here that we get a peak at why the “examined life” might have its faults.

    In many ways Powell is the anti-Emerson. Emerson sees, understands and walks on. Powell sees, is confused and gets stuck.

  • Zeke

    plaintext raises two points that I think merit more discussion. First, the whole discussion of Bud Powell mystified me. I should listen to this part of the conversation again I suppose. But I don’t recall any clear explanation of the dimensions on which Bud Powell –or Ellington, or anyone– is being compared to Emerson. What does it mean for someone from an entirely different sphere to be called “Emersonian?” At least when Charles Ives writes the Concord Sonata or the Emerson Concerto we understand that he is trying to use his language (music) to capture the Transcendentalists. But no one is claiming that he is Emersonian himself. To me, in the absence of definitions, the jazz discussion sounded a bit forced, artificial and, perhaps even like a bit of posturing.

    However, it may well be that I simply don’t understand the criteria that were/are used to make such comparisons.

    Second, picking up from peggysue, plaintext notes the tension (not to say “conflict”) between Emerson’s philosophy and his life (anyone’s life) in society). This really hit me while reading Spiritual Laws; perhaps that is the place for further discussion. For example, if I am not mistaken, Emerson sued his deceased wife’s family for her share of an inheritance. I’m not sure how to square this with the ideals he is expressing.

    In both of these cases, I am not ready to take a firm stance. I need to think more, read more and hear more. But I think both issues are worth keeping in the foreground. If one is going to strive to emulate Emerson’s model it is reasonable to know how to determine how one measures up. If Emerson is proposing his philosophy as a workable model for living, it is reasonable to see how he himself measures up.

  • I’m not picking up what that guy is laying down. I know the REAL TRUTH!

  • Thanks RR Anderson, thats a great one.

  • Potter

    I agree Zeke. CL and HB could have been more specific. If we are going to do music analogies, why not painting? Jackson Pollack an “Emersonian”? Georgia O’Keefe?

    There’s a difference between being “Emersonian” and being “a 20th/21st century Emerson” as well.

    When I started to think on this back on the other thread I thought: As Emerson was to his time and place so [fill in the name] is to ours. No one really comes to mind so fast or at all.

    Bloom calls Emerson a sage. Who is our sage?

    It seems that science has risen while religion and philosophy have retreated in our time. So I thought of E.O.Wilson because he is more than a scientist; he offers us a wisdom that comes of experience and investigation with equinimity and acceptance. He want us to be more aware: of the diversity and fragility of life. He is interested in the evolution of society, of knowledge. He warns about where we are headed. Emerson’s scope was as large for it’s time.

    Others here thought of Joseph Campbell. I think he was Emersonian in the sense that he followed his own path, took his cues from inside, observed the outside: a quest to understand, analyse, and embrace religion/myth and consolidate that to overarching themes.

  • In my intro to the Emerson Art Essay I picked Aurther Dove as the quintessential Emersonian painter, I think Pollack would be too, he famously said, “I don’t paint nature. I AM nature”. That seems like an Emersonian statement to me.

    The Hudson River school of painters were Emerson’s contemporaries and there must have been some mutual influence. I think especially of Thomas Cole.

    I am reluctant to call Gary Snyder a “sage” but in some ways he seems very Emersonian to me.

  • All the nominations for “Emerson of the 20th Century” come with intriguing arguments, and they’re all worthy. Stanley Cavell, the ever-interesting philosopher and culture buff once said to me Frank Capra was his Emerson. Harold Bloom said: if a real god lived in America in the 19th Century, it was Emerson. In the 20th, it was Charlie Parker. My answer for Bloom and this page is: a much better counterpart of RWE was Duke Ellington. For many reasons. Starting with the multifarious roles Duke served, as Emerson did. Duke was composer but also performer, an itinerant popular entertainer as Emerson had made his living and his fame as a travelling lecturer. Duke was a star of the “popular” arts but knew himself, and is now universally seen, as an artist of the top rank. Like Emerson (patron of Thoreau and Hawthorne, discoverer of Whitman, goad of Channing, Fuller, Alcott, et al.) Duke is inseparable from the band he led and the multiplicity of individual voices that were inspired and shaped in his ensemble, including Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Paul Gonsalves, Clark Terry and others. The Ellington Band reminds you in its diversity and tight linkages of Emerson’s Concord “group.” But then more profoundly Duke Ellington extends the specially American enthusiastic affirmation of Emerson’s “ever onward” spirit — the blues-tinged but nonetheless forward-looking buoyancy of the great essays. And then Ellington, like Emerson, distinguished himself as an original master of the non-dogmatic language of faith and worship. From the lyceum and the dance-hall, Emerson and Ellington both come to us as openly and entirely religious figures, about equally brilliant inventors of unorthodox (or anti-orthodox) prose and orchestral prayers.

    Now somebody is going to object, to the effect that “Chris Lydon thinks the answer to every question is: Duke Ellington.” But doesn’t Emerson-Ellington feel like, sound like, a matched pair? Duke’s “Harlem” is “Self-Reliance” with horns. Duke’s liberated “Sacred Concerts” are versions of Waldo’s “Divinity School Address.” They don’t look alike, exactly, but don’t they both look the part — that is, of presiding genius in the American consciousness, of head coach of our self-discovery, in their respective times?

  • Emerson/Ellington, a convergence?

  • Amen, exactly. Hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right, PeggySue. Thank you.

  • mynocturama

    A post I wrote on the “History” thread belongs perhaps more appropriately here:

    I’ll toss in my candidates – though, in a way, looking for an “Emerson” of the 20th or 21st century goes against the spirit of Emerson himself. He would, of course, counsel against looking to old models, whether himself or anyone else.


    As I mentioned her twice in the opening of the “History” thread, and since there’s a recent (somewhat acrimonious and unfairly critical) NYRB piece on her as well, I’d nominate Susan Sontag as a paradigmatic Emersonian of the 20th century. This has its ironies – she’s remembered more as an importer of European art and culture into America than a proponent of American art and culture per se; but in several interviews I’ve come across, she’s listed Emerson as a love and inspiration of hers. And her mix of hot passion and cool intellect calls Emerson to mind, or to my mind at least.

    As far as Joseph Campbell goes – The Hero With a Thousand Faces has been sitting on my shelf for several years, and only last month did I pick it up and begin reading it. I think it’s beautiful. And the lookout for connections, resonances, between various myths and stories from different cultures, definitely strikes an Emersonian chord. Though I think there are interesting differences too, between Emerson and Campbell. Namely, Campbell’s focus on narrative, on passing through different stages of the “monomyth” or what have you. The very idea of moving through stages in a story, a developmental pattern, is, in a way, alien to Emerson, it seems to me. Emerson is much more about flashes of insight in this eternal moment or NOW. At least that’s my impression, right now, in writing this post. I wouldn’t make it a clear cut distinction. And there are passages in the essays where Emerson discusses phases of development. It’s simply that this distinction strikes me, right now. And also, I’d say Campbell is comparatively systematic, in a way that Emerson isn’t (at least not overtly – I do think Emerson has something of a system too, though his method is to have the system speak through him, rather than speak about the system explicitly; to embody it, rather than describe it, if that makes any sense).

    OK, as far as writers alive and well into this new century, I’d nominate Adam Phillips. He’s a British psychoanalyst, and while he certainly taps into psychoanalytic theory in his essays, he’s in no way bound to it, and doesn’t get bogged down in technical jargon at all. He’s a beautiful writer, one of my favorites. John Banville’s called him “an Emerson for our time,” so there you go. I’ve plugged him 2 or 3 times in the suggest a show thread, but I was never really successful with my pitches. I would love for Chris to interview him, to talk about whatever, Emerson, Freud, art and culture and life in general. If anyone’s interested, I’d recommend starting with his essay collection “On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored.” It’s terrific.

  • hurley

    Ellington: Yes. I can’t imagine either objecting to the other. But how musical was Emerson? Chris’ reference to the Ellington Band reminds me of when I was working in the jazz world and mentioned Ellington to an older musician: “Man, If you got the call, you’d just kiss your Mom and say, ‘See you in twenty years.'” You could look at Ellington’s musical travels as a series of jazz chataquas poetically aligned with Emerson’s lecture-circuit oratory. There’s a musical in there, somewhere.

  • mynocturama

    OK, this may strike some of you as wacky, but what the heck. Since we’ve already moved into musical comparisons, I might as well take it into the realm of sports, specifically tennis.

    Roger Federer is, to me, the consummate Emersonian, in that he embodies so clearly and elegantly the character and quality of Self-Reliance. He’s utterly comfortable coachless. He doesn’t constantly look to his box, to his entourage in the stands, for encouragement or criticism (or illegal coaching for that matter), unlike most other players. And, as to the question of possibly allowing for courtside coaching, he’s answered that playing a tennis match is kind of like taking an exam, and that your eyes should only ever be on your own page. And if your eyes start wandering, start looking over the shoulder of the person in front of you, or to the side of you, something’s wrong, you’re cheating, trying to steal easy answers from outside of you, rather than working to the solve the problems for yourself, on your own. You yourself, in effect, are not really taking the test. How Emersonian is that! Whether or not you agree with him on this issue, his answer reflects his self-reliant stance.

    And, more deeply, more resonantly, when watching him play at his best, athletics and aesthetics seeming to become one, he gives the impression not of struggling to defeat his opponent, of directing his attention and arsenal to the guy on the other side of the net – but rather, he seems strangely, beautifully self-directed, as though he were an artist, inwardly working on his craft, singing his own song, in solitude. And his opponent just happens to be in the way. He concerns himself with himself, not with his opponent. He’s working on his own perfection, on the perfection of his own game. And, from this sovereign seat of self-ability, outward circumstances flow. He works on the art of his game, and, as a result, he happens to win the match. But the aim is always the “being and becoming” of his own ability. The outcome is just the aftereffect.

    At least that’s the impression he gives to me, when I watch him at his best. He seems peculiarly inwardly directed, self-absorbed in some sublime way. He’s seeking simply to embody himself. And that seems to me the purest Emersonianism.

  • mynocturama

    That should read “to solve” not “to the solve” – argh.

  • hurley

    mynocturama: Yes on Federer, but he’s losing as I write. What a misery!

  • Bobby


    Nominating Federer as the next Emerson is anything BUT whacky! And for those of you who think otherwise, may all your future meals consist of liver and mushy Brussels sprouts. Anyway, there happen to be a television special on Tiger Woods yesterday, and Tiger said something which caught my attention. And I believe it speaks to what you observed in Federer.

    mynocturama, you said that when watching Federer, “he seems strangely, beautifully self-directed, as though he were an artist, inwardly working on his craft, singing his own song, in solitude. And his opponent just happens to be in the way. He concerns himself with himself, not with his opponent.

    This is essentially what a few of Tiger’s peers said about watching Tiger set up for golf shot. However, when Tiger was asked about those particular moments, he said it was then when he would consciously “remove himself from the shot/game”, and just allow the shot to happen. I’d be curious if Federer would say the same thing. I can hear Emerson saying, “If he doesn’t then he’s lying.” 🙂

    I’m reminded of that line in “Spiritual Laws” when Emerson says:

    Their success lay in their parallelism to the course of thought, which found in them an unobstructed channel; and the wonders of which they were the visible conductors seemed to the eye their deed.

    This line speaks to those moments when the audience, mouth wide open from watching the athlete make a beautiful shot/play, showers him/her with praise and glory, seemingly unaware that it was those moments when the athlete himself/herself was simply an observer as well.

  • Potter

    Kicking this around about Ellington, Chris says:

    From the lyceum and the dance-hall, Emerson and Ellington both come to us as openly and entirely religious figures, about equally brilliant inventors of unorthodox (or anti-orthodox) prose and orchestral prayers.

    Was Emerson was a religious figure? Anti-orthodox and anti-religious I see. This may rest on my interpretation of what religious means and my interpretation of what I have read by Emerson, by no means everything, but I would say he was a very “spiritual” being but not religious.

  • Roger Federer and Tiger Woods sound right to me as Emersonians. And most definitely the improvisational wonder Sonny Rollins. But hurley raises a great question: how musical was Emerson? My guess is: not very. I don’t remember a parlor piano at the house in Concord… I’m reminded also of what seemed to his contemporaries a block against fiction. There was always some doubt that he read Moby Dick or any of Hawthorne’s novels at all. Just impressions here, but you don’t sense that RWE was himself a follower of the “performing arts” or that he was entranced by story-telling embellishments on philosophical thinking.

  • Potter

    Some thoughts about Georgia O’Keefe: From the way she tells her story her life embodies self-reliance and simplicity. Her work was inspired by what she saw and chose to focus on (of course as most painters) but her forms make an unique language, her own, unmistakeably so. Intelligence and intuition ( insight) pervade her work as well as her connection to nature.

    These quotes are Emersonian I think:

    I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught.


    I said to myself, I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me – shapes and ideas so near to me – so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.


    Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.

    If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.

    …Well, I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.


    I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at – not copy it.

  • Concerning Harold Bloom’s commentary on Emerson.

    From my perspective, Emerson’s wisdom and insight as rendered in Self-Reliance are profoundly archetypal. It is illuminated with the unmistakable radiance and sheer brilliance of the essential thing, and in that sense it strikes me as near ignorance to refer to it as “Emersonian” at all. Emerson the person is essentially absent, merely the conduit through which the timeless is given currency. Self-Reliance is the wisdom of the ages personified through Emerson, not Emerson personified as such.

    Bloom, to his credit, admits as much when he says the “the best and oldest parts of ourselves are the God within.” However, to refer to this insight as “straight Emerson” is intellectual mockery and heresy against the timeless and enduring body of mythos and philosophy that have informed us for millennia. It is resonate in the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, and present (as the neo-Platonist inform us) in the philosophy of the Egyptians, and I would also argue in the teachings of Abraham, and certainly in the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. We need not even bother with Alchemy or the wisdom traditions of the East where the essence of Self-Reliance is rudimentary as well.

    Emerson is indeed a seer and a sage. No doubt his sublime sensibilities made fast by the depths of his sorrow and coupled to an elegant and gregarious mastery of language distinguish Emerson and set him apart an icon worthy of our reverence.

  • However, to assert as Bloom does that, “he is the mind of America” and “and he is not only the first absolutely original mind to appear in the United States, but he usurped, I think, everything that could be peculiarly American, about thought as such. By which I do not mean philosophy because he was not interested in being a philosopher, I mean by the total process of what you might want to call imaginative cognition, Emerson moved in and took over all the space” is to conflate the messenger with the message. As is Bloom’s assertion that “the whole phenomenon of American culture, even with tens of millions of people who have never heard of Emerson, let alone read him, is a profoundly Emersonian affair.” Absolute non-sense, this insistence on a sort of Newtonian cause and effect in regard to inspiration, influence and the emergence and transference of ideas.

    Such an assertion does more to locate Bloom’s personal (and irrational) sense of identification with Emerson and illuminate his paradigm than present anything worthy of the accolade “scholarship”. If this is what passes for scholarship in the present era, is it any wonder our institutions of higher learning “have stopped educating” as Bloom asserts? To his credit, he at least allows that “Emerson’s” wisdom is prefigured in Gnosticism. Such intellectual isolationism perhaps explains in part his failure to “understand” Buddhism. After all, what is the essence of the wisdom traditions of the East (even the I-Ching) teaching if not self reliance?

    To assert that Emerson “is not interested in being a philosopher” in one breath and in the next to refer to him as a “wisdom writer” is absolutely oxymoronic.

    Perhaps I am ill-informed, off track and obstructed in my reasoning, if so will someone please illuminate which part of the wisdom and principles present in Self-Reliance are genuinely and authentically “original” in Emerson.

  • mynocturama

    Flow – your points are well-put. I’ll try to toss you some responses.

    First off, with regards to Harold Bloom, I can’t help but recall Theodor Adorno’s statement, part praise and part critique, concerning psychoanalysis: “In psychoanalysis, only the exaggerations are true.” I think the same may be said for Bloom. You can think of Bloom as a sort of professional literary hero-worshipper. In a strong sense he is a provocateur, and would probably consider dutiful fact-based scholarship – cautious, footnoted, covering all its bases – flat-out boring, or simply missing the point when it comes to literature. For instance, his antipathy towards the “New Historicist” school of literary criticism, and towards “Historicism” in general, is pretty well known.

    One of his favorite Emerson quotes, and one of mine too, comes from the Divinity School Address: “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” And that’s what he’s largely about, kick-starting in the reader a sense of literary grandeur, of what literature can do for mind and soul, stressing its affective effects in particular. As I said in another post, he can definitely overstate the influence of the writers he loves. Which can get tiresome. Sometimes it sounds like he’s saying that everything and anything starts with Shakespeare. And at some point, you begin to wonder how useful or fruitful this is, seeing Shakespeare suffused everywhere. It can collapse and conflate things together, rather than bring them into sharper relief.

    So my point, I guess, is, with Bloom, you have to accept, take for granted, his grandiosity, and take his statements not so much literally, but as electric shocks or jolts, meant to awaken in you your own sense of literary largeness.

    And there are interesting contradictions in Bloom too. While he’s absolutely against treating literature as just another set of historical texts – he wants to see literary genius as rising above its particular time and place, its specific social and historical context, as inexplicable, in a sense, coming from nowhere else except from the author in his or her genius and creative capacity – he’s said himself that his overriding concern is influence, in its force and mystery. So, while he sees literary genius as in some sense ahistorical, as entering into history rather than explainable from history, he also emphasizes influence, which entails emphasizing the sequence of authors, one after the other, the influence of what’s gone on before on what’s come after. So I guess, for Bloom, there’s human history, what we normally think of when we think of history, and there’s literary history, the chain of authentic literary authors influencing each other through time. And these two “histories” run in parallel. I guess.

  • mynocturama

    OK, maybe what I’m trying to say is better put this way: Bloom is a literary lover. And you don’t really expect a lover to be “objective” about his beloved, do you?

    I’ve already done this once in this thread, and I kind of feel bad about doing it again, but I’m going to go ahead and cut and paste a post I wrote at the end of the “Self-Reliance” thread, since it was stirred by Bloom, and Chris’ interview specifically. I wrote it originally for my “History” lead-in, but took it out for length:

    I also want to say something on Emerson’s influence, his relation to other American writers following after him. Chris discussed Emerson with Harold Bloom, in an interview before the beginning of ROS, I believe. Bloom perhaps tends to overstate the impact of the writers he loves, but, with Emerson, the line of influence seems to me very evident. This might be a stretch on my part, but I like to think of Emerson’s position in American literature as something like a superego, not harsh or overly punitive, but relatively benevolent, though nevertheless admonishing. Perhaps a more appropriate term would be ego ideal, “the unattained but attainable self” as he writes in History (this concept, by the way, is at the core of what Stanley Cavell calls Emersonian Perfectionism, his own elaboration of Emerson’s ethical philosophy). Emerson wasn’t by any means the first American writer – Washington Irving came before him, and I suppose you can count some of the “founding fathers” (a problematic term, I know, but it works, for better or worst, as shorthand) as literary figures. But Emerson was the first, it seems to me, to call for a new, original, literary form or style or mode of expression befitting the American experiment, as a democracy, and, importantly, as a continental country (whole set of issues/problems, yes, about claiming or striving for an original or “indigenous” American literary voice, as beneficiaries of European colonialism – though, to Emerson’s credit, check out his letter protesting Cherokee removal to Martin Van Buren:

    So, Emerson called for something new, and, in doing so, started something new himself. And this quality of the clarion call, informing the tenor and tone of Emerson’s writings, is characteristic of the superego or ego ideal, the conceiving of and striving for what _ought_ to be. But there’s a strain, a sternness, that comes with the clarion call. Emerson was a preacher, after all, and the pontificating from the pulpit sticks around still. So, Whitman heard the call, and was able to slide in a little more libido into the proceedings, to complement the sterner superego. The continuity and contrast between Emerson and Whitman is especially evident in their respective poetry – Emerson’s lines come across as tight, constricted, compared with Whitman’s more relaxed, sensual, open free form lines. Thoreau heard the call, having read Emerson’s Nature as an undergrad, and went on to work out in more detail our relation to our environment, its specifics and implications (Emerson’s “Nature,” his first published work, is more about the human mind in its relation to the world, than about nature per se – Thoreau fleshed out the texture and detail). So Thoreau practically instantiated Emerson’s ideals out in the world. I’m simplifying and caricaturing a bit, but I just wanted to offer a sketch and sense of Emerson’s rippling influence.

  • Thank you, mynocturama, well said, I think I get it now! Bloom is yet another Yale trained practioner of “shock and awe”?

  • mynocturama

    And another thing: I disagree too with Bloom’s claim that Emerson isn’t “interested in being a philosopher.” Or, rather, let me qualify it. I think what Bloom means is that Emerson isn’t writing philosophy in the conventional, systematic sense. He’s not at pains to clarify his terms, or be explicitly logical. But Bloom, again, overstates things. I think Emerson is very concerned with philosophy, with the philosophical tradition, and refers and responds to it throughout his essays. His essays are filled with what can clearly be called “philosophical” claims, concerning ethics and epistemology and other fancy philosophical stuff. He was influenced by Kant via Coleridge. When he says, for instance, in “Self-Reliance,” that “time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes,” how is that not philosophical? And again from the same essay: “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.” Here he’s obviously referencing Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” – again, revealing his philosophical concerns. (This is also an example of Emerson’s trickiness, his slyness: he bemoans the tendency to quote others, while quoting Descartes.)

    Besides, Bloom belies himself, contradicts himself (Emersonianly so), when he states that Emerson is the source of the “American difference” in both literature and philosophy, refering to Emerson as a deep influence on the Pragmatists.

    Stanley Cavell, by the way, has devoted a good chunk of his career to redeeming Emerson from the label of “non-philosopher,” as a sayer of nice sayings, and nothing much else. Much of his work is an elaboration of Emerson, working off and from Emerson.

    And Flow – I’ll try to answer you – “will someone please illuminate which part of the wisdom and principles present in Self-Reliance are genuinely and authentically “original” in Emerson” – soon.

  • mynocturama

    Ha! Yes, though his “shock and awe” is of a different sort than Wolfowitz’s. It involves bon mots, not bombs.

  • Zeke

    As a relative newcomer to Emerson’s writing, and in the context of this thread, I have a question. Is Emerson philosopher, prophet or performer? Is he trying to convince me, change me or entertain me?

    Is he the same persona in the lecture hall as on the page?

  • Potter, Beautiful quotes from O’Keeffe. And I take it back about Pollack – He may have been having Emersonial moments when he painted his best paintings and when he said things like “I don’t paint nature I am nature”. But he was possessed by demons that made him a cruel and dysfunctional person. Maybe the great oversoul looked at miserable Jackson Pollack and said, “Lets see if we can squeeze something beautiful out of this miserable fellow.”

  • Bobby

    Below are comments/questions I’ve written to myself while reading Emerson’s essays, our Emerson blog, and listening to Chris’s interviews with both Bloom and Richardson.

    Who is the 20th Century Emerson?

    In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’

    Rabbi Zusya

    It seems to me the question: “Who is the 20th Century Emerson?” is incomplete. It’s like asking: ‘Who will win the Oscar?’ You can’t answer it without knowing the category. The same is true for the Emerson question. What’s the category; what criteria am I to base my answer? I can only think of two: Teacher and Exemplar


    An individual whose purpose is to simply: 1. State/remind us that we all have a purpose, a unique reason for being here. 2. Present to us a process/way we can find, dare I say recover that purpose.

    Note: Another name for purpose might be Truth. That is to say that in the end there is only Truth, and that Truth exists/manifests itself in many ways. So, just as an Elm tree would be an expression of Truth so long as it lived as an Elm tree and not an Oak tree (not that an Elm tree has a choice in the matter) we, too, are expressions, or conduits, of Truth so long as we are living the life we are intended to live. This leads to the second category.


    An individual who is fulfilling/living his or her purpose/Truth.

    Note: Like I said above, it is possible for someone to live a life that appears to be expressing Truth/Purpose, but is in fact not. For example, Tiger Woods may exemplify the ideal golfer. However, if his reason(s) to play golf are to satisfy/fulfill the need(s) of something other than his purpose, e.g. money/fortune, or love of a parent, then Tiger Woods could not be considered a candidate for the ‘Emerson of the 20th Century’ award.

    Essentially both questions boil down to this: “Who in the 20th Century is living their purpose?” And the simple answer is: I have no idea. To answer it would require I know their purpose, and quite frankly that seems a little presumptuous. In the end only the individual can answer that question, and I’d be very suspect of anyone who announced to the world that they were living that life. Like Emerson says, “The less a man thinks or knows about his virtues, the better we like him.”

    Emerson the Man

    I read Emerson so that I may know Emerson. However, when I read/participate in the Emerson blog, and listen to Chris’s interviews regarding Emerson, do I in fact come away knowing more about Emerson, or more about Chris and all of you? Perhaps both. That being said,

    What would Emerson say if he saw all of us spending our time discussing him? At times we’ve elevated him so high (guilty as charged) I’ve wondered if he would die for lack of oxygen. Would Emerson the man know our Emerson? Would he recognize himself on this page; in Richardson’s biography; or Chris’s interviews? In the end, would Emerson shake his head and say we’re missing the point in trying to understand him. Or would he support our little endeavor here so long as we understood that our discussion of him was only beneficial if it help each of us find/know our own self? And if that were true, would Emerson then have to concede any credit and state, “Not unto me, not unto me.” as he says in “Spiritual Laws”?


    I was raised in the Evangelical church. I hated every minute of it. Not because I didn’t believe in God, because I do. It was that mammoth sign above the sanctuary door that read: “No Rational Thought Allowed!” At least that’s what it should have read. Needless to say, in college I majored in Philosophy. Logic. Ontology. Epistemology. They were all interesting, at times even enlightening. But in the end, philosophy did not help me find “that gleam of light” which flashes across my mind from within. Do I blame philosophy? No. But, as I’ve said before, if I was the devil, and I wanted to divide Man from God, I’d give them Philosophy…and religion. It’s also why I love Emerson. He was obviously reading my mind when he wrote:

    “The intellectual life may be kept clean and healthful, if man will live the life of nature, and not import into his mind difficulties which are none of his.”

    “Our young people are diseased with the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, predestination, and the like. These never presented a practical difficulty to any man, — never darkened across any man’s road, who did not go out of his way to seek them”

    The question now is: Why do I still enjoy attending Mass and rereading all my philosophy books? 🙂

    So, when Bloom says that Emerson isn’t interested in being a philosopher, I agreed with him. But, as Cornell West said to Chris, Emerson is a philosopher only if we think of philosophy in the etymological sense of the word; that Emerson is a seeker of knowledge, and not a possessor. Is this what you mean, mynocturama, when you say: “Emerson is very concerned with philosophy, with the philosophical tradition, and refers and responds to it throughout his essays.”


    I believe you asked which part of the wisdom and principles present in Self-Reliance are genuinely and authentically “original”.

    I would say none of them are original. And I say this with no disrespect toward Emerson, but only because in the interview with Richardson, Chris asked him to state Emerson’s case about Nature. Richardson replied that Emerson would say that what he was teaching was not new stuff, just new names for old stuff. The ‘words’ may be original, but not the ideas.

  • Potter

    I love these posts. Regarding Flow’s question which part of Emerson is genuinely and authentically orginal, I did not think the question serious when first posed on the “Self-reliance” thread. I took it to be humerous, but it was not apparently. I did so because Emerson indicates that he is tapping into that which is much larger that himself and orginality is not the issue. Originality is connected to ego, or claiming originality is. In the spiritual realm, there is no individual originality. Authenticity is another thing. I would not couple that with originality. Emerson preaches authenticity. Whether he embodied it in his life is hard to say as Bobby indicates. It’s not really important, or not important to me anyway.

    I think I should post this in “Spiritual Laws” which perhaps wants for posts. I have barely begun sinking into it that essay trying to get a sense of what Emerson means. I am thinking now, after reading the above wonderful musings that Emerson was tapping into what Joseph Campbell and Aldous Huxley before his called “the perenniel philosophy”. Always with me now, I think of a passage from Chuang Tzu translated as “The Dexterous Butcher” which I have posted on the “Spiritual Laws” thread.

  • Potter

    that should read: “what Joseph Campbell and Aldous Huxley before him called ‘the perenniel philosophy’…

    What I meant to say is that Emerson expresses what comes through, his spirituality, rather than his self, originating from his self, his ego etc. He lets go of that. Living a genuinely spiritual life is different from being religious or living a religious life.

    While reading “Love” I thought it funny when Emerson showed concern about what people thought of him. Uncharacteristic from what I have read so far…

    Emerson from “Love”: I have been told that my philosophy is unsocial and that in public discourses my reverence for the intellect makes me unjustly cold to the personal relations. ( he goes on to defend himself)

  • Potter

    Sorry -my spelling is going…..perennial.

    Wikipedia has a page on Perennial philosophy.


    The term “Perennial Philosophy” was coined by Leibniz, but popularized by Aldous Huxley, according to whom it pertains to a primary concern “with the one, divine Reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and minds. But the nature of this one Reality is such that it cannot be directly or immediately apprehended except by those who have chosen to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit.”


  • Potter,

    thanks for raising the issue of authenticity. To inquire about what is “genuinely and authentically Emerson” in Self-Reliance is a very poor articulation of the issue I am trying to raise. Everything I’ve encountered in Emerson’s writing thus far is perfectly genuine and authentic. I have nothing but reverence and respect for Emerson and his art.

    The point I was trying to make is more concerned with Bloom’s conception of originalaity and influence. Thanks again for catching this. I have another couple fo comments I’d like to add but they will have to wait until later in the day.

  • Potter,

    Thanks for the pointer to the material on Perennial Philosophy. I haven’t yet had a chance to digest it but, upon a glance, it seems to convey a sense of what I’m trying to arrive at by questioning the validity of Bloom’s conception of originality and influence.

    The post in the Self-Reliance thread was indeed intended as humor because it concerned Emerson not Bloom. That is to say an artist not a critic.

  • bobby,

    kudos to you for your splendid entry above. Your perspective concerning the Emerson question, i.e. who merits recognition as the 20th century Emerson corresponds with my own: “An individual who is fulfilling/living his or her purpose/Truth.” From that perspective everyone named thus far in response to the inquiry seems to me to satisfy the criteria.

    Concerning the segment labeled “Emerson the Man” again in I agree in the main, however I would add that I read Emerson to better know myself. I wonder if it is possible to know Emerson by reading him? It seems that to get a glimpse of Emerson now, we must resurrect him in our imagination and allow him to communicate with us. In this sense there are as many RWEs as there are readers. The historical figure has receded into mystery, as a salt doll walking into the sea, but there is virtue in seeking him and edification in communion with him.

  • Potter

    I don’t have the Richardson book (yet) or maybe the Lawrence Buell book but I have Carlos Baker’s very readable “Emerson Among the Eccentrics”- a group protrait of Emerson’s family and friends for more about Emerson the man.

    Gosh this is so much more interesting and satisfying than reading the paper!

  • Zeke

    Regarding the question of who might be today’s Emersons. I went back and listened to the show with Robert Richardson–and enjoyed it even more this time. Naturally, Chris pressed this question on Richardson and other guests. A couple of Richardson’s general points struck me.

    Whoever one chooses as a candidate s/he would come from the “movement” not the establishment. More than anything else (nature, religion, philosopher) Emerson is a “liberator.” He stands for the “human spirit” against the “prison of forms.”

    He also noted that his wife stressed another qualification. “Above all else, RWE is a wild man or he is nothing.”

  • Pentagon Paid $998,798 to Ship Two 19-Cent Washers By Tony Capaccio

    Aug. 16 (Bloomberg) — A small South Carolina parts supplier collected about $20.5 million over six years from the Pentagon for fraudulent shipping costs, including $998,798 for sending two 19-cent washers to an Army base in Texas, U.S. officials said.

    GodzillaVsBambi is this a fair representation of the “economic” nature of our empire?

  • oops wrong thread, please disregard the prior post.

  • yrbiographer

    I think Stanley Cavell’s approach is rather apt (after all, Frank Capra articulated a really deep, intuitively American spirit but did so with a modern recognition of irony and shared social life), but, you know, Cavell himself would do pretty well too. Or, even better: Richard Rorty!

    The initial, surface analogy is obvious–both were thoughtful, influential, and beloved philosophers who failed to really engage the philosophical mainstreams of their eras (the Continental and analytic traditions, respectively)–to the point that, arguably, they could only be called “philosophers” in a slightly qualified sense. And of course it also goes deeper than that: both produced impressively provocative and exciting work animated by deep commitments to (i) an understanding of the world as centrally accessible to individuals; (ii) recognizing individual autonomy while inviting us to see ourselves as part of a larger project; and (iii) an ethical, pragmatic interest in philosophy of a means of achieving particularly American democracy.

  • W.M. Palmer

    A note for history (or the wayback machine if again deleted): I posted v. early on in this thread a comment that evidenced a certain (polite, I hope) skepticism towards Bloom. The comment noted and linked to Naomi Wolfe’s essay concerning what she alleged were Bloom’s improper sexual advances toward her, and how those derailed her emotionally for a time – the essay linked to pointed out that there were other women who supported Wolfe’s claim (which of course, while suggestive that it is true, does not mean so – Bloom has denied the incident).

    In short, I wondered if the incident suggested that, as a recent writer characterized Satre, Bloom was a playboy with a better patter – surely a pertinent point. (As a Harvard College graduate, I note that such figures are well known to exist on Ivy League campuses – which, was, in essence, Wolfe’s claim as to Bloom.)

    My point was not smear Bloom unfairly, but rather to make a purely theoretical one: Bloom, as an expropriator and articulator of Emerson, casts himself as an authority figure. If the mantle of authority is regularly used for self-serving purposes – such as to facilitate a pattern of seduction of lessers in a hierarchical system, then one must wonder about the claim to authority and insights proclaimed – is the figure one who has truly dedicated himself to the pursuit of truth, or rather a sexual being how has situated himself to serve his individual carnal interests in significant part – there is nothing more corrupt than the false claim to be acting for “fatherly” purposes when not – witness the systemic fraud perpetrated by a good portion of the Catholic priesthood . . ..

    Lydon deleted the post – and also put up what could be fairly characterized as a scathing post regarding Wolfe that – in its excessive nature – evidenced a lost of intellectual self-control. He then – fascinatingly – deleted his own post.

    The deletion of my post – one that did no more than put forth a claim about Bloom noted in Wikipedia (both in its entry posting re Bloom, and in its entry re sexual harrassment) was of poor form, in my opinion, and, more importantly, cast doubt on Lydon as being commited to an open and full discourse, rather than on a kind of intellectual version of elder worship.

    I find several aspects of this situation curious and telling.

    The first is that Lydon (as am I) is a fan of C. Paglia – who notably heaped criticism on Wolfe re the Bloom claim (and otherwise). To have read his post was to almost conclude that he was chanelling her (if not with quite her wit).

    The second is that at his deepest level Lydon is believer in the transcendant power of a humanist, intellectual worldview (going back to Emerson, and beyond) that leans on the purity of a certain type of intellectual effort – that find a redemptive grace to humanist insight. Seen this way, Lydon was an acoylyte speaking with a priest (Bloom) – a father figure not to be tainted (Lydon’s vociferous defense of Bloom and then what was essentially a cover-up of that defense suggests a pyschological truth to that metaphor).

    To tie this back to the intellectual cast of the show, I find that above dynamic to explain much of what I see as the limitation’s of the show – for example, Lydon’s too quick dismissal of the points made by Hitchens in his critique of theism. In short, there is a point where Lydon turns from thougth to faith – and seems resolute in defending the objects of his faith – such as Bloom – even if to an impartial outsider, they seem to warrant the smart skepticism that otherwise often makes this program standout from its peers.

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson is the only Mind of America as Harold Bloom says and I agree. Emerson represents us so sublimely and is also a great ironist, even a great liberal ironist (a term by Richard Rorty). Goethe said of the plant that the leaf was the part from which everything descended and took growth. Loveable Goethe is one of Emerson’s Representitive Men, and charmed everybody, though Emerson himself was not sweet and it is a mistake to think that he was. The pagan Goethe is Germany’s national and best poet. And, I am uncomfortable with paganism, yet the sage Emerson’s prophetic American Religion and angelic religious ferocity is very comfortable for me in my shoes. Bloom thinks that we want and need Goethe as a treatment for our current debasement of the arts. Nietzsche coming after Goethe scorned criticism, and was also great for the sharpening of the way we read by and by.