Word of Harold Bloom's forthcoming book -- on the King James Version, 500 years old in 2011 and still the best of Bibles -- excites this reader as a volume from no other contemporary critic can do. Bloom's passion for literature, his love of it, is infectious and informs every page he writes. One feels, reading Bloom on great books, that if he couldn't write, he wouldn't live; that writing for Bloom is an extension of reading, and reading comes as close to living itself as any purely intellectual activity can do. Edmund Wilson wrote that Lenin identified himself with history but also identified history with himself, a very different thing. Substitute Bloom for Lenin and Literature for History in that formulation and it works as well. Bloom resembes the characters he likes the most: he has a Falstaffian appetite, a gargantuan grasp of literature, a prodigious memory worthy of "Funes the Memorious" in the story by Jorge Lus Borges; and he enjoys tilting quixotically at windmills, which he does with the requisite zeal and the gift for a memorable phrase.
I'll have more to say on The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, which Yale Universty Press will bring out in September. For the moment just a few thoughts about the title, both halves. The principal title is unusual because it echoes T. S. Eliot as much as Eliot's scriptual sources, an association one doesn't expect Bloom to pursue. But it's the subtitle that I especially like, for "appreciations" in the sense intended by Bloom as by Walter Pater before him is precisely what we need and do not get from the literary critics of our time. More power to him: the very word is anathema in academic circles.
I thought I'd take one of Harold's books off the shelf in the sun this afternoon, and it's How to Read and Why (1999), which contains commentary on stories, poems, novels, and plays -- enough to fuel the reading list for at least two seminars, though the book is meant to reflect, Bloom says, "reading as a solitary praxis, rather than as an educational ernterprise." The aim is the "restoration of reading," taking it back from the academics. The book begins with a credo in five principles, three derived from Emerson, one from Samuel Johnson, and one representing Bloom's own contribution. They are:
-- Clear your mind of cant (Samuel Johnson)
-- Do not attemt to improve your neighbor or your neighborhood by what or how you read. (Emerson)
-- A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light. (Emerson and Wallace Stevens)
-- One must be an inventor to read well (Emerson)
-- The "recovery of the ironic" -- and here Bloom is at his most expansive. One senses that he hasn't said this before. Consider this short but rhetorically powerful clarifying passage and its unusually personal coloration:
<< Think of the endless irony of Hamlet, who when he says one thing almost invariably means another, frequently indeed the opposite of what he says. But with this principle I am close to despair, since you can no more teach someone to be ironic than you can instruct them to become solitary. And yet the loss of irony is the death of reading, and of what has been civilized in our natures. >>
The introduction of Hamlet as the supreme exemplar of a man of irony gives us a working definition of irony and implicitly conveys the professor's abilty to understand Hamlet as a version of himself. There follows the unabashed note of the personal: "despair" -- and the surprise of a simile that obliges us to consider the "ironic" and the "solitary" as related states of mind and being. And then comes the twist ("and yet") that precedes the final blunt universal assertion, which manages to sound plausible and slightly outrageous at the same time. "The loss of irony is the death of reading." The syntax is that of Wallace Stevens, an old Bloom favorite, and the thought is an adaptation of a Stevens aphorism. But Bloom makes it his own. Here he is, two pages later, summing up:
<< Irony demands a certain attention span, and the ability to sustain antithetical ideas, even when they collide with one another. Strip irony away from reading, and it loses at once all discipline and all surprise. Find now what comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and considering,and it very likely will be irony, even if many of your teachers will not know what it is, or where it is to be found. Irony will clear your mind of the cant of the ideologues, and help you blaze forth as the scholar of one candle. >>
Bravo. -- DL