Bloom’s Day (Or Year)

At 80, and with three new books, the literary critic-as-provocateur is still picking fights over the Bible, Kabbalah and Shakespeare.

04/18/2011
Staff Writer
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Harold Bloom, the eminent literary critic at Yale, will turn 81 this summer, and he does not plan to exit the stage quietly.

“Christianity? Christianity?” he said in a recent phone interview, when asked about his views on the Christian interpretation of Judaism. “The New Testament is a violently anti-Semitic reading of the Hebrew Bible.”

Interfaith groups that try to patch over the differences today, he went on, do so in vain: “Christianity is our enemy. It’s an uncomfortable truth that nobody wants to deal with. It’s a ghastly religion founded on the cross, a symbol of torture.”

It is comments like that that have made Bloom both revered and reviled. Perhaps America’s most influential literary critic, Bloom is an impassioned defender of the Western — mostly Christian — canon, as well as a proudly, loudly self-affirming Jew.

“I’ve never reacted against my religion,” he said, when asked if his lifelong love of English poetry, markedly Christian in nature, was in part a reaction against his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, which he has long-since abandoned.

“I actually started reading poetry in Yiddish before [I started reading] Hart Crane — Glaytshteyn, Halpern.” His fondness for Blake and Shelley, Milton and Shakespeare, he added, “was an extension of my love of Yiddish.”

The famously prodigious scholar is churning out three new books this year, which mostly refine and re-emphasize the arguments he’s been making since he began teaching at Yale more than a half-century ago.

“The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life,” which comes out on May 3, defends his original, career-making theory — that poetic genius results from a love of one’s literary heroes, followed by Oedipal rebellion against them. Earlier this year, he edited a collection of poems dealing with mortality, “Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems.”

And in September, he’ll release “The Shadow of A Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible,” which in part advances his contentious notion that the Bible’s most arresting stories — Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, among others — must have been written by a profoundly literary scribe, perhaps even a woman in King Solomon’s court.

But he’s playing down that last part — that the Tanach’s author was a Solomon circle countess — he said, noting that too much attention has been given to what was merely meant to be speculative (and gleefully wanton, befitting Bloom’s temperament).

“It’s immaterial whether the writer was male or female,” Bloom said. “The important point I was making about ‘J’” — the name Bloom gave to one of the Hebrew Bible’s author — “is that it gives a vision of Yahweh that’s entirely different from normative, or Orthodox Judaism.”

Bloom’s main point, which he originally made in “The Book of J” (1991) — his first best-seller, in no small part because of the controversy it sparked — was that the God of the Bible’s best stories is too wild, exuberant, capricious, and ultimately human in nature to have any relation to the solemn, all-knowing God described by rabbis, and later, by Christian priests.

Or as he puts it this time in “The Shadow of a Great Rock”: “Truly what is most powerful in the unread Scriptures is blasphemous at its core: the god who is an astonishing, outrageous personality upon whom theologies have been imposed.”

For scholars, Bloom remains a force to be reckoned with, though mainly for his insights on literary influence. “He’s the biggest name in literary criticism still,” said Jonathon Shears, a scholar in England who recently edited a collection of essays on Bloom. “Whether or not people want to embrace him because he’s still controversial” is another question, Shears said.

Yet Bloom’s interpretation of the Bible and, notably, the Kabbalah, have been challenged since the beginning. And not by religious figures either, but by equally astute and learned Jewish critics — Leon Wieseltier, Robert Alter and Cynthia Ozick among them.

Alter, for instance, a leading literary scholar of the Bible, attacked the idea that the Hebrew Bible can be “excavated” at all, unpacked into separate strands of authorship. And Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, wrote a devastating, if in part praiseworthy, critique of Bloom’s book “Kabbalah and Criticism” (1976) in The New York Review of Books.

In “Kabbalah and Criticism,” Bloom argued that Kabbalah was a model for his ideas about literary influence, and went on to suggest that the Jewish mystic tradition was formed out of a rebellion against “normative,” or traditional rabbinic Judaism.

Wieseltier said that this ignored the historical reality of how the Kabbalah came into being. The strand of Kabbalah Bloom championed — Lurianic Kabbalah — was formed in direct response to the Jews’ expulsion from Catholic Spain, not in reaction to other rabbis. Besides, Wieseltier added, rabbis who practiced Kabbalah adhered to rabbinic Judaism.

Perhaps more significantly, Wieseltier used his review to make a larger critique of Bloom’s central idea — the one repeated in “The Anatomy of Influence” — which is still cited by Bloom’s critics.

Bloom’s theory about influence rests on the idea that any poet, in order to escape mere imitation, must deliberately “misread” his idols in order to generate new ideas. The most original poets — the ones worthy of canonization — Bloom argued, were often so original that their influences were hardly perceptible at all. Therefore only the most assiduous critics could tease them out.

The problem, Wieseltier and others have argued, is that this makes any argument about influence possible, so long as the reader is clever enough. “Misreading makes mistakes legitimate,” Wieseltier wrote, “and so Bloom appears to advocate a literary criticism devoid of scholarly conscience, a method of reading which is finally an interpretive anarchism.” In other words, anything goes.

Bloom has prominent defenders, too, of course. For one, there’s Moshe Idel, a scholar of Jewish thought at Hebrew University, and long-time friend of Bloom (“The Book of J” was dedicated to him). Idel said in an interview that there is ultimately no “correct” way to read kabbalistic literature. “There is nothing like Kabbalah itself,” Idel said. “It is only represented, reinterpreted and reflected by other scholars.”

In that case, Idel said, Bloom’s interpretation of Kabbalah is just as valid as any. “I’ve learned a lot from him,” Idel said. “I at least was inspired by his understanding of Kabbalah.”

Bloom, of course, relishes a good fight, and is equally famous for inviting them. As he puts it in “The Anatomy of Influence”: “More than a half century as a teacher has shown me that I am best as a provocation for my students, a realization that has carried over into my writing.”

But Bloom emphasized in an interview with The Jewish Week that he stands by his reading of Kabbalah. Again, he’s just been misunderstood: “I basically used my own reading of Kabbalah as a model for literary criticism,” he said — and not to make an argument about how the Kabbalist tradition itself was created. Kabbalah, he continued, “interests me primarily because it gives me a metaphor for how to read poems.”

Bloom learned most about Kabbalah through Gershom Scholem, the towering 20th-century Kabbalah scholar, whom Bloom says was once a close friend. But Bloom’s interests in Judaism — and language itself — began at birth.

Both his parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe who settled in the East Bronx, and Bloom’s first language was Yiddish. His father worked in the garment industry, and his mother was a homemaker, but they kept an Orthodox home. “I taught English to myself,” he said, mostly through reading on his own.

He has said before that his older sister gave him his first collection of English poems — by Hart Crane — when he was 10, and since then he has devoted his life to the Western canon. But some of his earliest and most searing memories of Western literature — specifically, his beloved Shakespeare — came from the Yiddish theater.

In 1938, his sisters took him to see Maurice Schwartz play Shylock in a Yiddish version of “Merchant of Venice,” written by Jacob Gordin. “I was a little boy of 8, sitting there with my wonderful group of older sisters,” Bloom said.

His reaction to Shylock was visceral, and viscerally negative. Schwartz “was carrying an enormous scalpel,” Bloom said, which he was to use to take his proverbial pound of flesh. “Then he said ‘Ich ban doch ben yid’—“For after all, I’m Jewish!”

Those words, first written by Shakespeare, then translated into Yiddish by Gordin, convinced Bloom that Shylock was unquestionably an anti-Semitic caricature. “It’s a viciously anti-Semitic comedy,” Bloom still says. “Since it is written by Shakespeare, Shylock may be the most richly portrayed comic villain, but there is no question it is anti-Semitic.” Still, he added that Shakespeare himself was probably not.

What may have rescued Bloom from shunning Shakespeare early on was how Schwartz interpreted the part. Shortly after his Shylock says those damning words, Schwartz acts against them, dropping his weapon and refusing to accept the fate Shakespeare ascribes to him. “He dropped the scalpel and everyone clapped,” Bloom recalled.

Bloom has since become one of Shakespeare’s greatest champions. His book “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” (1998) argued that no other author has ever displayed a fuller understanding of human experience than Shakespeare. And because he did it through language, which is the only thing we humans have to comprehend the world, he virtually created life as we know it.

“You always felt that in some way you were in a religious class as well as a literature class,” said Jonathan Rosen, a former student of Bloom’s at Yale, now an accomplished author and founder of Nextbook. Rosen and others say that Bloom views literature as others might view religion.

“He sees Christ as a literary figure, like a part of a novel,” Shears said. Bloom’s overriding view, Shears added, is “this idea that it’s literature that contains religion, rather than the other way around.” By cutting out clerical authority, moreover, truly magnificent literature, parts of the Bible included, recovers the true ecstasy in faith.

Adding to that point, Rosen noted that Bloom never made his reverence for the Jewish God — or at least his Jewish God, Yahweh — a secret. Rosen remembers a class Bloom taught on Kabbalah, criticism and Western literature, in which Bloom scrawled a quote from Rabbi ben Bag Bag on the blackboard: “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”

The quotation, which Rosen used as an epigraph for his book “The Talmud and the Internet,” was Bag Bag’s way of saying that all knowledge, all truths, were in the Bible. But it was up to the reader to cite the relevance of its meanings.

Bloom used the quote as a model for understanding Freud’s conception of the unconscious — the basis for Bloom’s ideas about poetic influence — but Rosen interpreted it like this: “To understand Freud, [Bloom] was saying, in a sense, that you had to understand the rabbis.”

In his own writing, Bloom has made his devotion to literature clear. He has not quite called it his religion, but that is probably because he holds literature in higher esteem.

As he writes in “The Anatomy of Influence”: “Confusing Shakespeare with God is ultimately legitimate”; noting elsewhere: “Literature for me is not merely the best part of life; it is itself the form of life, which has no other form.”

Harold Bloom will discuss his latest book, “The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life,” at the New York Public Library on Sunday, May 1, at 3 p.m. $25.
 

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