"Harold Bloom is a badly needed antidote to what goes on in today’s academy"

David Mikics, the editor of Bloom's last book "The American Canon," answered K24’s questions about Bloom’s legacy and posthumous publications

16 Aralık 2019 15:30

Harold Bloom is, without doubt, one of the irreplaceable and prolific figures of literary criticism. On October the 15th, one day after his death, Library of America published a new book signed by Bloom: The American Canon: Literary Genius from Emerson to Pynchon. University of Houston Moores Distinguished Professor David Mikics assembled and edited Harold Bloom’s articles on American literature. In an article he wrote after Bloom’s death, Mikics describes the literary critic as “bigger than life”: “When he died earlier this week at the age of 89, he took a universe of wisdom and energy with him.” David Mikics, as the editor of The American Canon, answered K24’s questions about Bloom’s last book, his legacy, and posthumous publications. We also revisited with Mikics his own 2013 book Slow Reading in a Hurried Age to make sense of what happened to the craft of reading in the age of internet and what is at stake. 

The first question that sparked in my mind when reading The American Canon was whether Bloom himself picked the title or not. How much involved was he with the project of bringing together his articles on American literature? 

The title was chosen by all three of us together: Harold, me, and John Kulka, the wonderful editorial director of the Library of America, who guided this project from start to finish. I chose the essays and the writers for the volume, but Harold made several crucial suggestions, as did John. Harold, of course, approved the final shape of the book and its contents, including some minor updating on some of the essays.  

Even seeing the word “canon” may trigger immediate criticism. Moreover, we are living in different times than when The Western Canon was published in 1994. Twenty-five years can make a term heavily loaded. In relation to this, I would like to ask about your perspective on the canon as a teacher of literature and literary critic, where does it stand in your classroom and work?  

For me, the canon is a central idea in writing and teaching. Of course, to an extent one’s canon is deeply personal: I have my favorites, as does any lover of literature. But I think it’s impossible to understand American literature without grasping the formative influence of Emerson, Whitman, or Hawthorne. If I’m teaching a course on the novel for grad level fiction writers, I find that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky present a richer field of discovery than any other fiction writers I can think of. In that sense, a canonical work is one that opens up the largest possibilities for study.  

When bringing together Bloom’s writings on American literature, you were looking for coherence, I guess. Harold Bloom himself was looking for coherence too as he stated and you quote: “Contemporary America is too dangerous to be laughed away, and I turn to its most powerful writers in order to see if we remain coherent enough for imaginative comprehension.” Do you think he could find one in American literature? I am asking this question because I know you singled out some of Bloom’s texts in which he had mixed feelings for the author. Could you, as the editor, find coherence in his writings considering that what you dealt with was five decades of writing? 

I do think that there is coherence in Bloom’s criticism. In part, this comes from his grasp of Romantic tradition and in part from his sense of religious sources. For Bloom Emerson, the arch-Romantic is at the core of American literature; Poe can be seen as a negative image of Emerson. In Poe, there is no new possibility, only overdetermination and the burden of the past. Bloom links later writers like Zora Neale Hurston and A.R. Ammons, themselves wildly different, back to aspects of Emerson. A writer like James Baldwin reaches back to the Biblical Jeremiah, Bloom points out. That’s the religious influence that Bloom so frequently points to.   

You mention in the introduction that there are some surprises for the reader in The American Canon by referring to some of his passages. One of your references is to Bloom’s analysis of Emily Dickinson. Could you tell us a little bit more about these passages that surprise you. 

Many readers might be surprised by Bloom’s specific emphasis on the feminine in Dickinson’s poetry. He sees her as engineering a kind of Emersonianism that is thoroughly informed by gender, in contrast to Emerson himself. 

I remember one time when visiting Harold Bloom in New Haven. It was early October, everyone was expecting the Nobel Prize announcement and the winner was Herta Müller. When I asked about his opinion, Bloom told me that he had never read Müller and my impression was that he would not read her. Instead of reading/trying something new (in the or imposed by the market), Bloom would reread his “worth reading”s, I think. Stanley Fish, in his article which he wrote after Bloom’s death also touches upon this characteristic of his approach to “the new” and cites a sentence from Bloom’s “Elegy of the Canon”: “Some years ago, on a stormy night in New Haven, I sat down to read, yet once more, John Milton’s Paradise Lost.” Why and how does a reader, even a literary scholar, reread the same passage tens of times? What is the point of rereading? 

I’ve dealt with this question in my book Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, where I argued that one can’t really know a book without going back to it repeatedly. One returns to a book for reasons of pure pleasure. One of the things most inspiring about Bloom was his way of coming back again and again to the writers who had meant the most to him in his early years, Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens among them. He kept testing his earlier responses and wondering why he valued these poets so much, why they were lodged so deep in him. But Harold also had a prodigious appetite for new works, and he would instantly devour many of the books that appeared in the mail. 

Could you give us an idea about the topics of posthumous books by Bloom? You mentioned before that more than one posthumous Bloom book are coming. 

One book, called Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles, is coming out from Yale, and it presents dazzling new readings of, among others, Shelley, Whitman, Freud, Dante, Stevens and Crane. Another new book, The Lost Traveller’s Dream, is a reading of 52 favorite novels, some by authors that Bloom hasn’t written about before, like W.G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard and Mikhail Bulgakov. In that book he’s particularly wonderful on Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, offering many new thoughts on these and other writers. Both books are quite substantial. Harold also began a book on immortality but completed only an introduction; that looks like it will come out as an illustrated  chapbook from a small press.  

In the introduction, you suggest that Bloom may sometimes contradict his own theories. Could you elaborate on this?  

I’m less interested than some in Bloom’s work of the mid-seventies, in which he patented a series of arcane theoretical terms like tessera and clinamen. At that point he was determined to prove that authors always misread their precursors, and that their misunderstanding of earlier writers, ironically enough, constitutes their strength—the famous idea of the anxiety of influence. This is true in many cases: Shelley misreads Wordsworth, Eliot misreads Shelley, Woolf misreads Austen. Each of them has to falsify the earlier writer’s achievement in order to attain to his (or her) own powers. But often this pattern does not hold. I don’t think that Bloom shows Whitman misreading Emerson, or Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy misreading Melville. They use the precursor’s influence without being threatened by it, and so have no need to diminish the precursor. 

In relation to my previous question, I was wondering about your perspective on his originality as a literary scholar. I think even his harsh critics would admit that Harold Bloom was one of the most original literary critics. What is the legacy of his originality? 

Harold’s originality consisted before all else in valuing his own response to a literary work. He was attuned to what moved him the most, what made him think the most, and what he loved the most. That profoundly personal side of reading had been hard to detect in the arm’s length work of the New Critics and in the scholarly and theoretical labors of many later critics. In today’s classroom’s ideological frameworks often prevail so strongly that teachers don’t bother to say why one should bother reading a particular book except as an illustration of a social trend or a political opinion. If that’s all a novel or poem is then there’s no reason to keep reading. So Harold is a badly needed antidote to what goes on in today’s academy. His originality is that he wants us to measure the force of a book, what it does to us, instead of standing back and making it pass an ideological test. 

I also would like to ask a few questions about your book Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (2013). I share your concern about the radical change in our reading habits. I am aware that I may sound romantic/nostalgic/conservative but your warnings resonated with my experience as a reader who lived both the pre-internet world and the digital world. Could you please epitomize or remind us what was your concern in your book mainly, as “problem” and the “answer” in your terms? 

The problem I outlined in the slow reading book is that these days we read mostly for information, and as quickly as possible. We take in at a glance text messages, tweets, emails. The more hasty reading we do, the less equipped we are to sit down and sink into a truly rewarding reading experience, which requires patience and a certain amount of free time. If you’re always interrupting yourself you’ll find yourself getting irritated by, for example, Proust or James. The answer might be a partial one, but I think it’s a good one: set some boundaries for yourself. Set aside time to do real reading, whether on the old fashioned page or on an e-reader. An hour before bed spent immersed in a book is preferable to an hour of surfing the web, which gives you distraction rather than concentration. 

Your book made me think about what happened to the joy of reading. You write in your book that “reading is a craft, a practice.” Since we practice fast reading with our divided attention every day, did we lose the craft of slow reading and are we doomed to the deprivation of joy, of jouissance of reading? 

We’re not doomed, no. We can recover the craft of reading anytime we want. When I give students basic advice about reading—turn off the phone or leave it in the next room, do the same with the laptop—I always get the feeling that they’ve been told this before and they sense how true it is. And they can still read deeply. I think that the idea of spending some time away from screens will gain more and more traction. There are some obvious remedies for the psychic unease caused by the web’s many distractions—we’re not helpless addicts. That said, I do of course recognize that the web has revolutionized us in good ways, too. But we can’t let ourselves be devoured by it. 

My last question is for the academics. You suggest “academy may stand in the way of deep reading”. How we should proceed reading then as literary academics? 

That’s a wonderful question. The answer, I’d argue, goes back to what i said before: we need to show our students why we value what we teach, what these books mean to us, how they might change the way we think and feel about life. Students are not merely ready for this, they’re having these responses themselves. They are galvanized by so many of the works we teach. We can’t let ourselves ruin that passion by adopting a dry, hands-off approach to books. Reading is about their lives, and ours too. If we start getting bored with a writer that we teach—and that can happen—we need to choose another one instead. In our writing, too, we should think about how we can show just how involving, how attractive, a work is, how much it has to tell us. Fortunately, there’s a fair number of professors who are doing that, even now. But what the academy thinks of as its professionalism makes writing this way an uphill struggle. You might be accused of not being scholarly, or not being sufficiently theorized. But remember you’re responsible to the author you’re writing about, and to readers and to students, not just tenure committees. Don’t give up the fight.