Books: The Books Interview: Howard Bloom: Bard against the beards

Harold Bloom, scourge of US campus fashion, marks the Brits down too. Boyd Tonkin talks to him
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Harold Bloom, A Biography

Harold Bloom was born in 1930 to a Yiddish-speaking family in New York; his father was a garment worker. Attached to Yale University for more than 40 years, he became Sterling Professor of Humanities there, as well as Berg Professor of English at New York University. The first of 24 books, Shelley's Mythmaking, appeared in 1959; and in 1973 he published his celebrated theory of literary rivalry, The Anxiety of Influence. Recent works have found a wide general audience: The Book of J, The Western Canon and Omens of Millennium. Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human has already sold 116,000 copies. Harold Bloom lives with his wife, Jeanne, near the Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut.

The Yale Herald's freshman website calls Professor Harold Bloom "one hell of a tough grader". Don't we just know it. With breakfast barely over in his Knightsbridge hotel, and his university an ocean's width away, Bloom makes its plain that our own alleged high-flyers have already flunked his test. The day before, he had gone to Oxford to present a slice of his encomium to his beloved Sir John Falstaff ("The mortal god of my imaginings") - one of the virtuoso character studies that fill out the 770-page bulk of Bloom's new bestseller, Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human (Fourth Estate, pounds 25). The bovine Oxonians had lost his thread. "I watched the faces of my audience as I delivered this and I saw blank incomprehension. I had a vision of an airplane flying over cows in a meadow."

If today's students disappoint the ever-active critical volcano who calls himself "the pariah and renegade of my profession", how much more the doltish dons who teach them. "What we're talking about is the destruction of all cognitive and aesthetic standards in the study and interpretation of literature in the name of various grand ideas, like feminism (so-called), like multiculturalism (so-called), like cultural materialism (so-called)." Such invective - what Bloom calls his "usual diatribe" against tenured wreckers - has gingered up campus debate no end since his explosive defence of The Western Canon in 1994.

Now, though, his Shakespearean blockbuster has collected sniffy notices from Britons who stand far outside the radical "School of Resentment" that Bloom loves to hate. The likes of professors John Carey and Stanley Wells have sniped at this transatlantic takeover bid for the nation's "official cult". Not only do new "resentniks" attack beleaguered "Sir John Bloomstaff"; so do the old pedants (of whatever age), the plodding "mouldy figs". "That's something I've taken from the jazz tradition," he explains, "when the bopsters of my youth - followers, like myself, of the great Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Bud Powell - liked to call the Dixieland revivalists `mouldy figs'." I suggest that the narrow textual scholars, who view the Bard as just another jobbing hack, may threaten his iconic status more than committed "resenters": critics who still grant to Shakespeare an enormous, culture-shaping power. "Ideological contrariness," he half-agrees, "may in some ways be preferable to sheer mental defectiveness, as in Mr Carey and Mr Wells. And I'm delighted to be quoted."

A soliloquy from "Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolater" in full vituperative flight is a wonder to behold. At times you think not so much of jovial, roistering Falstaff in the Eastcheap tavern as forsaken Lear on the heath or even fulminating Timon at his misanthropic banquet. Then some shaft of self-parodic wit shines through ("I'm a temperamental old monster"), and the thunderclouds roll away. The Shakespeare book, its rhythms rooted in decades of Yale seminars, captures this Bloomian meteorology in all its glory. Fury (with critics) and awe (at Shakespeare) race across its sky.

And, listening to Bloom's serpentine sentences uncoil on the tape, I sometimes imagined that those eminent New Yorkers, Henry James and Woody Allen, had met in a Manhattan bar and decided to join forces. Here's Bloom on the vaulting visions that torment Macbeth: "What I call his proleptic imagination - his over-anticipation and always jumping ahead of the event - would seem to indicate that, as was evidently the case with Mr D H Lawrence, Macbeth also - although I never put it bluntly in the book - comes too early, my dear."

Bloom lavishes a lot of care on the unvoiced sexual tensions that throb behind the lines. As he moves from play to play, these implicit "foregrounds" form a crucial part of his argument. He claims that Shakespeare "invents" the defining modes of our modern consciousness through "a concourse of men and women unmatched in the rest of literature". Politics and language may not have determined us (as the "resenters" claim), but Shakespeare has.

Bloom's sensitivity to absences and silences extends from the plays to the life. His book says darkly that Shakespeare "carries a private affliction, an erotic vastation, into the high tragedies". Come again? Bloom deciphered thinks that the playwright who eased off after the "creative ecstasy" of the great tragedies was "suffering from syphilis. I hint at it strongly. Had I actually said it, Mr Wells and Mr Carey and the other boobies would be even more hysterical." Now there's a conversation stopper for that Oscar-evening chat about Shakespeare in Love (which Bloom found an "enjoyable travesty", though he deems Joe Fiennes far too cute for balding Will).

The arch Bardolater seems less sure about public attitudes than private maladies. "Shakespeare, so far as I can see, had no politics and no religion," although a well-grounded fear of state repression pushed him into conformity. Bloom accepts Charles Nicholl's argument (in The Reckoning) that thugs hired by the Elizabethan secret service terminated the triple agent Christopher Marlowe "with extreme prejudice" in a Deptford pub. "He had seen the murder of Marlowe, and the horrible torture of Thomas Kyd, involving the breaking of every finger in Kyd's writing hand."

So the dramatist, whatever his secret convictions, became "very clever about avoiding blasphemy... There are outward politics and inward politics. My outward politics in the US are on the left wing, if it still exists, of the Democratic Party. Inwardly, I'm a sheer anarcho-syndicalist." And, on the religious front , "a gnostic sect of one".

Gnosticism - the deep-rooted heresy that supplants a personal deity and His dogmas and priests in favour of the "mortal god" within each questing soul - runs like an occult refrain through many of Bloom's 24 books. He came to maturity, after all, in a theological milieu a world away from the tepid pieties of the Ivy League campus.

This Falstaffian champion of traditional EngLit, this proud heir to Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt, spoke Yiddish before he spoke English. "People sometimes find my English odd because it's self-taught, by reading. I grew up in the old East Bronx with Yiddish-speaking parents, and we spoke only Yiddish at home." Bloom saw his first Shakespeare on New York's Yiddish stage even before, in 1946, he was "ravished for ever" by Ralph Richardson's Falstaff in an Old Vic touring production.

Up in the Bronx, young Bloom read "with a Talmudic speed and a Talmudic retentiveness... I was, when I was barmitzvahed, already in violent arguments with the orthodox rabbis." The gnostic heresy, which sees man as the quasi- divine author of himself, underpins the Bloomian position on Jesus, "a Jewish gnostic", on Milton, and on the great Romantic bards who fed his theory of strong poets striving with their precursors to overcome "the anxiety of influence". As for Shakespeare, "the actual fellow may have gotten himself confessed and died in the odour of sanctity." Yet his brood of self-creating titans, from Richard III through Hamlet to Prospero, occupy a bleak landscape that "verges on nihilism".

In this Bloomian world, gigantic literary figures clash by night with one another and a pitiless Nature. His roll-call of defiant rebels might take as their general Milton's seductive Satan - based, he now believes, on Iago. To his critics' ears, it all sounds too much like a boys' own story. In the 1970s and 1980s, he unsurprisingly reports, Bloom had "a terribly hard time with my feminist students". Now, intriguingly, he says "the worst of those difficulties have vanished in these apocalyptic Nineties".

What has not vanished is the high, vexatious drama of the Bloomian struggle, on page and podium alike. He recalls that, after a series of lectures at Princeton in 1995, a panel of academic "ideologues" had baited him. "Lisa Jardine of London ended her denunciation by shaking her fist and crying out, on behalf of the feminist critics of the world, `we'll stop interrupting you, Harold, when you start paying attention to us'." He then "manifested restraint and stared at the ceiling": a Lear-like pattern of all patience.

Now, "Lisa Jardine of London" remembers a much more genial affair. Her notes record that, just before that peroration, she had pleaded that "the only hope" for the survival of any version of aesthetic value "lies in a dialogue between us". After that, Professor Jardine reports, "He laughed and I laughed, and we all went out to dinner."

Goneril with Lear? Or Beatrice with Benedick? A matter of perspective, perhaps; but also a sign that the stupendous hurricane of Bloom's eloquence can never blow through a vacuum. Memory-enhanced or not, the folly or rancour of "boobies and mouldy figs and academic careerists of all kinds" seem to push him to the peaks of his expository zeal. As a young adept of High Romantic verse, Bloom spent the early 1960s immersed in William Blake. And it was Blake, after all, who said that "without contraries is no progression".