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Open Features: A Conversation With Harold Bloom

William Ruleman, whose excellent poems appear regularly in Open Writing, had a telephone conversation with Harold Bloom, the American author, intellectual and renowned literary critic. Here is a record of what was said.

To read William's poems please click on www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=william+ruleman

Some months ago, I had the great pleasure to be introduced to the Ukrainian literary journal Vsesvit, a magazine that has weathered many a threat to its being since its founding in 1925. It flourished for only nine years before the Soviets hacked it while in full flower, yet the seeds that remained in the soil allowed the journal to sprout once more in 1958. This year marks Vsesvit’s 50th year to remain in continuous operation. Since its inception, it has published more than 500 novels and 1,000 collections of poetry, conducted interviews with writers from more than 100 countries, and translated works from over 84 different languages.



I had not been corresponding with Dmytro Drozdovskyi, the literary criticism editor of Vsesvit, for long before he asked a surprising favor of me. He had arranged a phone interview with noted American scholar and critic Harold Bloom on Tuesday morning, July 15, 2008, only later to learn that he would have to be in Odessa that day. Would I mind calling Professor Bloom for him? I felt a mixture of excitement and dread. A decade or more had elapsed since I had read anything by this giant of American letters. I do recall being sympathetic to his stand in The Western Canon against strictly political, psychological, ethnic, linguistic, or gender-oriented readings of literature, so much so that, some ten years ago, I had been moved to write the following poem:


Our foreheads furrowed and glazed with sweat,
Our stares compassionate (if immobile),
We ponder (ever stoic and noble)
Language crimes the world must not forget.

We speak more calmly than average mortals,
Except when seized by a fit of passion
For Foucault (or whoever’s the latest fashion).
Don’t claim that we’ve simply passed through the portals

Of academe for our special knowledge,
For much we’ve learned in the grimy alleys
Of late capitalism, or in migrant valleys
Via bus tours we took (extra credit!) in college.

In grad school, too, we saw the grim light:
What fools call “founts from a poet’s soul”?
Some ideology’s black hole,
Hoarse whistling-in-the-dark of egos in fright,

Delusions of some bourgeois buffoon,
Navel-gazing of stooges whose bodies are texts,
Sick chauvinist thoughts of the oversexed,
Mad maunderings of those who nix Marx for the moon.

These verses marked my rebellion against the academic world as it had become, my weaning-away from what I had learned to consider respectable in graduate school.

Although “responsible” college teaching calls for an intellectual approach (students need to learn how to “write and think analytically”), I was starting to return to my formerly old-fashioned approach to the reading of literature primarily for aesthetic pleasure, which I had never abandoned entirely. This is the stance toward the great books that Bloom by and large prescribes in The Western Canon, though I sometimes wonder whether he exaggerates only to debunk the notion that literature can serve some immediate utilitarian purpose. To be sure, modern history has confirmed Bloom’s notion that the reading of the classics does not necessarily make one a better person—the libraries of Nazis provide numerous examples—yet I for one continue to harbor the hope that the reading of great literature can at least encourage a change of heart for the better in many cases, even if it does not guarantee noble moral action in face of all the harrowing challenges that life can hurl at us. And I cannot deny the merit of many politically-, psychologically-, or other similarly-biased readings of literary works. However, I am indebted to literary critics like Bloom for their stand against the trivialization of literary art, and I am humbled by his knowledge. So I felt daunted by the task of interviewing this notable man.

To be certain, it helped matters considerably that Mr. Drozdovskyi had already prepared a questionnaire that he had submitted to Bloom. I understood that the phone exchange would simply call for my recording the answers to the questions as Professor Bloom uttered them. With only a week and a half of advance notice, and with summer school preparations and a host of other chores on my plate, I accepted. After all, my part in the process was only menial—that of a recorder. And besides, even though I considered this a significant event in my life, how could I have prepared? As with most of those other momentous occasions in our existences, we cannot be ready and are bound to be caught off guard in one way or another. I tried not to think too much about the impending task.

Even so, Harold Bloom is a formidable figure in the world of letters, and his sometimes bitingly satirical criticism had led me to fear that he might prove intimidating. I could not have been more surprised by our actual conversation. In those fleeting, rare and precious moments, I was struck by the warmth, sensitivity, and grace of the man. He impressed me as being a very humble reader, a man who simply loves literature and feels no pressing need to analyze or politicize it.

Almost immediately, he informed me that he did not want to answer the questions posed to him, which mainly dealt with reasons why the essays in The Western Canon dealt with the works they did, and why no writers from the classical world, Eastern Europe, and the second half of the twentieth century were discussed. To these questions, Professor Bloom, with a mixture of disdain and regret, quickly informed me that he was dissatisfied with the list of canonical works provided at the back of the book. It was a list, he said, imposed on him by his publishers and not as inclusive as he would have liked. He also expressed a hesitation to write about authors whose work he has not read in the original, though he reads in several languages. Pressed for time and waiting for a call from his doctor, he was eager to know of my own concerns, curious as to my background and connections with Vesesvit, and so on.

He asked me my area of specialty in literature. When I mentioned modern British poetry, he and I agreed on our high regard for Yeats. He also mentioned Geoffrey Hill as a post-World-War-II British poet whom he enjoys reading—a difficult but rewarding poet for him. When he asked about my current interests, I mentioned that I was translating the fiction of Stefan Zweig, all of whose fiction, he said, he had read in the original German, and whose work he found very powerful and bearing the influence of Kafka. He went on to say that this Zweig was often confused with Arnold Zweig, who escaped Nazi rule and settled in Palestine. He had forgotten the distressing fact of Stefan Zweig’s suicide, a fact that saddened him but that he was nonetheless grateful to me for reminding him of. From these few comments, I gathered that he is happy to learn from whatever source.

I then made some attempts to return to the pre-set questions. Again, he insisted that I ask him what I wanted to know. And again, I felt gratified, though nervous, not having prepared any. But in haste I concocted some, as follows:

1) What are your feelings about literature in translation?

I cannot speak with authority as a translator; I am old-fashioned scholar; but I read several languages. (He went on to express his regret for not being able to read
Ukrainian, his father’s native tongue, and noted that his own first language, growing up in the East Bronx, was Yiddish.)

2) Where do you think the study of literature is headed? What is the direction for it now?

We’re in an abyss. It’s a nightmare—at least in terms of the study of American and English literature. It is all gender-oriented, or concentrated on the color of one’s skin. Yale, at least, remains one of the last citadels of traditional scholarship and philology, but for lack of available scholars, those from what I call the “Schools of Resentment” are still being hired. Of course, as Sterling Professor of Humanities, I have been out of the English Department at Yale since 1976. From what you have said about your interests in Yeats and Zweig, I gather that you’re not among the resentful ones.

1) Which of your books are you most satisfied with?

None of them!

3) It’s always the next work that’s the best, isn’t it? What are you working on now?

For the past three and one half years, I have been working on a massive book entitled Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, as well as a study of literary criticism, Living Labyrinth. I have just completed The Magnificent History of the English Language for The New York Review of Books.

At this point, a call from the other line—apparently his doctor—cut short this brief but memorable conversation. I wished him better health before we were cut off. I hung up the phone with a feeling of satisfaction far greater than what I would have felt, I think, had I prepared and predicted some pre-set outcome.

Indeed, the rest of my day was euphoric and marked by glorious reveries regarding Harold Bloom. Was the vision he left me with an accurate one? I drifted along in a dream of him as one within that long, long, line of figures—scholars, prophets, and holy men—who spend their lives studying sacred texts and who see the great classics of our culture as cherished offspring of those texts, divinely-inspired. As such, those working within that tradition consider it merely their bounden duty to evaluate, rank, and categorize works, rejecting some, canonizing others, even while they keep humbly questioning and reconsidering their judgments. But even more importantly, they praise, and, like the poet that W. H. Auden describes in his “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” they “teach the free man” (and woman) to do so. And a man who views literature in this way can only naturally be driven to rage at seeing, as Yeats himself did, “the great art beaten down.” Indeed, I left with the conviction that I had communed with a friend to art, to paraphrase Keats, a man who, to paraphrase Chaucer, quite passionately would teach, but even more passionately would learn.


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