Interviews July 2003

Ranting Against Cant

Harold Bloom, a staunch defender of the Western literary tradition, returns to Shakespeare, "the true multicultural author."
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Hamlet: Poem Unlimited

Hamlet: Poem Unlimited
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Harold Bloom
Riverhead Books
154 pages, $19.95

For the past half century, the critic Harold Bloom has stood as something of a lone warrior in the literary world. In the 1950s, he battled T. S. Eliot, whose New Criticism was then the prevailing trend in literature classrooms. In the 1970s, he sparred with the Deconstructionists, a group of mostly European intellectuals who believed that language was essentially devoid of meaning. In the 1990s, after publishing his book The Western Canon, Bloom found himself facing off against literary feminists and multiculturalists. Most recently, Bloom incensed thousands of Harry Potter fans by expressing unambiguous disdain for the boy wizard in the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal.

Depending on one's ideology, Bloom can be perceived in one of two ways: as a Don Quixote tilting at the whirring blades of social progress or as a noble Sir Lancelot, defending a literary kingdom whose nobility includes Homer, Milton, and Dante. In this second paradigm, Bloom's King Arthur is William Shakespeare, the writer to whom he reverently refers as "my mortal god."

Bloom's newest book, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, is essentially a love letter to Shakespeare and his most famous creation. The book was born out of Bloom's dissatisfaction with his own 1999 work, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. After devoting a lengthy chapter to Hamlet's themes and origins, Bloom realized that most of his true feelings about the play had not made it into print. To remedy this mistake, he wrote Poem Unlimited, a slim volume that strips away history and theory to reveal Bloom's most personal responses to his favorite work of literature.

At seventy-three, Bloom lives with his wife, Jeanne, near the campus of Yale University, where he is the Sterling Professor of Humanities. He leads a proudly anachronistic existence. A highly prolific writer (he has written nineteen books of his own and penned introductions for over 350 others), Bloom abhors e-mail and fax machines. He still listens to records on a turntable and wears white shirts with red suspenders. Like an affectionate grandfather, he addresses everyone as "my dear"—a publisher on the telephone, a visiting graduate student, the mailman. But for all his old-fashioned geniality, Bloom remains a powerful warrior on the literary field, always ready to raise his lance in the name of the Western tradition.

I spoke with him at his home in New Haven, Connecticut.


There's a line in the first chapter of your book Hamlet: Poem Unlimited that seems to encapsulate your approach toward literature: "I think it wise to confront both the play and the prince with awe and wonder, because they know more than we do." As a literary critic, how are you able to analyze a text with this kind of humility instead of assuming a dry, superior tone as some other critics do?

Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom   

Superior? To William Shakespeare? You know, I've been at it for so long, so long, dear. I'll be seventy-three this July. This last year has been my fiftieth in a row teaching at Yale. But I started out very early. I was already a ferocious reader of the great poets and the great writers when I was hardly big enough to get the books home from the library. My three kindly older sisters would carry them for me.

If you spend a lifetime reading and teaching and writing, I would think that the proper attitude to take toward Shakespeare, toward Dante, toward Cervantes, toward Geoffrey Chaucer, toward Tolstoy, toward Plato—the great figures—is indeed awe, wonder, gratitude, deep appreciation. I can't really understand any other stance in relation to them. I mean, they have formed our minds. And Hamlet is the most special of special cases. I've been accused of "bardolotry" so much that I've made a joke out of it. As I am something of a dinosaur, I've named myself Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolator. It's not such a bad thing to be.

This attitude of reverence is what sets you apart from many of your colleagues. You don't seem to belong to any particular school of literary criticism.

Well, it's such a complex thing. I left the English department twenty-six years ago. I just divorced them and became, as I like to put it, Professor of Absolutely Nothing. To a rather considerable extent, literary studies have been replaced by that incredible absurdity called cultural studies which, as far as I can tell, are neither cultural nor are they studies. But there has always been an arrogance, I think, of the semi-learned.

You know, the term "philology" originally meant indeed a love of learning—a love of the word, a love of literature. I think the more profoundly people love and understand literature, the less likely they are to be supercilious, to feel that somehow they know more than the poems, stories, novels, and epics actually know.

And, of course, we have this nonsense called Theory with a capital T, mostly imported from the French and now having evilly taken root in the English-speaking world. And that, I suppose, also has encouraged absurd attitudes toward what we used to call imaginative literature.

When you say "theory," are you dating this back to New Criticism? When you were a student, you famously resisted that movement—you felt it was too cerebral and analytical. Your early books glorified the Romantic poets and went against almost everything T. S. Eliot and the other New Critics taught about literature.

Well, you know, I've always been in an odd position. When I was a youngster starting out as a graduate student, and as a young teacher here at Yale, the so-called New Criticism was the prevailing orthodoxy. It was exemplified here at Yale by someone who eventually became one of my closest friends, though we didn't start out that way—the novelist Robert Penn Warren.

Then, after fighting the New Criticism so endlessly, I suddenly found myself fighting the Deconstructionists, another group of people who were and are my personal friends. Except for one—I don't talk to Derrida anymore, for all sorts of complicated personal reasons that I wouldn't want to bring up. But I continue to badly miss Paul de Man, whom I deeply love as a person, though we always fought and couldn't agree on anything.

Deconstructionism, in a sense, destroyed all parameters in the world of literary criticism. It broke literature and language down into random signs that have no natural connection to one another. Where has the study of literature gone from there?

Well, we are now in the grip of this dreadful third phase. I've so talked myself to exhaustion with a sort of rant against cant that I'm reluctant to say much about it. Throughout the English-speaking world, the wave of French theory was replaced by the terrible mélange that I increasingly have come to call the School of Resentment—the so-called multiculturalists and feminists who tell us we are to value a literary work because of the ethnic background or the gender of the author.

Feminism as a stance calling for equal rights, equal education, equal pay—no rational, halfway decent human being could possibly disagree with this. But what is called feminism in the academies seems to be a very different phenomenon indeed. I have sometimes characterized these people as a Rabblement of Lemmings, dashing off the cliff and carrying their supposed subject down to destruction with them.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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