Sunday, October 10, 2010

Readings: The Paris Review Interviews #4

I chose next to read the Paris Review interview with the eminent scholar and literary critic, Harold Bloom. Bloom is almost bigger than life and trying to sum him up in a short introduction to a brief excerpt would be a mug’s game. Bloom is a contrarian, a hyperbolist, a dogmatist, an effective iconoclast, and probably a genius. He is not in any way predictable, which makes his many, many books highly interesting reads.

As a literary critic, his most important text is probably The Anxiety of Influence. The general reader would also profit immensely by reading The Western Canon, as well as Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human (the title alone of this one should adequately explain why I called Bloom a “hyperbolist” above.)

Bloom also writes extensively on Freud, and on various aspects of religion. In this realm, his most controversial text is The Book of J, in which he maintains that the author “J” who wrote the texts which have formed the very heart of the Hebrew scriptures, was probably a woman. Another interesting read is The American Religion, in which Bloom proclaims that American religious life, and therefore the American socio-political agenda, is not founded upon a true Christianity, but rather a newly-evolved, particularly American, species of Gnosticism.

The Harold Bloom interview is very long, and incredibly dense. By the time I was half-way through it, I had already selected three excerpts as possible candidates for use here. I could have picked at least another three in the second half. I finally settled on the one that follows, because I feel that it gives an overall impression of what Bloom is all about. A young reader with any intellectual curiosity and dexterity encountering this excerpt should be launched by it into a lifetime of deep, fruitful reading. In the course of the interview, Bloom quotes his idol, Emerson, as having said “That which I can receive from another is never tuition but only provocation.” That pretty much sums up Harold Bloom for me.


You teach Freud and Shakespeare.


Oh, yes, increasingly. I keep telling my students that I’m not interested in a Freudian reading of Shakespeare but a kind of Shakespearean reading of Freud. In some sense Freud has to be a prose version of Shakespeare, the Freudian map of the mind being in fact Shakespearean. There’s a lot of resentment on Freud’s part because I think he recognizes this. What we think of as Freudian psychology is really a Shakespearean invention and, for the most part, Freud is merely codifying it. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Freud himself says “the poets were there before me,” and the poet in particular is necessarily Shakespeare. But you know, I think it runs deeper than that. Western psychology is much more a Shakespearean invention than a Biblical invention, let alone, obviously, a Homeric, or Sophoclean, or even Platonic, never mind Cartesian or Jungian invention. It’s not just that Shakespeare gives us most of our representations of cognition as such; I’m not so sure he doesn’t largely invent what we think of as cognition. I remember saying something like this to a seminar consisting of professional teachers of Shakespeare and one of them got very indignant and said, You are confusing Shakespeare with God. I don’t see why one shouldn’t, as it were. Most of what we know about how to represent cognition and personality in language was permanently altered by Shakespeare. The principal insight that I’ve had in teaching and writing about Shakespeare is that there isn’t anyone before Shakespeare who actually gives you a representation of characters or human figures speaking out loud, whether to themselves or to others or both, on what they themselves have said. And then, in the course of pondering, undergoing a serious or vital change, they become a different kind of character or personality and even a different kind of mind. We take that utterly for granted in representation. But it doesn’t exist before Shakespeare. It doesn’t happen in the Bible. It doesn’t happen in Homer or in Dante. It doesn’t even happen in Euripides. It’s pretty clear that Shakespeare’s true precursor—where he took the hint from—is Chaucer, which is why I think the Wife of Bath gets into Falstaff, and the Pardoner gets into figures like Edmund and Iago. As to where Chaucer gets that from, that’s a very pretty question. It is a standing challenge I have put to my students. That’s part of Chaucer’s shocking originality as a writer. But Chaucer does it only in fits and starts, and in small degree. Shakespeare does it all the time. It’s his common stock. The ability to do that and to persuade one that this is a natural mode of representation is purely Shakespearean and we are now so contained by it that we can’t see its originality anymore.

I will end by disclosing that I learned from researching this post that Harold Bloom grew up in the Bronx, where he lived on the Grand Concourse and where he exercised his love books at the Bronx Library. This is the same library to which I walked—up Bainbridge Avenue to E. Kingsbridge Road—on many an occasion during my decade-plus sojourn in that borough. Had I only known!