October 14, 2019

“Professor Bloom called himself ‘a monster’ of reading; he said he could read, and absorb, a 400-page book in an hour.”

“His friend Richard Bernstein, a professor of philosophy at the New School, told a reporter that watching Professor Bloom read was ‘scary.’ Armed with a photographic memory, Professor Bloom could recite acres of poetry by heart — by his account, the whole of Shakespeare, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’  all of William Blake, the Hebraic Bible and Edmund Spenser’s monumental ‘The Fairie Queen.’  He relished epigraphs, gnomic remarks and unusual words: kenosis (emptying), tessera (completing), askesis (diminishing) and clinamen (swerving).”

From “Harold Bloom, Critic Who Championed Western Canon, Dies at 89/Called the most notorious literary critic in America, Professor Bloom argued for the superiority of giants like Shakespeare, Chaucer and Kafka” (NYT).

ADDED: From Bloom’s “The Western Canon”:
What Johnson and Woolf after him called the Common Reader still exists and possibly goes on welcoming suggestions of what might be read. Such a reader does not read for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a solitary existence. So fantastic has the academy become that I have heard this kind of reader denounced by an eminent critic, who told me that reading without a constructive social purpose was unethical and urged me to reeducate myself through an immersion in the writing of Abdul Jan Mohammed, a leader of the Birmingham (England) school of cultural materialism. As an addict who will read anything, I obeyed, but I am not saved, and return to tell you neither what to read nor how to read it, only what I have read and think worthy of rereading, which may be the only pragmatic test for the canonical.

41 comments:

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Good for him. I have no reference point for that, so I think he’s full of shit.

John Lynch said...

The American Mind closed.

Michael K said...

I would agree with his opinions on Shakespeare, Chaucer and Kafka. Also Milton. In times gone by, my grandmother, a farm wife, named one son "John Milton Kennedy." The culture is lost.

chuck said...

Reminds me of one of my professors who, when asked to recite a poem on his first day of kindergarten, began reciting ‘The Fairie Queen.’

rhhardin said...

Lots of good books. The American Religion being one, The Book of J being another.

rhhardin said...

Vicki Hearne lovingly criticized some Bloom mansplaining about the book of Job, in Animal Happiness. A woman's corrective to some abstractions.

rhhardin said...

Bloom was Camille Paglia's advisor at Yale.

Birkel said...

He was correct.
So there's that.

J. Farmer said...

I first discovered Harold Bloom via Camille Paglia, whose thesis had been supervised by Bloom at Yale in the 1970s and served as the foundation for her first book "Sexual Personae."

Here is a collection of his videos on C-Span; my favorite is his BookTV In Depth appearance. He also had several good appearances on Charlie Rose if you can put up with Rose's constant interruptions.

p.s. Back in 2004, Naomi Wolf tried to #MeToo Harold Bloom. Had she waited another decade or so, the zeitgeist would have caught up with her. #OhWell.

Rob said...

Superiority of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Kafka? Over writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Buchi Emecheta? Bloom's male white supremacism is noted.

J. Farmer said...

The American Mind closed.

Not to be confused with Allan Bloom ;)

Birkel said...

Rob,
Can you prove Shakespeare was "white" - whatever that means?
I need you to show your work.
;-)

Michael K said...

Reminds me of one of my professors who, when asked to recite a poem on his first day of kindergarten, began reciting ‘The Fairie Queen.’

My English professor told the class that the only way he could get through The Fairie Queen was to book himself on a freighter as the only passenger and take The Fairie Queen as the only book.

readering said...

An earlier AA post on Bloom quotes Stephen King:

"Some critics — the always tiresome Harold Bloom among them — claim that listening to audiobooks isn't reading."

How is absorbing a book in an hour reading?

Narr said...

Post has been up an hour and nobody has yet dismissed the guy for being an elitist snob and atheist. I would bet a dollar his supposed anti-Mormonism helps insulate him from certain lines of attack . . .

Narr
No, he was no Ravelstein

wildswan said...

Originally the "canon" was just the historical fact that certain authors directly influenced others - like Homer influenced Virgil, Virgil influenced Dante, Dante influenced Milton. You got more out of them if you read the first, then the second, then third, then the fourth. And there were more and it was still going on in Tolkien. But what did you get? I feel that question led to statements about "you got moral uplift if you read the canon", or "you got culture." If you can read poetry then you get poetry and there's nothing else there to get. History has more things you can lift out of it and show others you haven't just been reading poetry or (same thing) looking out the window. When people ask "what good!" is! poetry!" I feel what! good! is! it! for "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea/ Whose action is no stronger than a flower."

stephen cooper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William said...

Is it possible to read five or six pages in a minute? Well, some people can throw 90 mph fastballs and others can see the seams on 90 mph fastballs. Still, I'm kind of skeptical about his claim of reading a four hundred page book in an hour. Maybe one of those art books with big print and lots of illustrations. Edison claimed to only sleep 4 hours a night, but he neglected to mention that he took a two or three hour nap in the afternoon. .....I'm making my way through Shakespeare. Good stuff for the most part, but he lacked Agatha Christie's deft touch with plot twists and sudden reversals. Cymbeline, for example, is extraordinarily packed with implausible events performed by improbable characters with murky motivation. Some good poetry though. He has it all over Agatha Christie when it comes to pithy phrases. Can anyone think of a single quotable Agatha Christie line? I read somewhere that to a huge extent most of the common expressions in our language come from Shakespeare.

Roughcoat said...

He was a true mensch.

Phidippus said...

wildswan quoted: "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea/ Whose action is no stronger than a flower."

Not really disagreeing, but that's really a pretty strong action, and even more so if you know a little physics.

There's a reason why we have two "halves" to our brain; the trick is to educate and cultivate both of them.

Separately, I'm not exactly shocked to hear that Stephen King found Bloom tiresome.

Phidippus said...

readering said: "How is absorbing a book in an hour reading?"

Good question. But how is waking up in the morning and writing down a complete symphony before lunch, with no corrections or scribble-outs, composing? Ask Mozart. (Ask Beethoven too-- he probably also wondered how Mozart did it, having struggled for everything he wrote.)

I suspect that Bloom was just a one-off prodigy, like we see once or twice a century in one field or another. Ramanujan had a similar facility with number theory in the early 20th. People are still working to prove some of his theorems.

Scientific Socialist said...

"Argued for the superiority of giants like..." I suspect that the headline writer wanted to sprinkle some snark but instead stated a truism, albeit tautologically.

Jeff said...

People are still working to prove some of his theorems.
It's a conjecture until there's a proof. Then it's a theorem.

Lucien said...

Stephen Cooper: consider that expressing yourself lucidly is inherently good, that charitable thoughts lead your audience, and that “I don’t post here anymore “ is both saddening and (as a post) evokes Yogi Berra.

Narr said...

Stephen King is so much better - he can WRITE four hundred pages an hour.

Narr
I stopped reading SK after page 2

traditionalguy said...

Bloom's passing is a momentous day in the life of world civilization, rating as almost a sign of the last days. You cannot comprehend the greatness that man is capable of until you have read the depth of Bloom. He could do more teaching of the power of literature than even LaAlthouse.

Ralph L said...

Can anyone think of a single quotable Agatha Christie line?

Miss Marple: I do not approve of murder.

stephen cooper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beloved Commenter AReasonableMan said...

Narr said...
Stephen King is so much better - he can WRITE four hundred pages an hour.


Only during his cocaine phase.

Tina Trent said...

Interesting obituary.

It starts out half-heartedly trying to label Bloom triggering. The menace of his frightening ability to read. His evil appetite.

It moves to pettily coding his whimalesins: leaving Alice Walker off a list once; not virtue signaling about African literature enough (though he actually did beautiful work on it).

Desperate, struggling, it throws up Naomi Wolf's thigh.

And then it gives in. To Bloom. Fitting.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

So fantastic has the academy become that I have heard this kind of reader denounced by an eminent critic, who told me that reading without a constructive social purpose was unethical

Can someone explain to me how this is different from some fundamentalist preacher insisting that all you need to read is the Bible? Oh, and it has to be the King James Version.

whitney said...

My mother is 83 and she can still recite a great deal of the Canterbury Tales from memory. We did not read the Canterbury Tales when I was in school

RMc said...

he could read, and absorb, a 400-page book in an hour

Now there's a super power I wish I had...

Fernandistein said...

400-page book in an hour

Ex-Pres Carter made the same claim (2,000 wpm), but it's physically impossible to read actual words that quickly so it's "skimming".

photographic memory

There is no such thing.

Superiority of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Kafka? Over writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Buchi Emecheta?

That's one reason why "literature", and professing literature, shouldn't be a taxpayer subsidized pseudo-profession.

Bob Boyd said...

a leader of the Birmingham (England) school of cultural materialism

Not to be confused with the Birmingham (Alabama) school of cultural materialism.

gerry said...

From a Woody Allen movie (I think): "I speed-read. Once, I read War and Peace. It was about Russia.

rcocean said...

I was going to comment and then realized that Harold Bloom didn't write "The closing of the American Mind". that was ALAN bloom. Anyway, i'm glad Harold Bloom fought the good fight, RIP.

Skippy Tisdale said...

"Oh, and it has to be the King James Version."

I'm not even remotely religious, but I actually agree with that. Why? Because Strong's Concordance is based on the KJV.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

This "identification" business is getting totally out of hand. On NPR this morning there was an obituary for Harold Bloom. It said, among other things, that his passionate embrace of literature was rare, but experiencing a resurgence lately, "especially among scholars who identify as post-critique." Honestly.

Bilwick said...

I got the impression we were, on one level, kindred spirits; but I've never been able to read one of Bloom's books thoroughly. His prose made me skim, and ultimately put his books aaide. Probably my ADD rather than his fault, although I have always enjoyed the writings of his acolyte (despite her loopy presidential choices), Camille Paglia.

Lazarus said...

What doomed him was that he was brilliant. What saved him was that he was silly and a little crazy. I mean that he had so many brilliant ideas so young that he thought everything that he came up with was a gem and he became insufferable. What made him bearable was that so many of his ideas and his style and manner were so eccentric that one couldn't take everything he said seriously and he became an almost loveable eccentric.

Politically - not that he was all that political, though apparently he did hate Republicans like most humanities professors do - he was a yellow dog Democrat, a type more commonly found among those born in Brooklyn or the Bronx than Oklahoma or Alabama nowadays. But he strongly disliked the younger "race-gender-sexuality" academics, dubbing them "The School of Resentment," academics who were more interested in politics than in literature. The irony was (as Frank Lentricchia may have pointed out) the early Bloom was full of resentments - against the generation before his, against the formalist and neo-classical New Critics, against their darling TS Eliot, against the WASPs, against Christianity.

The irony there was that while Bloom rode in with the wave of increasingly esoteric critics and his prose was often hard to penetrate, he ended up a grandfatherly figure, a sort of throwback to William Lyon Phelps, the dilettantish fossilized Yale professor who wrote books with titles like Books I Liked back in the 1920s.

Then there was his Chelsea House project. According to legend, he wanted to have more entries in the university card catalogue than any other author so he contracted with a publisher to have his graduate students put together volumes collecting critical essays on hundreds of writers that would be published under Bloom's name.

Anyway, he made things interesting and he lasted long enough to become an endearing mythic figure. The literary world will be a duller place with his passing.