Harold Bloom’s Warning to the World

The literary critic thought the culture that sustained him was in the process of being sacrificed on the altar of social justice.

Harold Bloom
Ted Thai / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

About the author: Stanley Fish is the author of several books of literary theory, including two on John Milton. His new book is The First: How to think About Hate Speech, Campus Speech, Religious Speech, Fake News, Post-truth, and Donald Trump.

For more than three decades Harold Bloom, Cassandra-like, warned America that the literary culture that sustained him and other lovers of the word was in the process of being sacrificed on the altar of social justice. “We are,” he said, “destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences.” We eviscerate literary works to uncover the presence of exclusionary and discriminatory impulses and gestures; we feast on their contributions to social justice or their failures to contribute to social justice, and then discard the carcass. There is nothing more to be done with them, and surely no reason to reread them.

Rereading for Bloom, who died last weekend, was the hallmark of the aesthetic experience. Something that has, in Bloom’s words, aesthetic dignity is not disposable. It is not instrumental in relation to some other value. It is its own value, and it is not, Bloom wrote, “for hire.” Aesthetic dignity is not to be subordinated to some cause, however noble. It does not offer itself up for “rapid ingestion.” It does not exist to give the reader pleasure. Instead it gives the “high unpleasure or more difficult pleasure that a lesser text”—one in the service of an ideology—“will not provide.”

By “high unpleasure,” Bloom meant the experience of participating in the struggle of a supreme mind to understand the world and itself. The reward (please don’t say payoff) is the ability “to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves, and perhaps to accept change in ourselves, as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change,” which is of course death. Needless to say, this high unpleasure “is altogether solitary, despite all traditional obsessive attempts to socialize it”—that is, to make it yield a message or a marching order or, God forbid, a policy.

In his essay “An Elegy for the Canon,” from which I have been quarrying, Bloom recalled a moment when he entered upon the aesthetic transcendence he celebrated. The sentence introducing his account of the event is itself an instance of the experience he prized, the experience of being compelled by a text to read it rather than consume it: “Some years ago, on a stormy night in New Haven, I sat down to read, yet once more, John Milton’s Paradise Lost.”

This apparently straightforward sentence contains many detours and small, but significant, adventures. For the casual reader, “On a stormy night in New Haven” is merely a conventional piece of stage-setting at home, reminiscent of a romance novel. But the reader Bloom was and wanted his readers to be would immediately hear and be arrested by the reference to Wallace Stevens’s “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” a poem in search of exactly the aesthetic purity and autonomy that Bloom sought: “The poem is the cry of its own occasion / Part of the res itself and not about it / The poem speaks of the poem as it is.”

At once we have sedimented poems and poets and readers. Bloom recalling Stevens, Bloom rereading Milton, who read everybody, and not just rereading, but rereading “yet once more”—the rereading of a rereading. And if that were not enough, the Bloomian reader will immediately recognize “yet once more” as the first three words of Milton’s “Lycidas,” a pastoral elegy whose speaker resists assimilation by the conventions he employs in an effort to assert a place and an identity of his own not already occupied by history. This was Milton’s lifelong effort, and Bloom participated in it yet once more as he sat down to reread Paradise Lost. And so a perfectly ordinary sentence recounting a perfectly ordinary evening in New Haven becomes itself the object of a necessary rereading that will not exhaust its ramifying significances.

The main objection to this attempt to give aesthetic value a room of its own has always been the unavoidable situating of the work of art in the world from which it would hold itself aloof. Bloom knew this and noted it: “All my passionate proclamations of the isolate selfhood’s aesthetic value are necessarily qualified by the reminder that the leisure for meditation must be purchased from the community.” The scene from which art emerges is a social scene complete with political and economic interests and displaying everywhere the marks of history and contingency. But Bloom declared that to grant this dependency of art on the world is “to grant very little,” because while the freedom to apprehend aesthetic value may arise from social and economic forces, “the value is not identical with that freedom.” Even though “the production of the aesthetic is a question of historical forces,” it is nevertheless the aesthetic that is being produced, and the vehicle of its production is less important than what it enables to be visible.

This is the argument for the often derided Ivory Tower: Even though universities are inevitably situated in social-economic contexts without which they would never achieve form, neither they nor the values they promote and preserve can be equated with those contexts. When all is said and done, social forces, however real and requiring notice, fall away and reveal, if only for a moment to be sought again and again in rereading, the glory of what Bloom tells us is irreducible.

It is wrong, said Bloom, and I agree with him, to ask either of art or of academic life, “What is it for?” It is for itself, and any bending of it to an external purpose will not simply harm it, but destroy it. It is that destruction Bloom was lamenting until the day he died.