Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Life of Harold Bloom

I did not know Harold Bloom, who died this week at the age of 89.  I have one of his books, The Western Canon, in front of me, and I have enjoyed reading bits and pieces of it, but can't claim to have read it through.   Certainly he appears to have been the most brilliant and prolific literary critic of the Silent generation (b. 1925-42), and his books had an unusually wide readership.  What struck me reading the fine obituary that appeared in the New York Times was how exemplary his life was--how much of twentieth-century egalitarianism and intellectual approach he seemed to embody.  I could not help thinking, too, that his early life and career had some things in common with my own father's, particularly in the way they saw their relationship to the culture and institutions of the country their parents had immigrated to from Eastern Europe earlier in the century.

Bloom, the Times, records, was born on July 11, 1930, into an orthodox Jewish household in the Bronx, the youngest of five children.  My own father had been born seventeen years earlier nearly to the day in Brooklyn, the ninth of ten children in a similar, though somewhat better off, orthodox family.  Bloom went to the Bronx High School of Science, then as now a competitive public high school at the summit of the New York educational system, while my father graduated from New Utrecht in Brooklyn near the top of his class.  Bloom won a scholarship to Cornell, while my father whose family had lost its money in the housing bust just before the Depression, went to the University of Wisconsin, which was very close to free even for out of staters in those distant days. 
They were, however, different young men.  My father, though a very good student, was the kind of all-around man who could, and did, win a Rhodes Scholarship, while Bloom was obviously far more singleminded in his focus on intellectual pursuits.  He had discovered literature as I discovered history--at a very young age--and he seems to have been more compulsive about assimilating as much of it as he could than I ever was.  He also had a prodigious memory, and claimed, pace the Times, to know the entire works of Shakespeare, as well as those of several other poets, by heart.

From Cornell Bloom went to graduate school at Yale, then the citadel of the New Criticism, which taught that the meaning of a work had to be found within itself, based on a close analysis of its language, without reference to the life of the author or developments in the outside world.  He rejected that view, arguing (apparently for the rest of his life) that all great works were part of a dialogue, and a struggle, with the great writers of the past--an approach which made a broad acquaintance with western literature essential.  Bloom's apostasy--his rejection of his department's prevailing approach, the preferred method of some of its leading lights--did not prevent the Yale English department from hiring him as soon as he had earned his doctorate at the age of 24, and tenuring him some years later.  He remained at Yale all his life, although he severed his connection with the department in the 1970s and became a university professor.  What fascinates me about all this is how Bloom evidently saw himself in relation to western society and culture--and the contrast between his views and those of the would-be scholars who see themselves as outsiders today.

Bloom, to repeat, had been raised as an orthodox Jew, a member of a minority that had been scorned and oppressed for centuries and which still faced some discrimination in academia at the time he came into it.  He identified as a Jew, but he had abandoned his religion.  Yet unlike race- and gender-focused critics today, he easily fell in love with the western literary tradition, found everything he needed to pose the questions that fascinated him within it, and simply tried to beat the goyim at their own game--as indeed, in many ways, he did.  In return, the academy did not punish him either for his originality or for the breadth of his interests--as it surely would if he were starting out today.   In the same way, my father abandoned his religion and assimilated, even to the point of marrying a gentile, and went in to public service, working in diplomatic posts in 1948-54, 1961-9, and 1976-80, an extraordinary period in American politics and history in which he was honored and fulfilled to take part.  Both Harold Bloom and Philip Kaiser made their careers within important parts of western civilization, whose arc, we can now see, was reaching a climax when they were young men.  Its appeal won them both over and they never looked back. Now academia in particular is obsessed with the supposed flaws of western civilization, and is filled with scholars who believe that their role is to show how it has oppressed their gender or race.

I have now read three obituaries of Bloom, in the Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian.   All three summarized his career more than adequately, but none mentioned one of its highlights: that he was the dissertation adviser and mentor of my exact contemporary Camille Paglia, whom I regard as the greatest literary and artistic critic of the Boom generation.  In A Life in History, I thanked my own dissertation adviser Ernest May--who was just two years older than Bloom--for his reaction, in 1973 I believe, when I told him that I wanted to write my dissertation about the relations between Germany, France and Britain, on the one hand, and the new states of Eastern Europe on the other, during the 1930s.  That was enough for at least three dissertations, but instead of telling me that I simply had to cut it down--as many professors surely would have--May told me that it was a wonderful idea and that I should go ahead. Three years later, it was done.  Paglia must have had a similar experience when she told Bloom that she wanted to write an analysis of androgyny in literature and art from the ancients to modern times.  He too evidently encouraged her, and the result became Sexual Personae, another work that found new things to say about the western tradition without trying to repudiate it.  But Paglia, like myself, found that modern academia had no room for scholars of such breadth, and she has spent her career teaching the history of literature and art and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, while postmodernists rule the nation's literary departments.  She had no opportunity to inspire, encourage and train her counterparts in the Xer and Millennial generations.  Bloom was fortunate to be born when he was--and he made the most of it.  Some day, whether in 50, 100, or 1000 years, others like him will get their chance.


Energyflow said...

I think a deep involvement in and anlysis of history, literature, philosophy, sciences, technological development, religious and cultural practices is critical to understanding of past, present, and future of self, society and the universe around us. Cutural relativism or cultural marxism is absurd. This is like reverse discrination, banning Plato and Shakespeare as racists. When one goes as a businessman abroad one learns language, cultural forms thoroughly if one is to succeed. Similarly at home. Safe spaces do not exist. The country divides itself as everyone migrates physiclly and online only to where they hear and see what and whom fit theif preconceived notions. This has created the preconditions for civil conflict. We live in a global village. I was raised catholic with a protestant, mainline, mother and as teen went to pentecostal services several years, then learned to love modern sciences and classical, british, American literature in school as well as history. As an adult I learned about business through an MBA studies and import export experience, working abroad inEurope and with various nationalities in the office(chinese, italian, german, russian). Later I have worked with working class people of southern an Eastern Europe, Africans, muslims, and with doctors and nurses of all sorts, origin. My hobbies are diverse in origin, indian, chinese like yoga and tai chi, involving tranformation of self at deep level more possible than in Western traditions or philosophies. The global village means we have to give up old selves and adapt to everyone else. However we can learn deeper in our own traditions and see that the parallels in our cultures are strong. We laugh at movie scenes that make fun of pure naive cultural relativism as in the movie 'airplane' with a young man trying to teach native Africans baseball or another film where an American expects yanomami indians to know Michael Jackson before they kill him. I know from personal experience the difficulties of a bicultural childhood(british, canadian) and marriage(American, russian) and navigating my whole life through an endless kaleidoscope of changing cultural landscapes, not to mention the technological changes constantly upturning all our lives. Essentially it is all too confusing for any average person to take in. To be truly honest with ourselves as individuls, nobody can take it all in. So civil crisis, particularly in the West where the greatest level of freedom was allowed, is inevitable. In counties with less diversity in daily life, china, japan, korea, russia, india, iran they will be able to at least not argue about every cultura, religious difference but focus on the tasks at hand of daily survival in an increasingly complex world. Westerners need a respite from increasing diversity to find a focus, balance, depth, as I or Bloom did personally. Through studies, in depth contacts, experience. The mass of the poulation has to absorb it all(foreign cultures, own culture and history, different peoples). But we live in bubbles of own makjng.

Kenneth Jost said...

Prof. Kaiser teaches history, not literature. In writing about Harold Bloom's death, Kaiser seems to worry that the Western canon has been displaced in college curricula by the advocates of race, gender and cultural diversity. But, according to researchers cited in this New York Times article, not to worry. 'Mr. Bloom’s Western tradition largely retains its hold on the curriculum,' though Toni Morrison's views 'unmistakably opened the canon to new agendas and values.' https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/19/opinion/sunday/harold-bloom-canon.html

Bozon said...

Interesting stuff on Paglia. I detest her, of course.
You say that she did not try to repudiate the Western tradition.
That is not my view.
It is, as I have said, a Whig postmodern perv diatribe, "discover the repressed elements of contemporary culture", and read them back into and through history, a Whig postmodern project if there ever was one, although she now positions herself as anti postmodern, anti Foucault, etc.
Don't believe it.
This is apparently what she herself said about her puropse in writing it.
It is a frank unapologetic assault on Western Civilization for the sake of assault:

Paglia said of her objectives with the book, "It was intended to please no one and to offend everyone. The entire process of the book was to discover the repressed elements of contemporary culture, whatever they are, and palpate them. One of the main premises was to demonstrate that pornography is everywhere in major art. Art history as written is completely sex free, repressive and puritanical. I want precision and historical knowledge, but at the same time, I try to zap it with pornographic intensity."

All the best

Roy Bakos said...

I am always astounded when I read pieces like this that decry the loss of Western Civilization. They inevitably lead to the false narrative that there is a move to wipe out anything positive to be said about the west or Western Civ (showed wonderfully by this snippet in the first comment on this article which is, with all due respect, a load of bullshit: " Cutural relativism or cultural marxism is absurd. This is like reverse discrination, banning Plato and Shakespeare as racists).

No one is "banning" Plato or Shakespeare and there is not an English Department in the land where one can graduate with a degree without taking at least a class in Shakespeare. Postmodernists and Post-Colonialists have not destroyed the Western Canon at all; what they have done is expand the canon to include voices that had previously not been listened to who produced (and continue to produce) art, philosophy, literature, and film which are very much a part of the larger culture today.

I love reading this blog and I admire the work of Dr. Kaiser very much. It always disappoints me when conservatives take his words and bemoan a loss that has not happened and use his words to denigrate and destroy all of the work done in academia after 1975.

Thanks for reading.