Prepare to meet thy Bloom

Harold Bloom: He is the man literary America loves to hate - and now it's our turn. But what is it about this gentle monomaniac that makes the critics see red?
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The Independent Online

Professor Harold Bloom is feeling mellow and expansive. The reason for his good mood is that here in Britain, the reviews of his new book, How To Read And Why, have been a great deal more supportive than those which greeted its publication in his own country. The tenor of the US reviews must indeed have been virulent. Here are some snatches of the soothing British ones. Eric Griffiths in the London Evening Standard: "He is routinely praised as 'dazzlingly eclectic', but 'dismayingly incoherent' comes nearer the mark." Or Terry Eagleton in The Observer: "Bloom may idolise Shakespeare with all the sticky sentiment of a teenage groupie, but his own language can be as cheap and threadbare as Jimmy Swaggart's." Ouch.

Professor Harold Bloom is feeling mellow and expansive. The reason for his good mood is that here in Britain, the reviews of his new book, How To Read And Why, have been a great deal more supportive than those which greeted its publication in his own country. The tenor of the US reviews must indeed have been virulent. Here are some snatches of the soothing British ones. Eric Griffiths in the London Evening Standard: "He is routinely praised as 'dazzlingly eclectic', but 'dismayingly incoherent' comes nearer the mark." Or Terry Eagleton in The Observer: "Bloom may idolise Shakespeare with all the sticky sentiment of a teenage groupie, but his own language can be as cheap and threadbare as Jimmy Swaggart's." Ouch.

Both of the reviews are from academics, humanities professors like Bloom. The rest have indeed been kinder. Academics are the people, says Bloom, who are most against him. Certainly in the US, among the country's universities, this man has been for many years the object of unabating hatred.

And so he sits, overweight, with untidy bobbles of grey wool on his head and a hand up his jumper grasping a frozen shoulder, in a London hotel room where he clearly hopes for some sympathy and succour. Harold Bloom is 70 years old, softly spoken, a liberal. He has spent his life teaching and writing, for decades now as Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale. As a small child from a working-class family who spoke only in Yiddish, he taught himself English from the writings of Blake. He could be mistaken for some kind of embodiment of all a good American should be. Instead, his name, among the liberal establishment, is mud.

His great crime, essentially, is that when it comes to the teaching of English literature, he counts himself as a traditionalist. This latest volume of his is largely a layman's version of his 1994 book, The Western Canon. How To Read And Why includes, at its start, an essay entitled "Why Read". We do so, says Bloom - and he points out that Bacon, Johnson and Emerson are backing him on this - "in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests". He concludes that reading is a selfish pleasure, not necessarily of any benefit to society as a whole, and suggests that this is why the ideologues who now run the US's higher- education establishments despise it. "The way we read now," he claims, "partly depends upon our distance, inner or outer, from the universities, where reading is scarcely taught as a pleasure..."

Professor Bloom then makes a plea for deep and serious reading, and offers a guide to some of the works he believes best repay such attentions. Above all others, he urges us to read Shakespeare. He also presses upon us Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Blake, Browning, among 50 or so other writers whose claim to greatness seems utterly uncontroversial. The book is little more than an earnest self-help guide for anyone who fancies tackling a few classics, but would appreciate a little guidance as to where to start. Why does he believe that such a book has been controversial at all, and why so much more controversial in America than in Britain?

"I've tried to understand it, but I'm not sure that I do," sighs Bloom with studied weariness. "I was taken aback by the ferocity of the initial batch of reviews in the States, particularly the two in The New York Times, which seems to have declared cultural war upon me. I think it has become an abominable phenomenon. It has become our official counter-cultural newspaper and has a great deal to do with the dumbing down of American culture.

"While I was shocked at how nasty and abusive some of the US reviews were, I have been touched by some of the British ones. I was particularly touched by one by - what is his name?- Her Majesty's chief inspector for schools..." Chris Woodhead. "Yes. I was very touched by him. He didn't quite recant his Leavisite past, but said that with reluctance he had come to agree with me that reading well is a selfish pleasure, that would benefit yourself but would not necessarily benefit society."

Little does Professor Bloom know that it would be almost miraculous for Mr Woodhead not to find common ground with him. Mr Woodhead's recent outrage at the existence in Britain of degrees in "golf-course management" are identical with Mr Bloom's decades of invective against the broadening of the curriculum. His latest diatribes are against Princeton University, which he says is "horribly politically correct, the worst", illustrating this belief with an anecdote from an assistant professor of Victorian Studies there. She recently told Professor Bloom that there had been no doctoral thesis submitted on either Browning or Tennyson for six or seven years. There had last year, however, been two dissertations on the subject of Victorian women's undergarments.

"Dinosaurs like myself have lost the war, there's no question of that," adds Professor Bloom with another world-beating sigh. I point out that if this were really his belief, then he ought to be unfurling the white flag.

"Yes, it's guerrilla fighting. In the universities of the English-speaking world we lost the war a long time ago. We lost it in the Seventies and perhaps didn't fully realise it until the early Eighties. I think it is a war that will stay lost, either until that whole generation eventually retires, and something else takes over, or - and one can see increasing signs of this - they are bored and irritated by their own stances.

"They put themselves in a curious position. They're forced to believe that one novel, one play, one film cannot be intrinsically better than another, that this is always a judgement made on a societal or a gender basis, on the basis of one interest or another, of the majority or the minority... I'm as tired of my anti-resentment rant and cant as I am of theirs..."

The "anti-resentment rant and cant" is a reference to what Professor Bloom calls the School of Resentment - the academics and critics who, armed with the writings of Foucault, demanded the breakdown of the hegemony of the "dead white male", insisted that the central literary canon was restrictive and lacking in relevance, and that the work of the cultural margins, genre writing, popular culture, was worthy of academic study and serious criticism. It is Professor Bloom's refusal to accept that there could be any legitimacy in those views which has marked him out, in academia, as a conservative. This label he detests.

"It is the view of people who have declared they are radicals but who are in fact far more haut bourgeois than I am.

"I love great and difficult literature. With feminism as a political, social, and economic movement I have no quarrel whatsoever. With what calls itself feminist literary criticism, which I believe is like the Holy Roman Empire - not Holy, not Roman, not an Empire. It's not feminist, it's not literary, it's not criticism. With that I have a resounding quarrel, even though, in fact, if you look at the history of it, it all grew out of a kind of rebellion against my own work. They all begin with a violent reaction to The Anxiety of Influence which they insist is a male idea. Now I'm told by black lesbian writers that it's a male, heterosexual, white idea. It's ridiculous."

The Anxiety of Influence, written while Professor Bloom was still a young man, is the book which lays out the critical theory that made his reputation. Essentially, he argues that each new generation of writers has to engage in a fight with the previous generation to achieve literary supremacy. The implication, of course, is that unless you're fully engaged with the canon, your writing is worthless. It's an interesting, if narrow, idea, which seems true of many writers, but not so true of many others.

Professor Bloom, of course, stands by this theory entirely. "Art is an antagonistic procedure. It's a contest. You cannot write a novel, or a poem, or a play, without remembering in some sense, and perhaps repressing the memory of a previous work. But I think it's fatal and unfair to mix up my rejecting feminism as an aesthetic and cognitive stance, or my rejecting multiculturalism - as it calls itself - again as an aesthetic and cognitive stance, or queer studies, or this whole galaxy of stuff. If we have queer studies, why not onanistic studies? I mean, who will speak for Onan? There are people whose sexual identities are purely onanistic. Where does it end? All this has nothing to do with either cognitive power or aesthetic value."

These are two things which Professor Bloom appears to believe himself to know more about than anyone. His claim that Post-structuralism came about as a reaction to The Anxiety Of Influence is absurd - his gentle monomania is apparent in every word he speaks. He has appointed himself guardian of traditional cultural values, without realising that it is the self-appointed guardians that make people suspicious of monolithic culture.

There are plenty of people who would agree with Harold Bloom that our culture has become lazy, self-indulgent and reductive. But Harold Bloom insists that in order to agree with him you have to concede not only that he was first to spot the notion, but that he also invented it. America does not hate Professor Bloom and all he stands for. The antagonism is clearly quite personal. The fact that he understands so much about literature, and so little about life, is testament to his obsession. It is also the flaw in his critical work.

For Professor Bloom, what is right for him is right for everyone. A life spent reading great literature has not taught him how to relate to people. Therefore reading can be of no benefit to society. Similarly, he likes nothing more than to be antagonistic, so the writers he admires must all be antagonistic too. I hope, like Professor Bloom, that we will not abandon the canonical study of great literature. But I can't help feeling that despite appearances, it will be no thanks to him if we don't.

'How To Read And Why' is published by Fourth Estate, £15.99

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