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I N T E R V I E W
Harold Bloom on Books, Like Ill Fortune.
An interview with Professor Harold Bloom • September 1999

The YFP conducted a series of five interviews with Professor Harold Bloom on reading, self-knowledge and the function of the university.

YFP. In the Shakespeare book you mention that since Shakespeare, we’ve taken more after Iago than Othello–we’ve learned more from Iago. And I wanted to ask you if you thought that was Shakespeare’s fault or if it was our fault. 

HB. That question’s unanswerable because we have been so formed by Shakespeare. That I think is the irony of [the Tenure Action Coalition]–the words they use are frequently words that he invented, that weren’t in the language until he coined them. I think that it was Owen Barfield who said that it can be positively humiliating for us to realize that what we want to call our emotions, turn out to be Shakespeare’s thoughts. Shakespeare is the Canon because Shakespeare is ourselves, and the answer therefore to the question of, Is the way in which we’ve imitated Iago our fault or Shakespeare’s fault, is both. I’m not sure that until you have the representation you call Hamlet, that you have anywhere, (in any language I’m able to read anyway), someone who changes every time he or she speaks, and who does it by this weird thing of overhearing oneself, which I can’t find before Shakespeare. But if you’re really going to talk about Shakespeare’s culpability—so far as I can tell, Shakespeare invented what Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky, and others afterwards started to call nihilism. It’s a pure Shakespearean invention. 

YFP. [I wondered] whether you think the people who say that Shakespeare has nothing to say to them—whether it’s just a question of their being unwilling to listen, or if it’s actually possible that they can’t hear. 

HB. Let me tell you an anecdote. As part of the early manifestation of [the Cornell Revolution of ‘68-’69], the black students of the university were instructed by their leadership to go into the library stacks and bring out as many books as they could carry and just dump them on the front circulation desk with the dramatic statement, “These books are irrelevant to me as a black student.” And it so happened [that] I was trying to check out a book at just that moment, when a young lady dumped a huge armful of books right next to me and shouted, “These books are irrelevant to me as a black student.” And one slid over to me—it was the Oxford edition of the Collected Poems of John Keats. And I said to the young lady, who scowled at me, “Are you quite sure that the poetry of John Keats is irrelevant to you? Have you read any of the poems of Keats?” And she looked at me angrily and repeated, “These books are irrelevant to me as a black student,” and off she marched. So. But what can I possibly say to that? That’s ideological, isn’t it? To arrive here and say that it’s your function to obliterate the best that has been read, the best that has been thought and said, in thirty centuries. They should go somewhere else. If they really think Shakespeare is irrelevant to them, why do they want to go to a university anyway? To get a union card of some kind? 

YFP. You said before that we read to learn to talk to ourselves.

HB. I am not, as you know, a Shakespeare scholar, just an enthusiast...I assume that reading Shakespeare with the whole intensity of your being and with your awakened mind, with all of you—it’s bound to be a kind of training in consciousness. I assume that that is as good a way of awakening that [inner] spark, of lighting it up, or of making that pneuma, that breath, come faster, and stronger, than any other. [It] doesn’t necessarily make you a better person, [but it] certainly [makes] you a more capacious soul than you were already. I really feel that I can teach a more or less receptive and sensitive Yale undergraduate how enormous a work Shakespeare’s Hamlet is... You can teach people—you can open them to wonder. To more wonder. Which is what Shakespeare is for. I talked [in Shakespeare] about awe as being the proper response. Maybe the really proper response is wonder. 

YFP. I know you’ve written about responding to Hart Crane and Blake when you were still very young. Have there been [great authors] that, when you first came to them, seemed—

HB. Oh, sure. Oh, sure. [David] Bromwich was saying to me [about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian], “I just can’t stand that book, Harold,” he said, “I have never been able to get through more than thirty or forty pages and you’ve been recommending it to me for fifteen years.” And I said, “But I had that same experience, of what you’re saying. It’s so bloody, it’s so full of gore—horrible massacres and all sorts of atrocities—I just couldn’t bear it, but then when I got through it a couple of times, quite suddenly it started to work upon me.” And I am now absolutely persuaded—I don’t think that there is any literary work by a living American author that touches Cormac McCarthy’s book. You know, you can be the most experienced reader in the world and you might be the most adept reader in the world, but you can’t necessarily trust your first reactions. 

YFP. When I mentioned the Tenure Action Coalition earlier, your instinctive answer was to say, Well then, why are they at Yale. So I wonder if you could talk a little about what people should be at Yale for, and what the role of literary study is in particular.

HB. For this book I’m writing, called How to Read and Why, I went back to what is now a greatly neglected book, Thomas Mann’s wonderful The Magic Mountain. The best way to understand the hero, Hans Castorp—a wonderful young man—is that he is that ideal student, pursuing knowledge for its own sake alone, and understanding and self-development for their own sake alone.
I assume that if you go to a place like Yale, that legitimately you ought to be in search of yourself. Not a digest of the opinions of others, but finding out who you truly are, and what your gifts are, and your own ultimate stance towards the meaning or truth of things, or lack of meaning or truth of things. You know, what in Protestant terms they used to call the candle of the Lord, that inner light that Milton speaks of. I assume if you come to what this place is supposed to be—I don’t think it is that anymore—you are in search of your own inner light. And I don’t know how to find your own inner light, except by learning to read as fully as you can read—Shakespeare, and Dante and Milton and Goethe... I mean, the great canonical authors, they’re not canonical because somebody says they are canonical, they are canonical because they have formed not only the writers, but the readers who came after them. And I don’t think there’s anything arbitrary about this. It’s not what the student already is; or if the student is already that the, student doesn’t know it and can’t reach it in herself or in himself. It’s like learning a language, where at first you don’t know what’s going on. 

YFP. But you seem to be saying that it’s a different language for every person.

HB. [Well] there is a very idiosyncratic quality—there is a uniqueness which has to be aided and abetted, induced, to fully unfold and develop. I always want to say [to students], You yourself are a text, and poems or plays or whatever we’re going to read here—their values are as commentaries upon you. Criticism as I understand it is the art of making what is implicit in the text as finely explicit as possible. I can’t distinguish and don’t want to distinguish between writing criticism and teaching literature. You’re trying to take what’s implicit in the student and make it as finely explicit as possible. I feel it is exactly the same enterprise. And maybe indeed one’s enterprise is a desperate urge to encourage intense individuality, even at the cost of making people more idiosyncratic, cutting them off to some degree. You are not just a social unit. And I think that what I have found obnoxious about the development of the last third of a century has been the notion that the individual is primarily just a social unit. You can’t change people by teaching, you can’t transform them, you can only try to make them more themselves. 

YFP. The terms you use seem to suggest that we can know ourselves fairly well, [but] the line in Augustine’s Confessions [“I myself comprehend not all the thing that I am”] seems to put a cap on that... And for that matter, Edmund [in King Lear]doesn’t seem to turn out to really know himself. 

HB. It fascinates me that Edmund is carried off to die offstage, Which means that he will never know—as he dies, he will not know whether it made any pragmatic difference that “Some good I mean to do, despite of my own nature.” Surely, it’s Shakespeare’s way of saying that as Edmund dies he does not really know who he is and we don’t know either. And that would confirm what you are saying. ...Doesn’t Hamlet know who he is, as he dies? We may not know, as much as we would like to know. But we have to assume that he has achieved a real sense of who he is. The heart of the matter always turns out to be Hamlet.

YFP. You were talking about education serving to teach us about things we already know, or things that are already ours—which I guess is an Emersonian idea. 

HB. Taking back something that was already your own, or that once had been your own. He said quite wonderfully in the Notebooks, I read for the lustres. You read for something in the text that lights up for you, that illuminates you and makes you somehow feel that you are illuminated. Emerson said very beautifully in “Self-Reliance” that in every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, and then he said, They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. It’s taking what you need and want... Normally, if you take what you need and what you want, you do it at somebody else’s expense—whether socially, erotically, financially, or what you will. But in reading, ideally you are taking back your own. But I don’t think that means what you already believe. If you read it, and recognize it, and say, Yes, this is mine—I found it and now I will take it, it was somehow already mine before I’d seen it—I think that’s a question of yourself, a question of what one is, and what one wants to become. 

YFP. I was wondering if you could talk about or possibly contrast that with what seems to me a more classical idea, of education being about supplying a lack, of [it] making up for something that we don’t have, and [are] conscious of not having. 

HB. Well, that would make education what Plato called an erotic process, since he defines eros as the desire for what we lack. It made sense in the old days, because it was understood that you arrived here with some considerable degree of learning, and then you became much more learned. But here we are in a country now which reads less and less... It’s a hard time for deep or literary sensibilities. My friend Philip Roth tells me that he’s afraid that his old readers are all dying off and they’re not being replaced. I suppose the Emersonian ideal seems to me more vital than ever precisely because the Platonic ideal is too far from any reality we can hope to accomplish.

The largest enemy, not just of education but of conversation, intellectual meditation, upon the things worth thinking about—the largest enemy now is just plain distraction. In the famous age of information that we have supposedly entered, we are bombarded with distractions. We have auditory and visual overload. 

YFP. Well, the reason I brought up the question is that the way you’ve spoken of the purpose of education seems to be very much self-affirming, so I wondered if you think that [is] also something that we’ve adopted as second-best. Or is that actually the better method of education, than the Platonic one? 

HB. The Platonic ideal of teaching would depend upon a kind of economic system that Yale and no other university could afford anymore—you know, the old nineteenth-century Oxford and Cambridge way, in which you’re one-on-one with somebody and they read their essay aloud to you and you work it through together, and you can suggest, For heaven’s sake, read all this, and they will have the time—world enough, and time—to read all this, and come back and you’ll cogitate it together. That really would be mentoring and that really would be trying to bring a lifetime’s experience of reading and reflecting upon imaginative literature to someone who’s coming along. But we can’t do that. And we’re a house divided now, at best. I don’t know—I guess I’d have to ask you to use your judgment. You think it’s a reduced vision—maybe it is. 

YFP. Would you agree or disagree with Kafka’s famous line about the ice axe? [“We must have those books that come upon us like ill fortune, and distress us deeply like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen within us.”] 

HB. I think it’s quite wonderful how much Kafka is asking of a book... We come later. We come later. I still ask that much of a book for myself, but I am a little chastened—I wouldn’t ask that much of a book necessarily for my students. Unless indeed it is Shakespeare. You know, with Shakespeare one asks for everything, because one expects to get everything! ...He is asking for a great deal. 

YFP. Yes. [And] I brought up both of these things because when you speak about the Emersonian ideal, it sounds more like aesthetic experience is somewhat self-exalting. And when you talked about taking from a book what you needed of what you found there, that sounds like it leaves a fair amount of room for choice, for the personal will. Whereas Kafka’s line, I think, is very much the opposite. 

HB. Kafka is writing ultimately in the tradition of Goethe. And he’s writing, in his own desperate way, out of a more exalted humanism than I think is now available to us. I don’t know if one is asking for less. How did you just put it? You said that it leaves more for us. 

YFP. It seems to leave more room for the individual will—for what I want to take from a book, rather than what—I have to. 

HB. Yes, but I am a little sad about that... I would rather—I would rather say what Kafka is saying. I just don’t think that’s altogether realistic now. There’s a sadness in being less absolute, in asking for less. But maybe one is more useful like this. I honestly don’t know. 

YFP. You made it sound like the reason that that might not work for readers today had more to do with a lack of erudition than with their actual approach to reading. [But] my own feeling when I first really started to get into reading was much more like the response that Kafka describes, than it was going into a book to take what you want out of it. And it happened pretty early—it seemed almost a visceral response. 

HB. I sometimes tell myself hopefully that deep reading is such an addiction, and as you said it’s visceral, that it really just sort of comes to you—that there will always be the solitary readers. Isn’t reading a kind of natural hunger? I mean, it can’t just have been an eccentricity on my part. What we really need [is] to reach out for what we can get, because we are shy with one another, and we are shy with ourselves. We read so many books because we cannot know enough people.

It’s funny, all these School of Resentment people who have destroyed literary studies in order to create cultural studies may have argued that their political aim was in fact to improve people’s awareness. They’ve had just the opposite effect. They have helped guarantee the triumph of mindlessness in the public sphere by discrediting the academy, and to a large extent discrediting reading. When I gave [Richard Levin] my Shakespeare book, he said, Well, you must feel wonderful, Harold, and I said, No, we’ve lost the war, Rick, and he was shocked. What are you talking about, Harold? he said. We’ve won the war, we have a real university here. 

I think we’ve lost the war. It’s not so much letting nonsense having a foothold in the university, but sanctifying the foothold, allowing those who practice nonsense on the faculty and among the students, to feel self-righteous about it and feel justified. There I think the university has forsaken its function. 

There is more authentic literacy now outside the universities than inside universities. And that’s awful, because that means that our learning tradition in the universities will die. Not because the students want it that way, but simply because there has been a treason of the clerks, an ideological and schematic crusade to [break] down the barriers between the so-called popular culture and what once would have been considered high culture. It’s not as though they were really talking about popular culture—they’re not talking about folkways, or folklore, they’re talking about commercial garbage, manufactured for a consumer society.

YFP. Is there anything to say to people who just don’t care about greatness in literature? 

HB. I can’t believe that we have such undergraduates. I think they know better. They have to know better. ...There are what, at Yale, about 4,500 undergraduates? Can there really be forty people out of 4,500? Can there even be one percent of students so ideologically predisposed that they feel it isn’t a function of a university to teach them how to read better? These people—they don’t want teachers, they want cheerleaders. Or they want to become cheerleaders themselves.

The single faculty member currently at Yale whom I most admire is Jonathan Spence. Jonathan is an astonishing enthusiast for his subject, a very generous teacher... The person in literary studies here I most admire is of course the ferocious John Hollander! He is so learned that I sometimes sort of blink. John is like a whole chorus of people at once. But there are also ideologues, which is distressing. All they really want to do is finish the degradation of the university, which has already been so well begun. American Studies at Yale is a vat of nothing, nobody there knows what a poem is and nobody cares. You would not know that Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost and Hart Crane had ever lived and written.

[There is] that very funny fellow in Moliere who was so surprised to discover that he’d been speaking prose all his life... Obviously, it takes as much effort to achieve proficiency [in literature] as in music, or in visual art. But people think that if they just get excited enough, what comes out is poetry. I assume that in time this will correct itself. In the end, even the most devoted so-called-feminist reader must finally decide whether she is going to re-read Elizabeth Bishop or re-read Adrienne Rich. Elizabeth Bishop is a great poet, Adrienne Rich cannot write her way out of a paper bag. You know, part of the complication of this ongoing interview between us is that sometimes I sort of answer out of my plaintive self, [and] sometimes I answer as a lifelong teacher and critic of literature. I am not so sure that the two answers aren’t beginning to diverge. I’m probably more hopeful as a solitary reader, figuring that there are always going to be a saving remnant of solitary readers. One of the things that sustains me, since I’m pretty much at war with my profession, is how many letters I get from people who are not academics, and they frequently say, sometimes bitterly, that the undergraduate courses in literature weren’t much help to them at all, because what they heard was ideology and that repelled them. Not because they felt that the ideas that they were being urged toward socially were necessarily bad ideas—but they didn’t feel that what they were getting was Shakespeare, or what they were getting was Wordsworth, or what they were getting was poetry or novels for the sake of poetry or novels.

My students don’t talk enough, because I talk too much, and that’s a problem I don’t know how to solve. I’m hopelessly personal when I teach... I always feel when you write something, you can’t say everything at once, [but] when you teach, somehow you can say everything at once, or at least try to. [But] my lifelong profession and vocation is to teach—indeed I’ve just finished my forty-fifth consecutive year of teaching here and don’t intend ever to retire. I have called the president and have told him I intend to be carried out of my last Yale class in a bodybag!—A rather large bodybag. I still haven’t lost the ardor that brought me into this profession in the first place, which was a ferocious love of poetry and imaginative literature. And that love isn’t less ferocious. 

—Interview conducted by Emmy Chang.
 

   
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